Monthly Archives: September 2014

My Life as a Heretic

My good friend and conversation partner, Paul Axton, does this thing to me sometimes that always shuts me down. In my theology classes, I’ve often referred to Jürgen Moltmann’s eschatological work Theology of Hope for a response to the liberal critique of Jesus’ eschatology. Helpful little book and helps me make my point to my students that it is not possible to separate Jesus’ eschatology from his message—even if it is not always clear to everyone what his eschatology is.

On three different occasions I can remember, however, when I’ve been in conversation with him about it, Paul has said to me, “Now, of course, you are aware that Moltmann is a heretic,” and then proceeded to explain to me exactly why he is. And, for the life of me, I never can quite understand exactly which of Moltmann’s beliefs or theological points Paul takes exception to, though he’s been careful to explain it in detail each time. Truth is, Paul is just so much smarter than I am.

Now, I have no doubt that Paul is right. In fact, when he says this to me, I tend to laugh because I know it’s coming and it always cracks me up. And I’m nearly convinced that that’s one of the reasons he says it to me. I think the last time he said it, I said something like, “Yes, I know…but you never have been able to explain it to me in any way I can make sense of.” It’s just Paul trying to help me not be a heretic myself without knowing it.

And that is kind of why I’m writing this. Lately, I’ve been thinking about heretics, what makes them heretics, and their heresies. I don’t know why it is that I’ve been thinking about them, but I think that there is something about the heretics that I like, even if I think they are still heretics.

For instance, one of the neat little perks that I enjoy working at a Christian college is I receive catalogs of theological and exegetical books every quarter from all of the great publishers of good Christian literature. A few of the folks I work with jokingly refer to these catalogs as theology porn, because we often feel a little lustful when we open the catalogs and begin browsing for titles we want to read. I even caught myself thinking, “Oh, I would stay up all night reading that one.”

In one of the catalogs I receive, there are a few works on the heretics—and I can see in the summary descriptions some of the heretics they cover. Standard fair—Sabellius, Arius, the Gnostics, the neo-Platonists, etc. I know who these are and I know why they are heretics and why it is important to consider their teaching heresy.

But there is always one listed that gets me. They always list Pelagius as a heretic. Pelagius was a contemporary of Augustine who claimed that it was possible (though no one did it) for a person to go their entire lives without sinning. Pelagius was reacting to Augustine’s teaching that people were born inherently sinful (they couldn’t help it).

Granted, Pelagius probably oversimplified things a little—the truth is probably somewhere in between Augustine and Pelagius’ views. But I’m not sure that should qualify him as a “heretic,” though that is what he was branded. Augustine’s views won the day and Pelagius’ ideas were branded “heresy.”

Stan Grenz states, “The term heresy is generally reserved for any belief that claims to be Christian and scriptural but has been rejected by the church as sub-Christian or antiscriptural.”[1] Strictly speaking, “heresy” is teaching which contradicts proper biblical teaching.

The trick, of course, is determining what we mean by “proper biblical teaching.” Who determines which teachings are “biblical?” In Pelagius’ day it was meetings of leaders in the catholic church all over the world. These meetings were called “councils.” These leaders would get together and discuss these issues, sometimes for years at a time, and then determine what they believed was “orthodox” teaching. “Orthodox” simply meaning, “correct teaching.”

Funny thing is, before a doctrine (teaching) is orthodox…it isn’t. And what makes it orthodox isn’t necessarily the nature of its inference from scripture—what makes it orthodox is that church leaders found it to be inferred in scripture. Therefore, Augustine’s teaching about the sin nature became orthodox when certain Christians labeled it as such. And Pelagius’ teaching about free will became heresy in the same way.

Now, I don’t mind saying that many times those early councils got it right. Sabellius was an early heretic who developed an understanding of the trinity which theologians today call “modalism.” He believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit were all “faces” or “manifestations” of one divine being—God. Therefore, in the Old Testament, God was sort of in “Father” mode. Then, in the gospels, he appeared in “Son” mode. Later, in Acts, he appeared in “Spirit” mode. This was Sabellius’ attempt at understanding a very difficult theological topic, the nature of God as three persons in one being.

The early church councils correctly determined that Sabellius’ teaching on trinity was less-than scriptural. For instance, if the Father and the Son are the same person, who on earth is it that Jesus spends so much time praying to? And, who is he talking about when he says he is going back to the Father and is going to send another, the Holy Spirit (not return in a different form)? The early church council labeled Sabellius’ teaching a heresy because it didn’t do the concept of trinity justice.

But here’s the thing…once a doctrine is labeled a “heresy,” it is just sort of assumed that the person who created it is a “heretic.” And those kinds of labels have a tendency of creating an “us against them” mythology which is very dangerous because it seems so objective. “We know correct teaching and this is not it.” It gives people the impression that there are heretics and orthodox and we are all either one or the other.

The truth, however, is different. Let me explain.

Sabellius’ “heresy” was, in-fact, a very poor understanding of trinity. And, believe it or not, trinity is a very important doctrine. The nature of God as a community of divine persons in one being is central to our understanding of humans created in his image to be in community with him and with one another. This is vital, and I dare say maybe even essential tenet of Christian faith.

That said, I’ve been in many churches and heard a lot of teaching and I’ve yet to see a youth minister teach the doctrine of trinity to a youth group without articulating the exact same heresy that Sabellius did. In fact, I’ve seen many preaching ministers do it as well. Anytime someone compares the trinity to water (ice, steam, liquid), they’re using Sabellian modalism to proclaim the very same heresy that the church labeled as such a millennia and a half ago. The truth is, even though it’s considered heresy, most Christians still believe it without much reflection. I guess they’re all heretics.

Should we run around screaming “heresy, heresy?” Of course not. The truth is, people who describe trinity this way are just doing as Sabellius did, trying to understand a very difficult doctrine the best way they can. They need instruction and help to understand it properly, and I think God understands that they’re doing the best they can.

But here’s the thing—here’s what I’m getting at. The nature of “orthodox” teaching is tenuous at best. Our theology is a construct. It is based on revealed scripture, but that scripture is read through the lenses of our culture, our upbringing…our worldview. And, therefore, our theology can always be mistaken.

I say this because I am a heretic. There are many beliefs I have which someone in a position of authority in some church would label as “not orthodox” or unbiblical. My understanding of Jesus’ atonement as non-violent, rather than the crude exchange I read in penal substitutionary atonement is “heresy” to some. My rejection of dualism and my understanding of the nature of hell would have me branded and burned at the stake in some traditions. My teaching on Christian pacifism and open theism is offensive and radical to some Christians.

For these reasons, according to some, I’m a heretic. This is even though I have reached the conclusions I have at the end of so many years of study. And, in all probability, I will most likely reach new and different conclusions as I continue to study.

When I think about it, I’m actually pretty comfortable being a heretic. I like being an outsider in these kinds of discussions.

When I think about it, I’m actually pretty comfortable being a heretic. I like being an outsider in these kinds of discussions. I like the freedom of being able to work through these puzzles and ask the tough questions. The way I see it, all of the prophets in scripture were “heretics” of their days. They were the ones who God used to point out when he saw that orthodoxy had become nothing more than authorized heresy.

But it’s hard to be a heretic. It’s not easy to stand on the outside and try to scare up the courage to say things which aren’t the status quo. Status quo is popular. It’s comfortable. It’s reassuring. It makes people feel secure and safe. And when you shake that up, they get upset sometimes. And sometimes they throw stones.

And being a heretic means you have to take chances. You have to really think and you take the risk of actually being wrong sometimes and being proven wrong. It’s not easy to say what you think is true knowing that someone might be able to demonstrate you’ve developed your understanding of the truth poorly. And when you change your mind, people think you’re flaky—like Clark Pinnock (one of my favorite heretics).

The Anabaptists were hated heretics. Stan Hauerwas once said (and I can’t remember where) that the only thing the Catholics and the protestants could ever agree on was that it was a very good idea to kill the Anabaptists (I want to say it was in his lectures on The Abolition of War, but that may not be right). But, boy, were those guys and gals ready to die for their Jesus. And they did. And their deaths judge our namby-pamby, happy-go-lucky, comfortable, weak, greedy, and even violent Christianity.   They saw Jesus as someone who brought a radical new way of living. And it scared everyone so much, they killed those heretics. Just like when Augustine encouraged the Catholic Church to kill the people who didn’t agree with his theology.

Anyway, I always think of heretics as underdogs. They tried—most often they failed. They were often doing their best. Sometimes they were horribly wrong, though they were almost always sincere. But every now and then a heretic, like Pelagius, is right. And we find out later that it was wrong to call him such. And, even though that label has stuck and people will always see him as such, I believe that God will vindicate that heretic in the end.

The last thing I think about heretics…Jesus was a heretic. I don’t mean that he had wrong teaching. But he was thought of as a heretic. And he was the kind of heretic who was actually right about everything. But it didn’t matter, because they’d branded him that way.

Who is it who determines who’s a heretic? Who gives them that authority? I don’t know. But I don’t mind being called one.

[1] Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 58.


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My Thoughts on Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife–Why I Believe in the Resurrection and NOT a Literal Hell

It was years ago I was preaching every week in a small church in Salt River, Missouri. The church was made up of roughly 20 (on a good Sunday) folks who still lived in the very rural area. Most were 30 years my senior, precious and faithful saints who deserved better than my ego. I had in mind at the time that I was destined for bigger buildings, larger crowds, and more important people. I’ve had some “down-a-notch” experiences that set me straight.

But that is a story for another blog.

One Sunday I was delivering the Sunday-school lesson that we had directly before the worship service. We were studying the Standard Lesson Commentary and there was mention of the topic of “hell.” In honesty, I don’t remember what the context was, but I do remember making a comment, without intending to, that rocked a few of these folks to their cores.

I hadn’t landed yet where I am now on the subject, but I was asking questions about parts of the doctrine that I didn’t understand. One of the things that I couldn’t make sense of was how hell, which I’d always been taught was a literal lake of fire in which people languished in agony on and on for all eternity, made sense for “disembodied spirits.” I mean, fire is a physical thing. It is a chemical change in physical objects which requires physical fuel to create heat. How this would exist in a non-physical realm and cause non-physical “souls” to suffer didn’t make sense to me.

My offhand comment to the little class was, “Of course, I’m not sure how to understand what is meant by ‘hell.’ Should we understand that as literal fire, or a figurative way of talking about suffering and destruction—even if it is eternal?”

Now, I thought at the time that it was a reasonable question. And I was kind of assuming that all people have those sorts of reasonable questions. But I’ll never forget the face of the man who, basically, served as the long-time elder and patriarch of that little church. He was a good-hearted man with a passion to keep that little church’s doors open. And he certainly was not angry, though he was nonplused, to say the least. He sort of looked at me wide-eyed and open mouthed for a moment (as if he was thinking, “What the ___?”) and said, “But…that’s…what it says.”

I realized that it wasn’t appropriate to push any further, so I nodded “of course” and backed away. But since then, my thoughts on the topic of “hell” have changed drastically. I no longer believe in “hell” as a place of eternal suffering for the unsaved.   But not for the reasons many people think.

Generally, conversations about hell tend to focus on ethics. Is it really “right” for God to punish people for all eternity for the sins they commit in a single, short lifetime? But, while I find that argument to be a great deal thornier than most “fire-and-brimstone” types tend to admit, the “ethics” of the discussion is not what finally convinced me to embrace annihilationism (the belief that, after death, those who have not been raised in the resurrection are “annihilated,” or simply cease being).

The issue that tipped the hellacious scales for me was not ethical, but ontological. It was two books I read some years ago that made me rethink, entirely (not just hell, but heaven as well) what happens to us in the “afterlife.” The two books were Soul, Body, Survival: Essays on the Metaphysics of Human Persons, (edited by Keven Corcoran) and The Emergent Self, by William Hasker.

The first book (Corcoran) is a collection of essays from different perspectives on how to understand what humans are according to our reading of the Bible. There are many theories: different forms of dualism, monism, and emergent theories such as William Hasker’s.

The second (Hasker) is Hasker’s further development of his chapter in Corcoran (or, rather, his chapter in Corcoran is his summary of his book) in which he deftly deconstructs the way Christians tend to see themselves as spiritual people sort of “temporarily inhabiting” physical bodies until we die and are separated from them to live forever in “Heaven,” an idea which I think is completely foreign to the New Testament and to the Jews of the first century and pre-first-century.   The New Testament simply does not discuss going to “heaven” someday, but consistently looks forward to what it calls “the resurrection of the dead,” in which these bodies get up from their graves to live on a new earth which is in relationship with a new heaven.

Hasker’s view had a major impact on how I read “people” in scripture. My whole life I’d believed statements like “we are not physical people, but spiritual people having a physical experience,” without once making the connection that although it sounds pretty, it is actually a form of an early Christian heresy called Gnosticism. I had believed my whole life that what was really me was a spirit or a soul (or was made up of a spirit AND a soul), and that my body was a sort of accidental quality living here on a plane of existence that I was basically waiting to escape from. We sang songs like “I’ll Fly Away” over and over, eventually looking forward to the time when we would shake off this mortal coil and fly away to a home on “God’s celestial shore.”

Hasker suggests that the classic ways of using terms like “spirit” and “soul” to mean a sort of “ghost” that inhabits our bodies is firmly rooted in Greek philosophy and not scripture. It isn’t hard to reach back and see the root in Plato’s teaching of “the realm of forms” as the real reality and ours as a sort of “shadow” of that reality at the heart of our dualism. C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, though very popular, is an example of these kind of dualistic assumptions about the “reality” of the next life being “more real” than the realm we live in. The Great Divorce is an interesting read about “going to heaven” when we die, but it is far better rooted in Lewis’ love of Plato than in a proper understanding of the New Testament teaching about “the afterlife.”

Hasker’s approach to understanding what the Bible says about the makeup of humans is close to what many people call the “Hebrew” understanding of people, or the “essential unity” understanding. Rather than see the biblical terms of “spirit” and “soul” (sometimes used interchangeably and sometimes in juxtaposition to one another) as a sort of “ghost” in the “machine” of our bodies, Hasker sees the “soul” (which in Hebrew is nephesh and in Greek is psyche—literally both may mean “life,” “being,” or “self”) as the “self” or, rather, self-hood that emerges from our physical bodies.

I like Hasker for this, but I go a slightly different direction. In my mind when we talk about spirit (ruah in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek, both meaning “breath” or air) I hear “personhood” or “personality.” And when I hear “soul” in the Bible, I hear self-hood or whole-being. Therefore, when I read in Genesis 1 about God creating a human, I read him making a “man” from the dust of the earth and breathing (admittedly a different term than ruah, but same concept) “life” (personhood) into him and the man became a living soul. Moses did not state that he now had a spirit and a soul or a spirit/soul, but that he had spirithood/personhood and was a human being (soul).

For Hasker, this means that humans are physical persons from whom personhood (soul, in his terminology) emerges. For me, I see soul as something we are and spirit (personhood) as something we exhibit. But, essentially, we are not “ghosts” trapped in physical “machines.” We are, instead, physical beings (souls) who operate personally (spiritually) like God. And God is a non-physical person (spirit), except for the Son after his incarnation—who became human.

See, John’s teaching in the first chapter of his gospel is essential to this discussion. Notice that John (keep in mind that he’s a Jewish fisherman) does not say that God “inhabited” a physical body, or that he “put on flesh” like a set of clothes. It says he became (egeneto) flesh. He became a human. What was not physical became a physical being.

This has a massive impact on our understanding of what we are. It has many implications. First, we are inherently physical. This body that we have is not an accidental quality, it is who we are. When we think, it is electrical currents and chemical reactions happening in our brains.

Dualism would suggest that what is essentially us (spirit/soul) is a non-physical quality that operates independently of the body. This is why so many people see depression as a purely “spiritual” thing and shun any attempts at physical solutions (medication). But, according to Hasker and, I think, according to scripture, because we are physical people, depression IS about electrical currents and chemical imbalances. It has non-physical causes and physical ones. The way we think and what happens to us impacts our neural pathways and the way our brains work.

Hasker’s understanding also has implications on our understanding of neurology. How many studies have been done on people who, because of brain injuries and traumas, experience changes in their personality? What about people like my autistic stepson who, because of the way his brain is wired, has a different personality and a different way of seeing the world?

There is much more that could be said about neurology and theology according to a unified anthropology, but I’ve already gone through hell and high water and I need to get back to the topic at hand—heaven, hell, and the “afterlife.”

Once I abandoned Greek dualism and embraced what I took to be a more scriptural understanding of what humans are—physical beings that are intended to be physical, I no longer could make much sense of “going to heaven” or “going to hell.” The primary reason is, again, not about the ethics of hell but about the ontology of the resurrection.

Romans 8, I believe is the most important eschatological passage in the New Testament, in fact even in scripture. For eschatological impact, it is greater than the entire book of Revelation. Here is why: Romans 8 is the best summary of what it is humans look forward to after we die. Keeping in mind that the references to the battle within us between “flesh” and “spirit” in Paul may be interpreted as what the Holy Spirit wants and what physical people often want, consider that after Paul discusses the suffering we endure in following Christ and taking on his cross, he says this:

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. [1]

This little snippet of scripture is inexhaustibly profound. Notice that what Paul is suggesting is that we are not just waiting for our own resurrection, but we are waiting for the resurrection of the earth itself. Someday the earth itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay, although now it is groaning as it waits. And we, who are experiencing the firstfruits of the spirit (the change we experience in ourselves personally) in Christ, are still waiting for our bodies to catch up with what is happening as our minds are renewed (Ro 12).

What we await as Christians is the restoration of the physical world. We await for our bodies to be raised and to live forever in this place the way God initially intended. Our spirits are NOT going to heaven to live forever in a ghostly place. We (our personal—spiritual—bodies) are going to stay here and be in relationship with God in heaven.

All that…ALL that…to get here. This is why the idea of “hell” I was raised with no longer makes sense to me.

Once I gave up dualism, the idea of living at all “outside” of the body simply didn’t make sense. I do not think scripture tells us that we can somehow live “outside” of the body. We were not intended to live that way. We ARE these bodies. It simply doesn’t make sense to think otherwise.   And since Christians look forward to eternal physical life, the only way to understand “living forever” for us is to understand it physically.

Are we to assume that people who are not saved will be raised up in resurrected, glorified bodies so that they may suffer for eternity? From my reading of scripture, it is the “saved” who will be raised in new bodies. And, for that matter, if we understand that for our bodies to have access to eternal life, we have to have access to God.  And this means that for people to live in physical bodies in hell forever, God would have to be there. But, we often define hell as the “absence of God.” Can we imagine God being in hell for eternity keeping people’s physical bodies alive so that they may continue to suffer? This, I think, you’ll have trouble convincing me of.

And since I have abandoned the idea that we can somehow “escape” from these bodies and live outside of them, it no longer makes sense to me to think of hell as a “spiritual” place of torment. We are these bodies. We don’t exist without them.

Therefore, I have understood Jesus’ teaching on “hell” to be references to “gehenna,” the Valley of Hinnom—a trash dump. When he says “thrown into hell” he is using a word-picture to describe the way our lives are thrown away into the dump and destroyed apart from him.   And that means that those who are not saved, who are not raised from the dead, will simply cease being. They will meet with the “ultimate destruction” of hell. As fire completely consumes, so does hell.

Wow…that was long. And I am tired. No doubt folks will disagree.  And some may even try to comment.  You are free to.  And some may even find pieces of scripture which will prove to cause tension for my view as they interpret them.  So be it.  For my friends who wanted to know what I think about hell, there you go.

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (Ro 8:18–25). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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