Judgment: The Generous and Scandalous Message of Christ

Photo Credit: flickr/andhong09. Usage does not represent endorsement by the photographer.

Christian pastor Rob Bell just released a harmless video promoting his upcoming book. In that short clip, he simply asked the question: are we really sure about who’s in and who’s out when it comes to heaven and hell? The neo-reformed Christians didn’t enjoy the video one bit. Now an important dispute has reignited over the theology (and application) of God’s judgment and hell.

As an evangelical Christian, I believe that it was accurately recorded, and literally true, when Jesus said He is the only way to God, and if true, that it cannot be just a keepsake or a bit of trivia; it must be the highest truth in all of human history. Jesus didn’t stop there. He was a scandalous guy, after all. And he spoke at great length about judgment, repentance, hell, the wide path and a more narrow route that his followers will take, and provoked the religious and political know-it-alls who were certain of their traditions, rules and beliefs. He broke religious law for the sake of compassion. Jesus went further, and challenged our desires, by flipping conventional wisdom on its head over and over again. The greatest threat, he argued, is not outside of us, but rather what’s on the inside. We will have to die to ourselves in order to really live. The least will be the greatest. To lead is to surrender. That kind of stuff. As a result, some walked away disappointed, some doubted, some conspired and some wanted him dead. It was troubling then, and it’s troubling now, because humans are self-centered and comfortable creatures, and we seek to preserve that which comes naturally to us, sometimes at horrific costs.

You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You go halfway around the world to make a convert, but once you get him you make him a replica of yourselves, double-damned…You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment- the absolute basics!- you carelessly take it or leave it.”- Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew 23 (The Message translation)

Jesus was also generous. He opened his arms to the “least of these,” hung out with the “bad” crowd, and spoke of God’s love for ALL of the world. He held a special place of honor for the poor and outcast. He healed, he fed, he conversed, and he loved through his ultimate demonstration of brokenness and sacrifice on the cross. In his generosity, he told us that he stands at the door of our hearts knocking, and that we need only answer. He won’t barge in and take our lives by force. He is patient with us, even while carrying an urgent message. That must be hard to do.

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 Photo Credit: bisbohemian. Usage does not represent endorsement by the photographer.

Christians tend to fall into theological and political camps, and bend the ideas of Jesus, God, judgment, heaven and hell around preexisting worldviews. The temptation for the progressive end of the church is to cling to the generous aspects of Jesus while minimizing the scandalous, and that temptation for the conservative end of the church is to cling to the scandalous aspects of Jesus while dismissing the generous.  As Christians, with all of our varying beliefs, we have to live in the tension, and remember that Jesus was both scandalous and generous.

The most profound thing I’ve ever read outside of the Bible related to heaven, hell and judgment can be found in quotes by C.S. Lewis (from his book Mere Christianity, if I remember correctly). He wrote: “We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him” and “Though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life.”

I resent the idea that Christians know God while those in other religions don’t. I resent it because I believe that God is by definition bigger than the expectations we have for Him. Notice I’m not saying all other religions are automatically worthwhile, or free of danger. But is it possible that others can know Jesus while not knowing his name? Can’t they live for him and receive him, know him and be known by him, without taking our version of the proper steps? Are we so sure God’s grace isn’t that generous? Perhaps a person rejects Jesus verbally, because the version they’ve been told about is a false one, but they receive Jesus in their life and respond in their actions. Is it possible that such a scenario is more acceptable to God than the person who receives Jesus verbally while accomplishing all of the churchy stuff, but does so because of selfish reasons like fear or pride? It is ironic that many of the very Christians who preach that God will do as he wants are also the fastest to determine who he accepts and rejects. Is God just a dull-minded doorman, waiting to be duped or paid off by our formalities and processes?

What I am describing is not universalism. Nor am I going soft on doctrine, theology or The Bible. What I and many others are arguing maintains that God is righteous and that God will judge. But it also is a belief that the human experience and the human heart are far more complicated than we can know, and that’s why judgment should be left in God’s hands. I would rather land on the generous side of God’s grace than share a version of it that disgraces His reach and His perfect love.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” -1 Corinthians 5:12

So I don’t know who’s in or who’s out because I’m leaving that up to God. I refuse to be a gatekeeper trying to regulate God’s wild grace. God can decide what constitutes “receiving,” and what “belief” really truly looks like. His spirit will surely reach souls outside of our comfort zone, whether we give Him approval to do so or not.

**

If you are interested, here’s a link to the best sermon I’ve ever heard on hell, by pastor Tim Keller. He addresses the misconception that God “sends” people to hell, and argues Biblically that, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “hell’s doors are locked from the inside.” Those who find hell wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else. Backup link right here.

29 thoughts on “Judgment: The Generous and Scandalous Message of Christ

  1. I’ll have to listen to that sermon as I haven’t ever heard of it. Rob Bell did a sermon a couple years back on Hell that was essentially a detailed Word study on the word “hell” in the Bible, and I found it really informative.

    I think you said it pretty well. I typically like the ideas presented by C.S. Lewis on the subject, though I have questions, doubts, indecision on what happens, what the truth is. But I am firm on some things, like that it is not our place to judge. And it is not our place to choose who is “us” (going to heaven), and who is “them” (going to hell). I’m generally against any perspective that pushes an “us vs. them” mentality.

      • Thanks! I appreciate you providing a good place to discuss things, as I currently don’t have too many places to do so. It gives me a place to refine my ideas and learn new perspectives.

  2. thank you for this post! i’ve been keeping up (or trying to) on the many, many blog posts and comments on the rob bell/universalism/heaven/hell topic over the past weekend.

    by FAR…this post is the most helpful. i’ve written a bit about the topic on my blog as well, though not as articulately. check out http://tinyurl.com/4qxqzll if you’re interested.

    • Michael- I consider myself a lightweight compared to the writers in my links section when it comes to dissecting big Biblical topics like this one, so your compliment means a lot. It gives me some confidence to try this kind of writing more often.

      I will check out your site; thanks for sharing it, and thank you for plugging this post and for the email too!

      i hope you’ll be back to check out this site in the near future.

  3. Now that I’ve FINALLY got to the finish line (i’m much too easily distracted), LOVE it!

    Exactly on point. “I refuse to be a gatekeeper trying to regulate God’s wild grace.” I can’t see how to sum up this whole situation better than that.

    And, you got me thinking CRAZY with this line: “Perhaps a person rejects Jesus verbally, because the version they’ve been told about is a false one, but they receive Jesus in their life and respond in their actions.”

    that made me think of the Sheep and the Goats parable of the last judgment. and the possibility that there just MAY be some big surprises awaiting us…

  4. Thanks for another stimulating piece.

    I find myself in the minority on the topic, constantly. The French reformed theologian J. Ellul asked “Is Hell Necessary?” in which he raises the “Christ died for the sins of the world” argument to its zenith. Oscar Cullman also wrote a book which is now published online which I have found interesting “Immortality of the Soul, or Resurrection of the Dead.” Cullman shreds the Platonic notion of the innate immortality of human beings as being post-canonical, and affirms the Jewish understanding of resurrection; no disembodied spirits enjoying the benefits of heaven prior to judgement and rewards.

    For years John Stott has written thoughtfully on the topic as well. I have understood hell in terms of a final end, the second death spoken of by Jesus in the gospels. Cessation of being seems like a more appropriate response than eternal torment, more in keeping with the merciful God I worship and seek. The fire isn’t quenched, the worm never dies, because the consequence and finality of death is not overturned. Ultimately, Death itself is consummed.

    Sure beats the creepy idea that my disembodied grandma is watching you read these words right now. Show me the scriptural warrants for that, and almost anything else said at a typical Christian funeral. When we’re dead, we’re dead. My vindication in the life to come better be public, or all bets are off.

    Still, like Ellul, I won’t complain if Jesus opens the gates to everyone. Will we be so concerned about justice for the victims at the end of all things, if we all get such a tremendous gift of life at the end? Sigh. Maranatha, y’all.

    • Likewise, Rick. I always enjoy the ways you give me something to think about. Having said that I’m having some trouble following a couple of your points. It seems like you’re saying that hell is the end of being, and yet it is continual because death is not quenched? So people are brought back for a second span, but unable to die again? What am I missing?

  5. I completely agree with your view, however, Baptism by immersion must be included to be in Christ. With Baptism God removes your old sin and Jesus takes the future ones. Pleas give this a lot of thought and study.

    Damon

    • Really? I believe baptism is an obedience thing but Jesus told the thief on the cross he’d be in Paradise that day. Thus, is it biblically required?

      • Nice, Tami!
        The thief on the cross is a powerful example of what you mentioned AND that you can’t get to heaven by good works.
        Salvation is a free gift! :)

    • “…and this “WATER SYMBOLIZES BAPTISM” that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body “BUT THE PLEDGE OF A GOOD CONSCIENCE” toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” 1 PETER 3:21.

      I’ll show you my faith by my works.

  6. God can do every great thing we can imagine and things we can’t imagine. And when Jesus spoke to Saul/Paul he wasn’t speaking English or King James version scripture. God can speak to every nation in their own native tongue, even in clicks and whistles like the tribes in Africa. God didn’t leave the Gospel only up to white American Reformed Patriarchy men.

    • “God didn’t leave the Gospel only up to white American Reformed Patriarchy men.”

      Were the heck did this statement come from? “white American Reformed Patriarchy men.”

      Splain?

    • Amen Sisterlisa! It raises the question, how great is our God? Great enough to reach those we think are unreachable? I’m thinking, yes. I’m not saying we don’t have a duty to share His message, we do. At the same time that idea can be taken too far. I resent the idea (and attitude) that it’s solely up to us Evangelized Americans to get the word out there to our poor tribal brothers and sisters that otherwise couldn’t possibly have *God in their life.

      *Meaning, white-washed Jesus as seen on mega-trons everywhere.

  7. Interesting post. It got me thinking this very early morning and led to an impromptu bible study, so thanks!!

    I generally I have enough at work in my own heart and the hearts of my wife and daughters that I don’t spend time judging others by only what I can see. We are ALL jacked up and ALL need a savior, and really for me, that is where it ends. Luke 13:22-29 is clear that it is Christ who closes that narrow door and ultimately knows who’s on which side. While I don’t presume to know who enters the kingdom and who doesn’t, the bible is very clear on who Jesus is and how he reconciles us to the Father. Yes, God is bigger than the definitions we have for him, but the Bible gives us insight into who God is and (as I said above) our standing w/ him in light of what Christ has done.

    Scripture doesn’t say we can know Jesus without knowing his name. It says exactly the opposite. John 3:18 “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – ESV (italics added).

    Can someone believe w/out taking the proper steps? Whose to say what the proper steps are? The only thing I would offer is that regardless of whether or not it was at Christian summer camp as an 8 yr old or in a drugged induced haze on the floor of a gas station bathroom, there are signs in a believers walk of a regenerate heart and at some point those signs have to point to the work of Jesus.

    Jesus says: ‘I am the way the truth and the light’ (John 14:6). Those who do not believe in Jesus, don’t have a neutral standing before God (John 3:19-21).

    Jesus is the Y in the road that all of humanity will make a decision at. The Bible gives us insight to the nature of God by displaying His glorious, scandalous grace through what Jesus did on the cross. The human heart is complicated and the nature of God not fully understandable this side of heaven, but our life experience and perception of God or Jesus has to be held in light of scripture.

    BTW, I love Keller and if you’re into him check out John Piper and Francis Chan as well.

    • Ed, I think for the most part we are saying things that compliment rather than clash with each other. Thanks for the comment. I like what you said about the evidence, or signs, of change.

      I would challenge you on the name of God and scripture requirements. Three verses later in John 3:21: “But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”

      Jesus died for all of the world, but not all of the world will hear in time, nor can we guarantee that they will hear the message unperverted (as I wrote, people could be rejecting a false Christ and a false Christ could be all they ever hear of). Lots of people- including in the OT- have known God without knowing him by the name you know him by, people who also lacked access to the completed scriptures. Don’t get me wrong- I am not saying the name of Jesus or the Scriptures are trivial. Either way, Christ said to “go make disciples of all nations” so we agree about the importance of living and sharing the gospel in various ways.

      And I like Francis Chan a lot.

      • I agree that God touches hearts in many ways. As the the ultimate Creator and Sustainer, God chooses to work in amazing ways. The point that I want to be clear on is that we are not brought to a righteous standing before him in any other way than the belief/hope in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

        Jesus teaches that it is only through him that we are reconciled to the Father and our salvation is secured (John 14:6, 7). He also says that the Father gives testimony to him and that it’s not even the bible that brings eternal life (John 5:37, 39). Only himself.

        All of the OT foreshadows the coming of Jesus and Jesus teaches throughout the NT that he is the fulfillment of OT prophecy (John 6:46, 47). So the OT believers (and those who believed before the totality of scripture) had faith in someone that they did not know by name, but that wasn’t someone other than Christ.

        • “So the OT believers (and those who believed before the totality of scripture) had faith in someone that they did not know by name, but that wasn’t someone other than Christ.”

          My point exactly.

  8. A good article and great discussion about how you can believe with your heart that Jesus is the Way, Truth and Life AND still believe that folks like Gandhi and Buddha and good Jews and Muslims walk in heaven with Jesus. What Bell has really exposed is the theological and christological arrogance that says my theology and my interpretation of who God and Jesus are right because I know who God and Jesus are and you don’t. It’s Bibliolatry and Theolatry.

    Bibliolatry. The idolatry of the Bible.

    Theolatry – The idolatry of their own theology.

    Thanks again for reasonable voices and intelligent minds.

  9. “I resent the idea that Christians know God while those in other religions don’t.”

    Ever read Romans 1:18ff?

    Doesn’t it tell us that… the wrath of God is revealed from heaven?

    Against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men?

    Who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth?

    Doesn’t it say… what can be known about God is plain to them?

    Because God has shown it to them?

    For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived?

    Ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made?

    So they are without excuse?

    “Notice I’m not saying all other religions are automatically worthwhile, or free of danger.”

    Your not saying its “IDOLATRY” EITHER! But God certainly is!

    Hey! These religions believe in Jesus!

    Like Mormonism? Jehovah’s Witness’s? Bahai? All inclusive Hinduism?

    What the Heck! Atheism leads to God too! because its a belief about God, and, they need faith to believe it?

    No need to preach the gospel anymore! And, all people will eventually be annihilated (Stott), so… it’ll only hurt for a minute!

    Packer was certainly right when he said: American Christianity is three thousand miles wide… and an inch deep.

    Sorry I can’t be more positive. I think your promoting a dangerous ideas that the bible does not teach, though you’ve not based it on anything biblical. Just you opinion.
    And my opinion can kick your opinions butt.

    Peace-out Brother!
    Still Love ya!

    • Just because one guy writes a 20 page review, that refutes the idea that the video isn’t harmful to the faith?

      Unfortunately I don’t have time to read a 20 page review, but I’ll just say this. There are many people who will dislike Bell’s book and think he is wrong, however, there are just as many faithful followers of Christ, pastors, and scholars who would agree with Bell. Bell cannot just be dismissed because a few popular preachers or scholars dislike his ideas.

      As for the video. That short video promotion has nothing but questions, questions that I’ve heard many times over the last several years by all kinds of people, Christians and non-Christians alike. The video is nothing but questions except that the end conclusion is that “Love Wins”. Questions cannot hurt the body of Christ, nor can the idea that Love Wins.

    • I find it interesting that the article claims to leave it to the reader to choose what to believe about what the scriptures say, but then goes on to tell the reader what doctrines are incorrect. Reality is that scripture isn’t that clear, and Driscoll’s article essentially ignores the questions and arguments made by people who interpret the scriptures differently.

      He mentioned several times that Jesus spoke more about Hell than anyone else in the scriptures, which is true. But he didn’t mention that the context of Jesus’ words about Hell were almost always when he was speaking to the religious elite, not average people or unbelievers.

      He also mentions the word Gehenna (usually translated as “hell”), which Jesus used, but assumes that what Jesus must have been referring to was an eternal Hell somewhere else, rather than a more present reality as it would have likely been understood as by 1st century Jews. If I pointed out a burning garbage dump to someone today, they aren’t likely to assume that I’m talking about a place of eternal punishment. I assume that 1st century Jews would probably be the same in that respect.

      He points to scriptures from Revelation about the lake of fire, picturing it as a literal description, but I wonder how much of the rest of Revelation he takes literally?

      I also noted that on another article on the resurgence website, “Chronology of Rob Bell on Hell”, which gives a list of articles that respond to Bell’s new book, that none of the articles are from anyone who disagrees with Driscoll on the issue. It isn’t exactly a balanced, unbiased, or objective list.

      Driscoll, and others like him, do not seem to acknowledge the fact that there are many faithful Christians that disagree with their particular theological perspectives. What we need is for all these people to sit down to a meal together and stop assuming that anyone who disagrees with them has left the faith. Everyone has something good to give to a discussion, and everyone has something to learn from people who have different ideas.

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