Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tough Questions

A few months ago a man named Rob Bell released a book that has stirred up quite a storm in the church. This book raised a number of important questions about the Christian view of Hell, and really hit a nerve with the church on the question of the character of God. Questions like, why would God condemn people to hell for eternity? For that matter, why did God command some of the things he commanded in the Bible? Why do very morally upright people not have a better chance at knowing God?

These questions are punctuated by even more questions, such as why do Christians today spend more time excluding people based on their different views of Jesus, why is pronouncing judgment such a popular theme, why do Christians seem more interested in getting into heaven than anything else happening today? And I’m not even going to get into those Christians who cannot separate their politics from their faith….

These questions aren’t unique to Rob Bell. Whatever we may think of it, the reality is our culture today has a certain view of morality that cannot mesh with a surface understanding of the biblical portrayal of God. I’m not just talking about things like genocide in the Old Testament, I mean the fact that a loving God might condemn the majority of humanity to eternal torment simply for not responding favorably to something they might not even have heard of. The category of “loving and moral God” makes sense, but “loving and judging” God is a flat contradiction.

On the one side you have a group that cannot reconcile the presentation of the character of God with their most basic sense of morality, and other is bewildered why the questions are even being asked. One side feels disenfranchised, frustrated, confused, and cries out for better answers, while the other confidently lists their theological points, but effectively is a “resounding gong”. The latter doesn’t want to legitimize the questions, and the other can’t move past the questions. Worse than that, you have many “big names” in the church that seem more eager to label those asking the questions as heretics and move on as if the problem is solved. These are tough questions for a reason: they reflect deep misgivings about the picture of God that we see in the Bible. These misgivings are to the point that I think some (maybe many?) are unable to have biblical trust and faith in a God like that.

So the question is how can we arrive at the answers to these questions? I don’t think we can just dismiss the questions as immature and move on, nor can we give the traditional answers to questions about hell or the problem of evil. While these certainly are true, they aren’t connecting in a meaningful way with many in a way that offers some resolution to these challenging questions. The problem is there are so many differences between this world view and these questions being asked that this list of answers falls very short. Further, these answers come across more as a defense of an immoral God and do very little to really get at the heart of the problem. Arguing from the debt of sin, appealing to “mystery” or God’s transcendence all fall flat. I don’t think those answers are ever meant to depict God as a capricious, arbitrary moral monster, yet because of this radical disconnect they end up having quite the opposite effect of what was intended. Many inside and outside of the faith are turned off because it seems foolish (if not sociopathic) to devote one’s life to a God that defies all of our notions of morality. So answers just end up coming across as cop-outs, and I don’t believe really help people move closer to the Gospel.

I think we really are at a crisis where the church has got to do a better job of contextualizing the Gospel. I don’t just mean contextualize to those outside the faith but even to those inside as well. On the one hand, we will never escape the “offense” of the Gospel (that path is fraught with peril). But on the other, failing to rightly contextualize the Gospel is just adding offense. The worldviews are so different today that I think it’s very easy to forget the urgency of good contextualization. That word normally is used of in extreme cross-cultural interactions (such as bringing the Gospel to some unreached tribe in Africa), but I think the same need exists in American churches today. In failing to lovingly communicate the truth of the Gospel in the context of the Gospel, we’ve portrayed the Gospel as something altogether different than it really is. The fact that some perceive the Gospel as “fire insurance” or “a few lucky people make it in” reveals significant misunderstanding and confusion. Some seem to believe the Gospel is just a set of theological beliefs and/or a moral code, or just heaven. As a good friend of mine likes to say, it certainly is no less than these, but it’s certainly much more! It’s an invitation to a life of devotion to God, a life of transformation, having real life, joy, hope, and being a part of his world and his way. The Gospel is supposed to be good news, but in today’s discussion it’s quite the opposite. Topics like hell take on a very different flavor when we start with this picture of the Gospel. Questions like “why would God send some people to hell” become “why would some people reject all that God has to offer?” I don’t mean to over simplify the issue, I know there is so much more to these questions than this answer alone gives, but I think this is the sort of biblical starting place we must have.

So contextualization has to start with understanding what the Gospel meant. This isn’t easy work, and to honestly engage these questions we have to be willing to reevaluate anything based on where the text leads us. How can we bring the good news to today if we don’t even understand what the good news was, or we’re spending more time clinging to our notion of the good news? When we start with what Scripture said in its context we let the Gospel retain its biblical flavor, and ultimately its truth retains its real power. When we approach questions such as genocide in the OT in their historical context, we see the text not portraying an evil genocidal God, but a Holy God and ultimately a moral and gracious God. But if we divorce the events from the text, it’s very easy to lose this focus. It’s really unfair to the text, because we say “this happened, how could God ever do such a thing” without letting the text give its answer. This also means that if we are to retain the Gospel’s flavor in its context, we have to take care in what we emphasize. If we find ourselves preaching more about hell and judgment than the offer of salvation and life I think we’ve already lost the discussion.

But taking these tough questions and arriving at a clearly understanding of what Scripture teaches isn’t enough. Contextualization means taking this truth and bridging it to our culture. In some ways I think this is even harder, because it doesn’t just mean we pick up a book and study, but it means we’re actively engaged with the world around us. We’re reading the same books others are reading, we’re watching the same media they are watching, we’re engaged in the same discussions, actively listening to their points of view and not jumping down their throats to rip apart their argument (as tempting as it might be!) It’s not just connection but it's a deep level of discernment, humility, love, and grace that actively pursues a better understanding of where people are at. We can’t really speak the truth of the Gospel into a world and culture we know very little about, or people who we have very little connection with. We have to really understand what’s going on. If our answer to the question of hell is a list of theological conclusions alongside a few Bible verses, we’ve failed to connect this to people’s lives. We’ve failed to discern why these questions are being asked, we’ve failed to bridge the world views at play. This is why the status quo doesn’t work.

Perhaps some just aren’t interested in the answers Christianity really has to offer, and that is their right as creatures with free will, (although it’s no less a tragedy). My fear is that many with faith, many with open hearts to God, are having massive stumbling blocks dropped in their path. They have real and important questions, and the answers they are being given isn’t helping their faith grow. Being fed the tradition or theology isn’t enough and they either remain stuck in crisis or apathy and agnosticism. Maybe they just don't like the language of the answers, but I think for many they don't even understand why the answers are answers. They don't have a solid Christian world view, they don't have much of an understanding of the real substance of biblical truth, and so their walk is significantly hindered if not brought to a grinding halt. Some even tragically walk away.

The answer never can be anything other than the Gospel. God saves people, God’s truth, God’s way, by God’s power. But this is so much more than just a set of theological statements, so much more than a moral code, and so much more than mere traditions. The reality, the beauty, and the surpassing greatness of God’s good news, rightly connected to people’s lives, is truly transforming and is truly good news that brings salvation. The tough questions are worth engaging, even if they challenge some of our deepest beliefs. After all, if God’s truth is what we believe it is, then it’s certainly up to the task. So we do need better answers, even if they aren’t different answers. We do need a better presentation of God’s character, a fuller understanding of what the Bible teaches, and a clearer Christian framework for discussing these tough questions and working through the answers exegetically, theologically, philosophically, emotionally, and spiritually. We need to contextualize the true good news that the Gospel represents. Our world needs this good news, our people want it, and our mission demands it.

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