The Separation

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

There is a lot of brouhaha out there on the Interwebs regarding a certain Michigan pastor’s upcoming book. (Do your research – I’ll not give it free advertising). Speculation swirls around its subject matter and whether the author is going to come right out and say that he does not believe in a literal hell, as some of his sermons seem to allude to. The video advertising (who knew that you needed YouTube promos now?) has the author asking a very basic question, though perhaps not directly:

Why would a loving God send anyone to Hell?

As someone who lives in the “free will” camp, I contend that God does not send anyone to Hell. It is my belief that we are all given the opportunity to choose. This choice is simple, and it is to believe that He is Lord and to live within His boundaries (which He has every right to define if He is Lord) or to not believe that He is Lord and to not live within His boundaries (in which case, it is the individual who is lord).

Ultimately, that is what it boils down to: who is God?

Consider the abstract concept of God. If there is a Being who is Creator and Sustainer, then it makes logical sense that it is He who defines what relationship to and with Him is to look like. Whatever your religious bent or lack thereof, this is something that is very clear. God = Bigger than Us. God = Smarter than Us. God = in Charge.

In the Christian faith, the Lord is Personal and Interested, and He lays out very clearly what He wants from His creatures. In the first three chapters of Genesis, we read that God creates the world (the exact processes He uses to do so are not delineated and are not the point of the record, so don’t even go there) and plants a couple of people in the midst of a idyllic Garden. They had a specific task:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” – Genesis 2-15:17 (NKJV)

Take care of where you live and don’t eat from that one tree. Pretty straightforward. This reveals a few things:

1. As discussed above, if God is God than He makes the rules, not us, and the command clearly shows this.

2. God was not keeping Adam and Eve from knowing things, as some conclude when they read this passage. In the Gospels, Jesus was the ultimate Rabbi or Teacher. It makes more sense to think that God Himself planned on teaching them everything that they could possibly want to know, throughout their lifetimes. (This, I think, is an integral part of relationship to God).

3. They could not claim that they were in the dark about what God wanted.

Nobody knows how long Adam and Eve were in the Garden. Days, months, years. It doesn’t really matter. One fateful day, they both decide to disobey this simple command. As a result, the three culprits (the serpent – certainly symbolic – Adam, and Eve) each receive a curse:

Cursed are you above all livestock
and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.
And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman He said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”

To Adam He said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.” – Genesis 3:14-19 (NKJV)

The details of the Curse have received quite a bit of exegetical attention, but I find the principle behind them to be what matters most: separation. The earth was no longer going to work as originally designed. Human relationships were strained. The animal kingdom, by extension, was affected – God Himself shed the first animal blood in order to clothe Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21). They were driven from Eden for their disobedience (Genesis 3:23-24).

Humanity has remained separated from God and Paradise ever since. Turn on any news channel or look at your own relationships and this much is clear. Nothing works as it was meant to. Death – in all its forms, from the physical to the relational to the spiritual – was the toll, just as God promised. Again, He is very clear and explicit.

The solution to this  great separation, couched within the very proclamation of the Curse,  came in the form of Jesus Christ – the means that God decreed acceptable. In fact, in a mystery that is not readily understood by us, the very foundation of the world was built upon His shed blood (Revelation 13:8). This means that, despite the very real chasm between God and man, God has continued to reach out to man. To chase him. To woo him.

So, when we ask, “How can a loving God send people to Hell?,” we are being disingenuous in several ways:

1. We want to have our cake and eat it, too. We want the free will to do whatever we want, to even reject God, and then we object to the consequences.

2. We refuse to accept any responsibility over our own lives.

3. Most damagingly, those of us who accept Him as Savior do not accept Him as Lord, with the right and ability to create the rules.

Is an eternity separated from God and others a unique form of punishment? Yes. Does its length and severity baffle us? Yes. Are we God? No.

All of this leads to another question:

Is it possible to share the message of the Gospel without discussing eternal separation?

Some say that one should not mention Hell in relation to the sacrifice of Christ. That it will “turn people off.” This leads to another, deeper question:

If there is no Hell, no state of eternal separation, then when did Jesus come for?

Is salvation all about Heaven and Hell? No, of course not. Living in right relationship to God should very much have an effect on the way you live life right here and right now. That reality brings us back to the theme of separation. Jesus calls His people to live in such a radically different way that it becomes obvious to those who don’t know Him that they separated from Him – in that living works the Holy Spirit, who draws and convicts.

We choose.

If there is separation in this life, why would there not be separation in the next? If everyone is able to enjoy eternity with God in the end, then what is the point of following Him now? Why not just live a selfish life?

How could a loving God…? How could a just God not allow that separation? He has defined the boundaries. He chose, in another mystery that is beyond our full understanding, to come and live as the Incarnate Son and be our example. He chose to endure horrific humiliation and punishment so that the love of God might be shown through the exercising of His correct justice. He makes the rules. He defines the boundaries.

If the separation were not real, tragic and eternal, then why did Jesus come to earth? Why did God bother ever setting down any expectations? He could have just as easily said, “Oh, it’s no biggie.”

He didn’t.

Yes, God is Love (1 John 4:8), but He is also Just. There are so many passages relating to His concern for justice among His people to not arrive at such a conclusion. He came here in the Incarnation to bear the weight of sin and separation and open the avenue of free-flowing relationship between God and humanity. His hand is extended to us – but we have to take it.

Let us be honest and say that this is completely obvious. If, for example, I was drowning in the middle of the ocean and you came up in a lifeboat and threw out a life preserver to me, the existence of the life preserver would not be enough to save me. I would have to reach out for it. I would have to choose whether or not I was going to accept the available means of being saved, or try to come up with my own way. You would, naturally, do everything that you could to get me to take the life preserver – but you couldn’t force me to. You couldn’t make me escape drowning.

I am not going to throw out a bunch of verses that talk about Hell. Anyone could do that. The point of this is to expose the faulty thinking that lies behind a non-literal Hell (why then should Heaven be literal?) and the idea of universal salvation. Does it make sense that Hitler, Stalin, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson and a host of other truly vile men and women should end up in eternal bliss just…because? No. That offends our own sense of what is right and wrong. Hitler, Stalin, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson and a host of other truly vile men and women – including myself – will only end up wrapped up in the embrace of the Creator by choosing to be humble and to accept the one Way, Truth and Life (John 14:6).

I have no idea what this author is going to say in this new book, and I will wait until I read it to make a concrete comment. My concluding thought is, instead, this:

None of us is God. Period. We don’t have to understand or even like everything that He decrees. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that we can’t understand or like everything that He decrees. It’s beyond us. We just have to choose: follow or don’t follow. Believe or don’t believe.

Either way – separated or joined together – we have to accept the consequences.

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Shades of Hope

Gentle Reader,

Often depression is linked to the color blue. As in, you’ve got the blues. Such a thing makes sense in light of the deep, dark tones that the color descends into.

Must blue always be consigned to such a fate?

Consider these words:

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? – Matthew 6:26 (NKJV)

Riots in Egypt and Libya, world-wide economic crises and domestic unrest can make you want to run for the bed and hide under the covers. It’s easy to feel discouraged and lost. To feel blue. It is, however, to the blue that Jesus tells us to turn our eyes, for this verse is not only about the birds, but also about their environment.

I notice the birds of the air when the day is bright and sunny. When the sky is clear, or maybe dotted with just a few puffy, white clouds. When the breeze is gentle across my cheeks. When everything seems bursting with life.

The birds soar, dip, dive and glide across an expanse of perfect pale blue. In that moment, I am mesmerized by their beauty and their ability to perform intricate maneuvers without any kind of training. They do not strive to be birds. They simply are. They spread their wings and take to the heavenlies as they were meant to.

That is a picture of hope.

Right now, the skies outside my window are overcast. Marked by gray. It isn’t difficult for that physical heaviness to translate over into my life.  The world I see is hemmed in by clouds and the world I feel is the same. I sink past indigo and into navy.

Then I remember the birds, on the wind in that pale blue sky.

A bird doesn’t stop being a bird when it is stuck on the ground. It simply waits for the opportunity to tear up the natural runway of some field or pond and leave the earth. Until then, it sleeps. It eats. It mates. It continues on – in the storm, in the cold, in the gloom.

The bird doesn’t doubt that its circumstances will change, or even that it will endure through the present grounding. It just keeps being a bird, fully reliant upon its Maker. I have no doubt that it knows, somehow, that blue skies are on their way.

In that, I hope.

Defended

Gentle Reader,

When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters,were killed just as they had been. – Revelation 6:9-11 (NKJV)

The Book of Revelation isn’t a treatise that I am particularly fond of. I hate to say that about any part of the Bible, but that’s the truth of it. Reading about things like famine, destruction and death make me upset and fearful. Yet, like it or not, Revelation is an important book – not because of what it says, but because of why it is being said.

The judgments recorded in the book are the natural consequences of sin and rebellion. When we choose not to follow God’s path, then we end up separated from Him. That’s the bottom line. As one of my friends put it in class yesterday, it is as if God reverts to “Old Testament mode” in unleashing His wrath and heartbreak. Here and now, the Holy Spirit is present to comfort and guide. Then, humanity will be exposed to signs and wonders, just as they were before.

This holds my interest in light of the cry of the martyrs in chapter 6.

Stick with me.

In Hebrews 10, we read:

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time He waits for his enemies to be made His footstool. For by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. – vs. 11-14 (NKJV)

Jesus sits because there is no more work to be done. The final sacrifice has been made. There is nothing any of us can do to earn Heaven. Yet, in Acts 7 the first martyr has this vision:

Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to Heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see Heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” – vs. 55-56 (NKJV)

Signs and wonders, sitting and standing. What does all of this mean?

Today we are closer to the end of all things than we were yesterday. I don’t pretend to know exactly how it’s all going to play out. I also don’t hold to popular views of things like the Rapture. (That is for an entirely separate post, but I encourage you to check out the wording of Matthew 24:22 in the context of Jesus’ teaching about the end). So, I’m not buying Hal Lindsey books and I threw out all of my copies of the “Left Behind” series a long time ago.

Still, I know that things are going to get tougher for Christians, especially if you believe, as I do, that Christians are going to be around during this judgment and final wake-up call. I’m not talking about evolutionary theory being taught in schools or the occasional snide remark, either. We here in America have absolutely no idea what it is to be persecuted for our faith. None at all.

I’m talking about really suffering because of what you believe. Being imprisoned, tortured, starved and even killed.

What is intriguing to me about this is the movement of Jesus. Hebrews pictures Him sitting in triumph, and rightly so. Why, then, is He shown standing for Stephen? I think it’s because our faithfulness and obedience matters a great deal to our Savior.

Was Jesus moved to protect Stephen, but stopped by the existence of a greater plan? Was Jesus cheering Stephen on? Was Jesus preparing to welcome this man into Heaven? The answer to all of these questions, is, in my opinion, “yes.”

Why does this matter? As I said before, we have no idea what it means to face torment for what we believe. We’ve got it really easy around here. When the day comes when that reality shifts, we can be comforted and strengthened in the knowledge that we are defended. Jesus doesn’t stand because there’s something else He needs to do. He stands up with His fists balled at His sides, ready to charge into battle for us. He’s cheering us on. He’s ready to bring us Home.

I find that comforting right now, even though I’m not about to die for what I believe. If my life this side of eternity stops before the end of the world as we know it, I’ll be fine. (Did you catch that?) I am still defended. Still being cheered on. Still going to receive a special welcome.

As I grapple with the message of Revelation, that is what gives me hope. Whatever I have to face, I do not have to face it alone. Nobody does. All we have to do is reach out to the Hand extended to us in faith. Maybe that’s the point. Behind all the gloom and doom is the final call of grace and hope.

Maybe Revelation boils down to this simplicity: God hates sin, but God loves us. He’ll use whatever means He can to get our attention. First it was the covenant people of Israel. Then it was the Resurrection. Someday it will be literally earthshaking events. And in all of this, we can choose Him or not choose Him.

Defended or alone.

You Are Not a Stereotype

Gentle Reader,

Unless you have been living in some isolated, Arctic village without benefit of television or the Internet (if so, how did you find this blog?), then you are sure to have heard about the great “Battle of the Sexes.” Who is better – men or women? Smarter? Funnier? Stronger? More capable?

On and on it goes.

Our culture hates women. Really, it does. We are encouraged to diet ourselves down to a size zero, buying into the subliminal message that we should become nothing. If you are smart, then you must also be overwhelmingly and in-your-face “sexy.” (Really, you should hide your intelligence). Things like intuitiveness and sensitivity are mercilessly mocked. Women are increasingly encouraged to act and think like men, all while wearing short skirts and shirts so tight they threaten to bust at the seams.

We are objects. Playthings.

The Church is just as guilty as the surrounding society. Though “modest is hottest,” there are other stereotypes that women are squeezed into. Instead of competing with men, they are subordinate to them, thanks to misinterpretations and misapplications of Scripture. While you may not have to get a boob job, you certainly should sign up for nursery duty. While you may hold an advanced degree, you’d better not open your mouth to express an opinion on that difficult passage.

We must shrink into the background.

Compete or retreat. Why are these our only options?

I think that it’s high time we broke out of these cycles, for they are both set up to defeat women. To break the first, we must learn to think that it is ridiculous to try and prove that men and women are the same.  Aside from the obvious anatomical contrasts, there are variances in perspective, experience, desires, etc.  Biological, psychological and sociological research and experimentation shore up this argument time and time again. To break the second, we must learn to think that men and women are entirely equal. The differences do not a set of second-class citizens make.

We are equal and equally valuable in our wide-ranging disparities. Isn’t variety the spice of life, after all?

This is on my mind today because of the activity I engaged in last evening. A group of my girlfriends came over. We watched “chick flicks,” ate chocolate and laughed. In the past I have always felt guilty about this in the back of my mind. Like someone would find out that I was being silly and think I was stupid because of it.

You know what, though?

I like “chick flicks.”

like laughing myself silly with my friends.

I like having an “ugly cry” from time to time.

I like fashion.

I am an out-of-the-closet fan of pop music.

I find joy in all of these things. I also find joy in breaking down complex Scripture passages into their basic components, drawing out the layers of meaning by using concordances and dictionaries. I revel in the “Real Simple” magazine that comes in the mail every month. I also get lost in heavy history texts, grappling with the impact of an event hundreds of years past on the modern day.

I groove to the “Glee” soundtracks. I groove to Prokofiev and Debussy.

The “girly” things do not make me less than a man. The “intense” things do not make me better than a man. They make me…me.

That is what I think you should be, Reader. You be you. Whatever your sex, whatever your interests, whatever your socioeconomic status. Opt out of the game. Step away from both the cycles. Break free from the slavery that is found in constantly trying to conform. God made you uniquely. You are not a stereotype, either way. Don’t even try.

Enjoy yourself!