A Critique of Raising Hell by Julie Ferwerda
John C. Rankin (2012)
I have been asked by a friend to read and critique the book, Raising Hell, where Julie Ferwerda makes her case that hell is an unbiblical concept.
This is an immense topic, and for my purposes here, I will structure my critique by a) looking at preliminaries and the art of translation, b) defining how the Bible is understood on its own terms, and c) thus review Julie’s argument. In reviewing her argument, I will refer to the components of the Bible on its own terms, and two addenda from other writings of mine – Chapter Three from The Six Pillars of Biblical Power, and my written presentation for Mars Hill Forum #96 where the question was: Can a Good God Allow People to Dwell in Hell Forever? I will also add another addendum, a section from Chapter Four of The Six Pillars called What If? In my forthcoming book, Only Genesis, I will look at an angle not found here, one where I believe the biblical witness shows that hell is ultimately a minority community of those who hate mercy for themselves and others. But it is a self-chosen and eternal reality nonetheless. The love of Jesus will reach all those who acknowledge their need in the sight of the one true Creator, and will love Jesus when they see him face to face.
There are four dominating realities in the book.
First, Julie writes experientially throughout, and that perspective has strengths and weaknesses. The question of the Wesleyan quadrilateral thus needs to be defined.
Second, Julie is free to pose any and all questions, and that is a great strength. She asks many very valid questions that need a biblically literate response.
Third, Julie uses the English word “hell” as the lynchpin idea, but never defines its etymology.
And fourth, Julie does not know the original Hebrew and Greek, yet is willing to tell translators, who know the original languages, where they have made mistakes. The resources she uses to critique the translators are in fact dependent on the same translators who are trained to do what she is not trained to do. This concern deserves some attention.
The Art of Translation
In her introduction, Julie states, “You might also be asking, who am I to question or doubt the majority of today’s mainstream Bible translators, theologians, and pastors” (p. 5). In also including “scholars” in a subsequent list, she then asks “which ones should I listen to?” This is a fair question, but it also invites some questions for Julie.
In reference to “Bible study tools online,” Julie states: “Through these resources, practically anyone can learn basic study of Hebrew and Greek Scripture in order to begin identifying problematic translation issues and correcting them on their own. In fact, learning how to identify and improve many translation errors is so simple, a little kid could do it” (p. 239).
Not so. Whereas Julie shows real aptitude to grasp certain ideas, she is nonetheless ill equipped to make such translation judgments. For example, she makes assumption that words or phrases are stand alone units, in the English, with no knowledge of the proto-Ugaritic etymology of the Hebrew, and no recognition of grammar, syntax, mood, tense and voice in both the Hebrew and Greek.
Julie states: “We’ve already discovered that often times when words are being mistranslated, nouns are swapped out for adverbs or adjectives, or other variations. This is a fundamental no-no when translating any language. There must be consistency, and if you find an adverb or adjective replacing a noun (or any other substitution), be suspicious” (p. 251).
How can Julie define what a “no-no” is when “translating any language”? What are her translation skills that give her such expertise to make such a judgment?
Julie only uses English, but how can that suffice as the reference point for translation choices? With English, or even Latin based assumptions, how can parts of speech be defined and understood as used in Hebrew or Greek? What is an adjectival noun in any language, and thus what happens when, grammatically speaking, one form of a noun replaces another form of a noun due to different linguistic use of nouns and/or various modifiers?
Translation is an art form that requires great inter-cultural and trans-historical knowledge and skills. It is not a mathematical science where equivalencies are easily swapped.
Let me look at five examples concerning the art of translation, starting with a fun one.
First: If I were to say that, according to the literal words in the Hebrew Bible, “Yahweh has a long nose,” what would be the response? What image is portrayed if it were thus rendered in English? Might we think of Pinocchio whose nose grew longer with each lie he told? Is the text calling Yahweh a liar? Or might the bigots say that it refers to a Jewish deity because some European Jews had longer noses on average? The answer is no in both cases, where it would otherwise be a myopic interpretation of imposing a historically recent fable, and/or racist slur on an ancient text. We first need to know the ancient usage before we can render a faithful modern translation.
In the Hebrew, anap is the simple word for “nose.” Biblical Hebrew only has some 900 root words, and thus context is critical in defining the particular use of a given word, and thus, how one word can be used differently according to the setting. In comparison, classical and koine Greek often have many words for the same root idea, and where a word can change and dominate a given context. Now, if a Hebrew man were to become flush with anger, it would not show up on his cheeks, as it would with a shaved Egyptian man. Hebrew men had thick and high-cheeked beards. Thus, the first place the flush of anger would be discernible is on the nose. Accordingly, anap is also the word for “anger” in biblical Hebrew. To have “a long nose” means it takes a long time for the anger to reach the end of the nose and translate into action.
Thus, in translation, to literally use “long nose” would not convey what the Hebrews understood in the use of anap. Now, we could use dynamic equivalence is rendering it a “long fuse” in the sense of dynamite, but that would be too culture specific for all readers of the translation to immediately and fully understand, if at all. An immediacy of ready understanding is the goal of good translation, and this is why translations evolve with languages, seeking to give the clarity grasped by the original hearers and readers.
Thus, in Exodus 34:6 the text states literally that “Yahweh has a long nose” (cf. the same construction and content in Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15, 103:8 and 145:8; Joel 2:13 and Jonah 4:3; cf. too Nahum 1:3). But a good translation probes deeper than a one-dimensional literal reading to the deeper reality at play: “Yahweh is slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” Also, in the first eight examples, anap is followed by the use of hesed, a critical biblical concept of patient love, mercy and faithfulness rolled into one, different than the normal word for love, ahav. This is why hesed is translated differently to capture one or more of it essences, given the respective contexts and foci. It is a steadfast love that never changes.
Second: In Genesis 1, the Hebrew speaks of Elohim as the Creator, translated in the English as “God.” This comes from the German word gott for “good day.” However, in Arabic Bibles, the word Elohim is translated as Allah. This is problematic. In Genesis 2, the covenantal name Yahweh is brought into focus with the name Yahweh Elohim. Genesis 1 focuses on the grand design of creation, and Genesis 2 focuses on the original covenant between the named one true Creator, and man and woman. The covenant making Yahweh has the Hebrew meaning for his Name being rooted in a word close to the infinitive tense of the verb “to be.” This signifies the Name of the One who defines Existence, who is the Divine Presence. Elohim is the honorific plural form of el, a common word in most if not all ancient near eastern languages for “lord” or “master.” The honorific plural means the true God is greater than all the so-called gods – an oft repeated idea in the Hebrew Bible.
Thus, Yahweh Elohim, taken together, means the One who is greater than space, time and number – the only written idea of this reality in human history. Allah, as an Arabic word, has no known written etymology, but it is a fair guess to say that it traces back to a form of el, through Arabic society 2600 years back to Ishmael’s exile. And in the Qur’an, Allah is limited to the human concept of the number one, and does not (or conceptually cannot) enter into space and time to relate to man and woman as does Jesus (Yahweh Elohim incarnate). This means, at many profound levels, that Yahweh Elohim and Allah are two different deities, the former being true to the revelation in the Bible, with the latter not. Yahweh Elohim is by definition and practice greater than space, time and number. Allah is not.
Thus, when Allah is the translation word in Arabic Bibles for God, it confuses the minds of the readers and hearers into thinking that the Allah of the Qur’an is the same as Yahweh Elohim of the Bible. So whereas “God” works well in the English, when I am in communication with Muslims, I cannot use the word God, for if my comments are translated into Arabic, it becomes Allah and thus the necessary distinction between Yahweh Elohim and Allah is lost. If I try to use Elohim in transliteration to be faithful to the original text, it can become esoteric unless first defined. Thus, I increasingly translate Elohim, God, as “the one true Creator,” and this resolves any possibility of misunderstanding, for Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe there is only one true Creator. Let the discussion begin from that moment on our different understandings, based on a difficult translation question where an honest representation of who Elohim is has been made. Let it lead to Jesus as theego eimi, the I AM of John 8:58 (and 30 other declarations of the same in John’s Gospel), the incarnate Yahweh. And since my ministry increasingly interfaces with the Arabic world, I largely eschew the use of God, using instead the one true Creator or Yahweh Elohim, defining both as I go along.
Third: On p. 39 Julie quotes an English translation of Genesis 2:17, “you will surely die.” She then puts it next to other English translations such as “dying thou dost die” and “to death you shall die.” I will look at the defining theological reality of this clause later.
But for here, let’s note that in Genesis 2:16 and 17 we have a Hebrew parallelism between two opposites:
- akol tokel: “In feasting you will continually feast.”
- moth tamuth: “In dying you will continually die.”
Grammatically, both of these constructions are rooted in the hiphil form (verbs that cause action), and both are also in the qal infinitive absolute and the imperfect tenses. The infinitive absolute of “in feasting” and “in dying” denotes a state that never changes. In Latin and English grammar, we would recognize this as a gerund or active participle. But Hebrew has no active participle per se – that is our grammatical term. The imperfect of “continually feast” and “continually die” denotes something that never ends, and with the prior infinitive absolute, there is a far more dynamic reality at play that transcends the active participle. In sum: qualities that never change and never end.
Thus, when being translated into English as “you are free to eat” and “you will surely die” (NIV), it conveys an open-ended feast that never stops feasting, and a death that never stops dying. This is an okay English translation because English readers do not readily recognize the Hebrew grammar involved, namely the use of the infinitive absolute and the imperfect tenses in the Hebrew, nor do they understand the force of the syntax of parallelism to drive home a point (35-38 percent of the Hebrew Bible is in poetic form, where parallelism is the main reality). Translation is an art, not a mathematical science of equivalency.
With respect to Julie’s assertion, we are not looking at the facile misadventure or nefarious agenda of “replacing” or “swapping” non-interchangeable units. The idea of mistranslation is foreign, it is a modern English myopia placed upon ancient texts. There is dishonesty in some translation issues in history, but qualified attention to the original languages easily separates the honest from the dishonest. Julie casts a wide net of accusing a historical range of scholars of being dishonest, and herself without the training to know the nature of translating from one culture to another, from antiquity to the present age.
Fourth: English translations of Genesis 3:8 have led to many wrong ideas. For example, the NIV renders it: “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.”
Now, what image does this language convey? For many it is the idea of Yahweh Elohim (rendered in English as “LORD God” for reasons not pertinent here) being out for a morning or evening stroll, with a cool breeze, as he comes in theophanic form. It is a very pleasant notion, as it were. Why then did Adam and Eve hide? Here is a literally accurate and genuinely dynamic translation of the key portion of this verse: “And they heard the thunder of Yahweh Elohim marching into the garden in the Spirit-driven storm of the moment.” What a radical difference.
The Hebrew root here for “sound” (qol) is a very common word for a wide range of possibilities, depending on context. The word can be used to indicate a whisper, a standard vocal conversational tone (or simply “voice”), a trumpet call for battle, or a thunderclap.
The Hebrew root here for “walking” (halak) refers to the motion of moving from one place to another – a tiptoe, a leisurely stroll, a regular walk or a military march. Literally, it refers to “going” from one place to another.
The word “cool” does not appear in the Hebrew text at all. The word in use here is actually ruach, for wind, or spirit, and the range of wind can be from a breeze to a storm like a hurricane or tornado. It is unknown how “cool breeze” has been rooted in translation choices since the medieval era (in Latin and English). One speculation is that some monks doing translation, at one point, looked at the verse with a presupposition that the ruach was a gentle breeze because they took halak as a physical walk or stroll, and then imagined a “cool” appropriate to the early morning or late evening. Regardless, it is an insertion into the text, and it stuck.
And the Hebrew word for “day” (yom) is a very common word for a range of markers for time, from a split second to a day to years to eons.
So then, how to translate? Yahweh Elohim declared that the “when you eat” of the forbidden fruit, “in dying you will continually die” (2:17). Thus, when Adam and Eve ate, they invited death, and upended the good order of creation given them. Yahweh Elohim was not out for a morning or evening stroll, and just happened upon Adam and Eve as they were engaging in the most definitive act of disobedience in human history. He was not surprised by their absence, calling to them in a pleasant conversational tone. No, death had just been chosen, and Yahweh Elohim stormed into their presence with a thunderous march of judgment. This is why the man and woman hid, in the deepest fear.
Fifth: Finally, let’s consider the well known text in Isaiah 53 where the prophet states: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (v. 5). Without getting too technical here, the simple reality is that the past tense is used four times, and the present tense is used once, all in reference to a future event. Why is that?
In fact, the Hebrew has no future tense, and this is due to the biblical view of space, time and number (a larger topic). Thus, when translating Isaiah 53:5 (and many other texts in the Hebrew Bible), the scholars have not messed it up by inserting a Greek, Latin or English future tense. They make a judgment call in the art of honest translation, which means fidelity to the original text and the best sense of conveyance to differing cultures and languages that are always evolving. This is what missionary Don Richardson learned in 1962 in Western New Guinea, when translating the Bible into the Sawi language. There was no concept for the Hebrew idea of atonement (kippur or literally, “covering” our sins). But when he grasped the local customs of the “peace child” to settle disputes between warring tribes, he found the same idea of sacrificial giving that brings reconciliation, as with atonement.
In other words, translation is an art, it is not facile, and Julie wades into deep waters in which she is not equipped to swim. “Little kids” cannot do translation. By the same token, Julie is appropriately concerned with elitism among certain scholars, clergy et al., who love to lord it over others. But true elites, whose gifts and callings are to be a servant of the Word and the church, will seek to teach well, so that those not trained in the ancient languages can grasp the meaning of commonly grasped languages. This involves teaching all the genres that the Hebrew, Jewish and Christian hearers and readers understood readily, and respectively, in all the historical epochs, even as, and especially, the Hebrew language evolved between Abraham and Malachi. The driving force that erupted into the Reformation was the efforts of such people as John Wycliffe, Jan Hus and William Tyndale who labored to translate the Bible into the English of its day for the common people. They were fiercely opposed by the kings and church hierarchies, Hus and Tyndale lost their lives because of it, and Wycliffe suffered house arrest for the end of his years. Martin Luther also translated the Latin into the German, and on the Reformation went.
The Bible on its Own Terms
In order to look at Julie’s assertions about hell, let me first set an interpretive stage. As I do, I welcome her critique, as I do with anyone else – does everything I assert prove to be biblically sound?
It is my conviction that the uniqueness and power of the biblical order of creation, in Genesis 1-2, can leverage the interpretation of any question in the Bible and life.
In Genesis 1-3, the Bible sets forth the storyline defined by the good order of creation, its reversal or brokenness, and then the redemption of the good. Or simply: creation, sin and redemption. The order of creation is entirely good and trustworthy, and defined in Genesis 1-2, in what I call Only Genesis. In Genesis 3, the brokenness of this goodness and trust follows by an act of the human will. Also in Genesis 3, the promise of redemption is given to restore the promises of Genesis 1-2, fulfilled ultimately in Jesus the Messiah. Jesus literally buys us back from the slavery of broken trust.
Thus, only when we understand the heights of the goodness of the order of creation, can we then understand the depths of the injustice and evil that breaks it. And only then can we grasp the height of being rescued from the depths, and receive the good promise of the resurrection.
The original goodness of Only Genesis involves ten positive assumptions:
1. Only Genesis has a positive view of the Creator’s nature. The Hebrew language for the one true Creator is Yahweh Elohim, and it uniquely defines the One who is greater than space, time and number. His power is unlimited, his nature is good and his purpose is to bless all people fully. In being greater than space and time, this means Yahweh Elohim is also great enough to come into our human world and relate to us. In being greater than number, Yahweh Elohim is not numerically restricted in himself, and this leads to the triune understanding of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. From this point, as manifest in human community, checks and balances on power in tripartite forms of government (co-equal branches of the executive, legislative and judicial) are derived. This equals diversity in service to unity, and thus a healthy social order.
2. Only Genesis has a positive view of communication. The first words spoken by the Creator in Genesis are “Let there be light.” This is the nature of revelation or communication – where by definition, light reveals what is truly there. Part of Yahweh Elohim’s communication in the Bible is that it is a dialogue – he invites us to ask him questions as we learn his ways. Yahweh Elohim communicated this way with Abraham and all the biblical prophets, many others in the Bible, and likewise to the present through the Holy Spirit, in accord with what has been revealed in the Bible. In the Gospel of John, Jesus declared himself to be the “I AM,” to be Yahweh Elohim, the one true Creator in human form, to communicate with us as the living Word, as the Light of the world. One of the names for Jesus in the Hebrew, Immanuel, means that Yahweh Elohim is “with us.”
3. Only Genesis has a positive view of human nature. The whole structure of Only Genesis is designed to highlight the creation of man and woman as the image-bearers of the one true Creator, as Yahweh Elohim breathed the breath of life into Adam and Eve. The creation was made for us, and to bear his image means that in our finite nature we reflect the Creator’s infinite qualities of communication and creativity. We were made to govern the good creation and take care of it with satisfaction in building families and nations. Or as it declares in Psalm 8, we are “crowned” with “glory and honor” as the highest purpose of the creation. In other words, central to the greatness of Yahweh Elohim is his joy in making man and woman to share his glory as image-bearers of the one true Creator.
4. Only Genesis has a positive view of human freedom. In fact, it is the only proactive definition of human freedom in history. The first words spoken by Yahweh Elohim to Adam in Genesis 2 are, in English translations, “You are free …” More dynamic is the Hebrew language itself, a metaphor translated “in feasting you will continually feast” (akol tokel). In other words, an unlimited menu of good choices in all of life is presented, so long as the forbidden and poisonous fruit is not eaten. To eat the forbidden fruit means “in dying you will continually die” (moth tamuth in the Hebrew). Thus, feast on what is good, or eat poison and die – the sovereign Creator gives man and woman dignity and honor in giving us such a freedom to choose. Unless we are free to say no, we are not free to say yes. There is no coercion in the Gospel. We are free to choose between truth and falsehood, between good and evil, between life and death, between freedom and slavery.
5. Only Genesis has a positive view of hard questions. When Yahweh Elohim gave man and woman stewardship over creation, an endlessly delightful learning process was put in place. We were made to learn in his presence, a central part of which was asking questions. Even after the broken trust of sin, the power to pose hard questions in the presence of Yahweh Elohim and one another is seen dramatically, for example, in the persons of Abraham, Moses, Job, David, Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, Jeremiah, Habakkuk and Paul, and supremely in Jesus as he modeled the rabbinic teaching method. No questions were ever prohibited. Yahweh Elohim allowed himself to be directly challenged, and Jesus also invited the same in the face of his plotting enemies.
6. Only Genesis has a positive view of human sexuality. The structures and trajectories of both Genesis 1 and 2 focus on men and women as full equals and complements, as image-bearers of the Creator. They are joint stewards of the creation, and joint heirs of eternal life. Healthy human sexuality is defined by chastity outside of marriage, and fidelity within the marriage of one man and one woman for one lifetime. It is within this covenant of faithful marriage that trust is first learned, between man and women, then modeled for their children, then to the extended family and local communities, and then to the nations.
7. Only Genesis has a positive view of science and the scientific method. In Genesis 1, the sun, moon and stars are treated as inanimate objects, as opposed to being deities as in pagan religion. From there on the Bible views creation as it is, setting the table for honest scientific observation of the world in which we live. The Law of Moses also provides the ethical basis for the scientific method, the principle of falsification, where 100 percent accuracy is required of Hebrew prophets. If there is one mistake, then the prophet is not a true prophet. In science, if an experiment to prove a theory produces the same result 1,000 times, then a different result the next time, it has been falsified, and must be reviewed to find the error. This is science’s most exacting standard, coming from the Bible’s most exacting standard. Thus, the historical, geographical and observational claims of the Bible are relentlessly confirmed by the discipline of archeology and other sciences, from the Garden of Eden, located at the headwaters of the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates rivers in ancient Mesopotamia, through ancient Israel and the capitol of Jerusalem, to the apostle John on the island of Patmos.
8. Only Genesis has a positive view of verifiable history. Beginning with Adam and Eve, the biblical revelation is always ratified by multiple eye-witnesses, rooted in the Law of Moses, all the way to Jesus, along with very detailed genealogies; then from Jesus to the end of the New Testament. Indeed, when Jesus appeared, he did so in accordance with millennia worth of recorded history rooted in multiple checks and balances to certify truth. This commitment to verifiable history has informed all Hebrew, Jewish and Christian scholarship across the millennia.
9. Only Genesis has a positive view of covenantal law. Here, Yahweh Elohim first holds himself accountable to being just and fair and loving, before he requires man and woman to obey his laws. The original covenant in the Garden of Eden was that of freedom, and all subsequent covenants aimed to restore such freedom, finally fulfilled in the Messiah. Covenantal law on this basis is a bulwark against human despotic governments. Then, central to this biblical witness is the reality that the covenantal people are held to higher standards than are the pagans. The prophets Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Amos and Habakkuk, among others, first held Israel and Judah accountable for their sins; as did the apostles Paul and Peter for the church.
10. Only Genesis has a positive view of unalienable rights. Yahweh Elohim gives the gifts of life, liberty and property (stewardship of the creation) to all people equally in Genesis 1-2. “Unalienable” refers to rights given by the Creator, rights that cannot be alienated, rights that are above the power of human government to define, give or take away. These unalienable rights are simply to be honored. The unalienable right of liberty means religious, political and economic freedom for all people, regardless of religious or philosophical beliefs. Biblically faithful Jews and Christians celebrate these liberties for all people equally, including Muslims, under the rule of law.
Only Genesis begins with the assumption that all things in creation are made good (tov). The “Gospel” of Jesus the Messiah comes from a word meaning “Good News” (euangelion).
The Six Pillars of Biblical Power
Now, out of these ten positive assumptions, we can draw four pillars of biblical power that are ethical in nature – namely, how we treat the Lord and our neighbors. The last two come from the Sermon on the Mount, and redeem for us the power of the first four pillars in a broken world:
- The power to give: We believe that the Creator, Yahweh Elohim, the Lord God Almighty, our heavenly Father, employs his unlimited power to give to and equally bless all people as image bearers of God. The power to give is modeled in the faithful marriage of one man and one woman, in parenthood, and is the basis for trust in human society.
- The power to live in the light: We believe that the Lord God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. As darkness and the prince of darkness flee the light, we embrace the power to live in the light of God’s presence, open and accountable to all people in all we believe, say and do.
- The power of informed choice: We believe that the Lord God gives us all the power of informed choice, to say yes to the good of freedom and life, and no to the evil of slavery and death.
- The power to love hard questions: We believe that the Lord God gives us the freedom and power to pose hard questions of him, and of one another, in Christian community. This is the power of sanctifying integrity.
- The power to love enemies: We believe that the Lord Jesus loved the world when we yet enemies of the truth, drowning in a sea of broken trust. Now, as believers, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to love those who are, at present, enemies of the Gospel.
- The power to forgive: We believe that the power to give is restored to the broken world through the power to forgive, purchased in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Thus, we as believers are called to extend this forgiveness to the broken world, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in celebration of the mercy that triumphs over judgment in the second coming of Jesus.
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral
John Wesley is known for his understanding of what we now call the Wesleyan quadrilateral, a comprehensive and faithful means to be a faithful believer. Namely, there are four sources for a genuinely biblical faith:
Scripture → tradition → reason → experience.
This means Scripture – defined in the 35 books of the Hebrew Bible (Tenakh) and 27 books of the New Testament – on their own exegetical terms equal the completely trustworthy, revealed and sufficient written Word of God. On this basis, we affirm and support all church traditions which are consistent with Scripture, and set aside those that are not. Thereafter, reason and intellectual rigor are received as Yahweh Elohim’s gifts, and as intrinsic to a biblical worldview to begin with. Finally, the purpose of biblical faith is to experience the love of Yahweh Elohim. With Scripture and sound church traditions in place, reason and experience flourish.
In Julie’s book, she uses much logical reasoning, enjoys thinking and has a good mind. However, the question must be asked: What is her starting point? A person can be very logical, and very reasonable, but if the starting point is in error, on any given question, so too will be the conclusion. As well, much of Julie’s feelings, or experiences, prove to be powerfully interpretive for how she approaches the Bible. This is dangerous, for it helps set up the opposite of the Wesleyan quadrilateral:
Experience → reason → tradition → Scripture.
Such a reversal order is idolatry, and idolatry can be as explicit as goddess worship or pantheism, or as subtle as a wrong order of priorities. The most perversely successful idolatries worship something “good” instead of the one true Creator who made it good to begin with. Experience is good, but it is not the one true Creator. Reason is good, but if untethered from the Creator who made the mind, it turns ultimately to evil. Tradition is good, but if it supplants Scripture, it becomes an idol. Even the Bible can be reduced to an idol. We worship Yahweh Elohim who inspired the Bible, not the book itself as an icon. The Bible is meant to lead us to this true worship. As well, many people who fall into “bibliolatry” in fact are not worshiping what the Bible actually says, but are worshiping some human interpretation of it, some experience, some reasoning, some tradition.
The Definition of Hell
Julie places experience first in her undefined and visceral reaction to the English word “hell.” It is in her book title, and it is the word and concept to which she objects consistently. Yet she never defines it. Rather, the book starts with her daughter’s uneasiness with the concept of hell as taught in their church upbringing, later Julie embraces the same, and finally she arrives at a point of declaring “there is no hell!” (p. 17). Julie starts with an English word, and then looks backward into the subject via interlinear Bibles. On page 15, in Chapter One, she states: “The Bible mentions hell repeatedly, doesn’t it?” That is her starting point – an English concept. Instead, we should start with Hebrew and Greek words for judgment and its consequences, and then across the centuries to see what appropriate English words should be used.
“Hell” as a word originates in the proto-Germanic halja dating to the fifth century A.D. – for “one who covers up or hides something.” By the eighth century, in Old English, the word was hel or helle, signifying a dark nether world of the dead. Note how the darkness of covering something over migrates to a destination of darkness – yet without the literal fires of hell’s popular imagination. Those imaginations are what Julie reacts against.
An Exercise in Interpretation
Let’s walk through Julie’s book, and address a definitive sampling of important issues as they arise. I will then make my affirmation and critiques rooted in the interpretive framework of Only Genesis (to be published in book form in 2013 as Genesis and the Power of True Assumptions) and The Six Pillars of Biblical Power (already published), and with reference to my addenda.
In her introduction, Setting the Stage, Julie says “I was born to ask questions” (p. 3) Excellent. But then her writing then includes the petty and reactive by making analogies to the stereotypes of Jim Jones and Hare Krishna : “… but please keep reading and give me a fair chance to build my case. I’m not asking you to go to South America to drink Kool-Aid, or to wear a toga and sell flowers at the airport …” (p. 4). Why do this? This is reactive and not consonant with asking good questions, and does not serve a proactive argument as to the nature of the Bible on the question at hand.
In Chapter One, Julie begins by raising questions about the inclusive love of God, as she does often, and throughout the book she often quotes lists of Scripture verses. The weakness here is that the Bible is not written in verses, or even chapters. Those are helpful later additions to locate a various clause or sentence. But any quoted verse is part of a much larger context, and to string them together as stand-alone units is not helpful. Likewise, Julie addresses elements of church history, theological debates and interpretive history, but again without knowing the larger contexts. My focus here is biblical, and I will only touch these elements as needful to illustrate biblical reality.
In Chapter Two, Julie hits the ethical core with her daughter’s concerns as raised in missions work: “She couldn’t accept the seeming contradiction of God’s character” and “injustice” that billions of people would be eternally punished because they had no knowledge of Jesus (p. 17).
- In the entire Bible, no one is ever judged for what they do not know. And in the end, we will gain what and whom we have loved. See the first addendum, where this most exquisite form of undeniable justice is found, drawing in particular from Ezekiel 23.
On page 22, Julie demonstrates a monstrous interpretive mistake and in the process, defames the Bible:
“Ironically, what initially encouraged me that we were not getting off base in discovering so many translation errors and at all times even suspecting foul play or agenda was a verse I happened upon in Jeremiah 8:7-9: ‘But my people do not know the ordinance of the LORD. How can you say, “We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us”? But behold, the lying lips of the scribes have made it into a lie. The wise men are put to shame, they are dismayed and caught; Behold, they have rejected the word of the LORD, and what kind of wisdom do they have?’ ” (italics added by Julie).
She then gives her diagnosis: “Right there, Jeremiah confirmed that the scribes had inserted lies into the Old Testament writings, many centuries before a Bible was ever published or canonized.”
This is not true. The scribes here were not writing the Hebrew Bible, but they were misrepresenting the Law of Moses for their own purposes, for their own lies. They were false prophets, and Jeremiah was exposing them. Does Julie know the context of Jeremiah as the final prophet in Jerusalem before its Babylonian exile in 586 B.C.? Does she know the long tussle he had with false prophets that embraced or turned a blind eye to the pagan practices of sorcery, sacred prostitution and child sacrifice that was ripping Judah apart at that time? Has she even read Jeremiah 7-8 for a little context, as opposed to proof-texting a verse or two out of context?
- Here is the danger: Julie is engaging in eisegesis – where a presupposition, a foreign idea, is entered into the text. This is the opposite of exegesis where the original meaning of the text is in view, along with the hard linguistic and cultural work needed. Eisegesis reflects the opposite of the Wesleyan quadrilateral, where subjective experience trumps reason, sound tradition and Scripture. A form of idolatry. More dangerously, as Julie questions the trustworthiness of the Bible at one or any point, while citing it as true so many other times, she has no firm basis for her beliefs. Subjective opinions have trumped.
On p. 23, Julie compounds this error and she asserts that “somewhere along the line” it is “not a stretch to imagine that ‘stuff happened’ ” leading to serious translation mistakes. Where is the evidence in point concerning the Jeremiah text? Julie makes a broad sweep generalization without factual basis, and applies it to two verses.
On p. 25 Julie lists a series of questions, and they are all sound, but also rooted in certain presuppositions of a slice of the American church. They are all proactively addressed in the first addendum.
On pp. 27-28, Julie says: “If you look into it, Jesus never even spoke to the crowds about ‘hell’ (that we read about), only privately and in smaller contexts to His disciples and the Pharisees – religious people – and only, at the most, on three or four unique occasions.” Yes – the most searing passages on final judgment given by Jesus, and indeed in the whole Bible, are addressed to self-appointed elitists and the willfully disobedient who in fact love the darkness instead of the light (see John 3:17-21). It is an ethical issue.
But then Julie reaches beyond sound reason when she states on p. 30: “Did you know that if Evangelical America just put their church building funds toward feeding the poor that they could drastically reduce, if not eradicate, world hunger?” Nonsense. First, without church buildings, the church would be seriously handicapped in organizational efforts needed to minister to the world at many fronts. Second, this is not economically sound, where it is not a mathematical quid pro quo of wealth transference, but healthy relationships rooted in the family unit defining honest government (the Greek word for economics is oikonomos, referring to the household, the family unit). The chosen absence of the biological father and corrupt government is the overwhelming reality of poverty worldwide. To add one component to a statement John Wesley once said, the power of sound economics is when we “earn all we can, save all we can, employ all we can (or invest all we can), and give away all we can.” Charity needs prior production rooted in biblical ethics. Poverty and hunger need the prophetic presence of the church in undergirding faithful marriage of man and woman, and parenthood, then in challenging the idolatry of “big daddy” government.
On pp. 33-34, Julie speaks of the Good News (euangelion) of the Gospel – amen. She raises good questions about motivation v. manipulation – amen. This I address at the interpretive level in the first addendum.
But then on p. 35, Julie steps into it again. She cites the MLT, her own definition of a “More Literal Translation” from her use of interlinear Bibles – again, without any knowledge of the koine Greek or the art of translation. Subjective, experiential, eisegetical. And what it “literal” versus “literalistic” and how can Julie say she is doing a “translation”? MLT is Julie’s invention, not a translation. She says that God is “furnishing belief to all” in the context of saying there is no hell. The actual Greek in use could be “determine faith” or “has given proof,” but Julie chooses her language not in the sense of the balance between sovereignty and choice (which vv. 26-27 in Acts 17 sets out beautifully), but in the sense of an imposed “belief” that erases the question of hell. Her “translation” could actually be seen as a new twist on hyper-Calvinism, a “single-predestination” as opposed to a “double-predestination,” where in both cases the human will is ruled over by a supreme deity for whom fate is reality, and not the gift of informed choice.
Of critical importance on p. 40 (the beginning of Chapter Five) is where Julie says that Genesis should be the obvious first place to find the doctrine of hell if such a doctrine exists, but it is not there. On the back book cover, she states it this way: “Why does He fail to mention hell in Genesis as the price for sin?” Julie quotes Genesis 2:16-17, and I have already translated it in my earlier section on the art of translation. Julie is wrong here when she says that the “you will surely die” in Genesis 2:17 (from an English translation) means: “It just says they will die, as in stop breathing, or kick the bucket.” This is a facile bit of eisegesis with trite language. The reality of moth tamuth (“in dying you will continually die”), rooted in the infinitive absolute and imperfect tenses, gives a far more dynamic reality – a quality that never changes and never ends. Adam and Eve did not physically “kick the bucket” when they ate the forbidden fruit. Rather, the active process of death entered in, so Adam’s lifespan was shortened from forever to 930 years. And then, human life spans continually shortened from there as sin multiplied in its affects on the environment and sinful choices. The never ending reality of death, being never ending, does not therefore end with Adam’s physical death or the physical death of any person. Death separates us from the living Creator, whether before or after the grave. In parallel contrast, the tree of life is a never ending process. It is a matter of which we ultimately choose when we stand before the Lord on the final day.
- As further explained in both addenda, this definition of a death that never stops dying is the interpretive foundation for all biblical judgment. The translation of “hell” for the Hebrew ge’hinnom and the Greek cognate via the Septuagint (LXX), gehenna, is just one of many metaphors describing judgment. But the defining lynchpin is not from an English translation. Julie’s argument that hell, in the sense of a final self-chosen judgment, does not exist, goes in the face of the grammar of Genesis 2:17.
In the balance of Chapter Five, Julie raises many interesting questions, either addressed in my two addenda, or secondary matters easy to understand once the foundational interpretive realities of the Bible on its own terms are understood.
In Chapter Six, Julie talks about “assumptions I grew up with” (p. 51). Okay, but such experiences need to be interpreted by the Bible first. She then delves into some church history (okay), but history or tradition is always subject to the Scripture. On p. 56, Julie then lists “the astonishing incongruency” of how many times “hell” appears in 14 chosen English translations, from 56 down to zero. Again, this is backward. The English translation choices do not modify the Hebrew and Greek, and as I have pointed out, “hell” is not the issue, but rather a full-bodied grasp of all the biblical language and metaphors for judgment.
In Chapter Seven, the question of God or Satan “winning” is facile. As I address in the first addendum, the will of the Lord is to give us freedom whether or not to accept his will – feast or die. If we have no choice but to enter eternal life, then we are slaves and the Creator is reduced to being a finite pagan god who is a fatalistic puppet master. Only Yahweh Elohim is sovereign enough to give us real freedom. And in the second addendum I address the question of whether we can be persuaded after death to change our minds. Here is the question – if the Father, Son and Holy Spirit cannot persuade us in this lifetime, what changes after death? Just time? This is a cop out, just as macroevolutionists use enough time, theoretically, to explain away the Creator and undergird their unprovable theory. Too, if persuasion happens after death, has the Lord withheld an extra persuasive technique he did not use in this lifetime? How would this reflect on his nature?
In this chapter, Julie again steps into dangerous territory, approvingly quoting scholar Bart Ehrmann, who has discarded trust in the Bible – due principally to ethical reasons:
“ ‘There came a time when I left the faith. This was not because of what I learned through historical criticism, but because I could no longer reconcile my faith in God with the state of the world that I saw around me. There is so much senseless pain and misery in the world that I came to find it impossible to believe there is a good and loving God who is in control, despite my knowing all the standard rejoiners (sic in Julie’s quote at least) that people give.’ ”
- Ehrmann places subjective experience first, not exegesis of the text. He says he has heard all the rejoinders, but along with Julie, is there any grasp of creation, sin and redemption? Pagan texts and secular constructs only know unending broken trust and suffering – no idea of a good order of creation and redemption. Suffering is senseless in pagan religion and secular/atheistic thought. It is entirely understood, and answered, in the biblical text. Also, what does “in control” mean? What is the definition of power? Does Ehrmann want a “control” over our lives that vacuums up freedom, as with pagan deities? When I was at Harvard, I saw firsthand how one of the world’s leading skeptical theological scholars, Dr. Krister Stendahl, believed in “higher criticism,” that is, the Graf-Welhausen hypothesis, or Documentary hypothesis. Here the Bible is viewed as the inchoate composite of four competing often ego-driven sources. Yet too, Stendahl stated that if the Bible holds together, it is because “it is the story of creation and the repair of a broken creation.”
In this chapter, Julie also speaks of whether God is angry forever, death being swallowed up and the language of fire. These are secondary and real issues, addressed in the interpretive work in both addenda.
In Chapters Eight through Ten, pp. 73 ff, Julie raises many good questions in the experiential mode. Yet, on p. 100, she states: “I now know that the ultimate atonement for sin is not throwing someone away, or damning them to everlasting punishment, but providing a way for that person to repair damages they’ve caused and to restore their relationships between God and their fellow man.” She says this is not “works-based salvation,” making a novel distinction that people are only “saved from death,” and thereafter, they somehow can make things right. Is purgatory in view? Does Julie believe salvation is only from, and not also for? This is a dangerous idea, for salvation restores us to the proactive promises of the good order of creation, and is not bifurcated. Also here, Julie addresses lex talionis – but she is in way over her head. A cognate subject (click here for an example).
Beginning in Chapter Eleven, Julie rehashes the issues of “only one chance?” She also raises the question of whether God could have prevented sin, and the meaning of “all” addressed in both addenda below. Why evangelize? “Love supreme” is also addressed, not in an overall organized structure to her argument, but as the book begins to increasingly pop in issues according to the sentiment of the writing moment.
In the middle of this, Julie states: “I love looking for common themes or threads because, at closer inspection, the Bible is really one big interwoven Masterpiece” (p. 120).
- Good. This reality is located in understanding the interpretive power of creation, sin and redemption, Only Genesis and the six pillars of biblical power… But too, if Julie believes this, why embrace the idea that the biblical text contains errors?
In Chapter Twelve, Julie again traces some church history, and okay, but Scripture defines all.
In Chapter Thirteen, Julie again embraces steps into it again, in seeking to teach about “Hebrew ABCs.” She gleans some interesting data, but only in piecemeal ability in English. So when she says there is no reference to eternity in Hebrew, she is mistaken. This is a classic example of not knowing Hebrew. For example, ‘olam, the main word in the Hebrew for “forever” is not a word of strictly linear quality – a human grasp of time without end, as it were. It aims for that which is greater than space, time and number. In its 300 or so uses in the Hebrew Bible, it touches on the remote past as well as the distant future, and with certain prepositional uses in the Hebrew Bible, it means unlimited, incalculable, continuance, eternity. It is likely rooted in the word ‘alam, which means something “hidden” from human comprehension. In the prior Ugaritic, of which Hebrew is a cognate, the word ‘lm means “eternity.” In Ecclesiastes 3:11, it states: “He has also set eternity (‘olam) in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” The last three words here would be literally “upon the days.” Yahweh Elohim is greater than space, time and number, as his name indicates, Adam and Eve were not created to die (but to live forever, that is), and the language of ‘olam, along with other constructions in the Hebrew, aim beyond the limits of human understanding to relate to Yahweh Elohim. In the Greek, the word is aion, which I look at in the second addendum. Does not Julie believe in eternal life? So if she is convinced there is no Hebrew reference to eternity, where does the concept enter in, what is the nature of life and death in Genesis 2, and how then can she believe in eternal life but not eternal death?
In Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen Julie continues her errors, depending on interlinears and her perspective within the English language.
In Chapter Sixteen, Julie addresses the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, issues of the millennial kingdom, and poses a question about Paul’s willingness to be accursed for the sake of his fellow Jews, apart from understanding the purpose and nature of hyperbole (used very often by Jesus). This covenantal treatment is a secondary matter to her defining question about hell. In Chapter Seventeen, Julie addressed the harvests of the Hebrew festival seasons, but this again is secondary material to the question at hand. It is as though she is glad to impart her (new?) understandings of many and interesting issues, but without the textual ability to relate them to a cohesive whole, and keep a simple focus on her main question.
In Chapter Eighteen, Julie poses the excellent question: “Necessary Evil?” This I address in the first addendum at the interpretive reality.
In Chapter Nineteen, Julie states in its title, “What God Wants, God Gets.” Okay, but what is power, how does he define and use it, and does he force his way? This topic is addressed in the first addendum, including her issues of free will. The matter of the potter and the clay is fully addressed in my forthcoming book, Genesis and the Power of True Assumptions, and in a nutshell, the biblical use of the metaphor does not mitigate human freedom.
In Chapter Twenty, Julie addresses “Lazarus and the Rich Man,” a topic I also address in the second addendum.
In Chapter Twenty-One, Julie purports to redefine the soul. This is at best a reactionary position relative to its misuse, and she does come up with the right understanding that nephesh and psuche, the Hebrew and Greek terms for soul, or personhood, is what we are, now what we have. So she doesn’t redefine it (that would be a bit of hubris), but she rediscovers it. I wrote a scholarly article in 1987 on Nephesh and the Status of the Unborn, probing far deeper into its etymology and usage than Julie is able to do. And in my forthcoming book, Genesis and the Power of True Assumptions, I look at its depth for a wider readership. There is no doctrine of salvation in the biblical order of creation, for the need has not yet arrived. Salvation restores us to the original nature and trajectory of nephesh, which refers to the “needfulness” of the good body being dependent on the breath of Yahweh Elohim in creation, and the sustaining breath of Yahweh in the ecosphere. Julie here also touches on Plato and the Jews – this is an enormously huge and defining topic, but way beyond the scope of Julie’s passing reference.
Chapter Twenty-Two is Julie’s formal conclusion before many afterthoughts, experientially rooted in a story. In Section Four, Julie then addresses a series of addenda, first with “The Scriptures: For Scholars or Common People.” This I started with. She then gives “Simple Steps for Identifying Mistranslations,” again rooted in the same folly, comparing English translations side-by-side as though that gives any understanding to the Hebrew, Greek, and nature of translation. Julie then continues with “Common Misunderstandings of Scripture” in the same vein, and then with a section on “You’ve Got Questions for Me?” Here the book concludes its long descent into potpourri feelings about various subjects, closely or distantly related to the central question at hand. A tedium sets inand continues to its conclusion with a section on “Talking Points,” largely with a list of proof texts, a section on “Verses Proclaiming God Will Save All,” and finally, “Further Reading and Study.”
Julie’s language throughout, her organization of thought, and her final tedium of descent into catch-all potpourri demonstrates to me that she concludes without being fully convinced of her own grasp of the subject matter, of being acutely aware of her lack of (desired) scholarly ability. Julie comes across as a believing Christian, but misguided. The question is whether she can cite any of my perspectives as being unbiblical. And we can take the conversation from there.
Addendum One (excerpted from Chapter Three of The Six Pillars of Biblical Power)
Of Prime Importance
The most important verb in the Bible is “to eat,” at least when it comes to defining human nature. This metaphor is also the basis for the power of informed choice, namely the idea that freedom is “an unlimited menu of good choices” defined in Genesis 2. This menu is protected when we do not eat poison and die. All things being equal, the real question is: Who does not enjoy eating – sharing a good feast with family and friends? I have asked this of many churches, and when they agree, I turn to the pastor and say, “Your church is theologically unified.” I have asked this of various pagan and secular audiences, and they too agree.
Or to take it from another angle, it is fun to speak to a college audience with many skeptics present, and announce my subject matter: “Tonight I will be addressing the subjects of food, drink and sex.” Do you think the students are interested? I continue: “Food without gluttony, drink without drunkenness, and sex within marriage – one man, one woman, one lifetime.” All true freedom has proper boundaries. Without such boundaries, licentiousness and chaos are the inevitable result, to the destruction of freedom.
Pagans at Yale
In November 1995, Margot Adler was my guest at a Mars Hill Forum at Yale University. Margot is a reporter for National Public Radio (NPR) and widely read practitioner of Wiccan religion (in her book Drawing Down the Moon). She makes a direct challenge to the “Judeo-Christian” tradition as being exploitative and against human freedom in many ways, and celebrates instead a pagan definition of freedom – freedom from sin and guilt, “religion without the middleman.” She also relays the Wiccan creed: “An ye harm none, do what ye will.” Yet during and after the forum itself, Margot expressly thanked me for my definition of the biblical nature of human freedom, the power of informed choice.
Most poignant was the testimony of a woman student. She stood up in the audience and said my biblical definition of freedom was the most beautiful she had ever heard, and then publicly lamented how she had never heard it when growing up in the church. After the forum, she described to me how she worshiped “the goddess” and subscribed to a pantheistic “earth-based religion” that gave her a sense of tranquility in the midst of nature, among a circle of like-minded women friends. She then asked, “Have you ever preached this in churches? Do you speak to college students about this? You should.”
Also in 1995, I was meeting at the headquarters of Dr. Paul Kurtz’s secular humanist organization outside Buffalo. I joined Paul for a free-flowing conversation, along with Tim Madigan, then editor of Free Inquiry, and Dr. Gordon Stein, editor ofthe Encyclopedia of Unbelief. I had addressed prior Mars Hill Forums with both Paul and Gordon. In the conversation, Tim affirmed all the biblical ethics of which I spoke, then said, “But John, aren’t you just a nice guy who is adding these ethics to the Bible to make it more palatable?” I assured him, that while I appreciate being called a nice guy, no, I was not adding them to the Bible – I was deriving them from the Bible on its own terms.
As I gave definition to the power of informed choice, rooted in Genesis 2, Gordon then challenged me. “John,” he said, “I am sure I can find scholars at Harvard or elsewhere who will disagree with your definition of freedom in Genesis.” I answered, “Gordon, you can find many scholars at Harvard or elsewhere who will disagree with the trust I place in the Bible as God’s inspired Word. But you cannot find one scholar who can give evidence that I have misrepresented what Genesis 2 says on its own terms, about how it defines freedom.” Gordon was an avowed atheist, but he loved this definition of freedom.
The Golden Rule
In the field of comparative religions, it is often noted that most world religions have some expression of the Golden Rule. But do they?
The Golden Rule is taken from Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
Jesus also framed the Golden Rule during Passion Week:
“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind [and with all your strength].’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40; brackets from [Mark 12:30]; cf. Luke 10:27).
We are to give to others as God has given to us, as the apostle John reiterates in his first epistle when he says that we love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). And we are to live out the Golden Rule in tangible reality, as Jesus taught in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), where he defined the neighbor whom we are to love – even our enemy. In other words, the Golden Rule is based on the power to give, and it equals the centrality of the Law of Moses that Jesus came to fulfill.
But note how it is expressed positively: we love God as he loves us, thus we are to initiate the act of giving to others. “Do to others …” Or we can translate it, “Treat others as you would have them treat you.”
In contrast, other religions frame it negatively: Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you. This is known as the “silver rule,” where a reactive negation of the negative is the highest view of how to pursue the positive. It is rooted in a position of an original freedom not given or known. In Hinduism it is: “This is the sum of duty: Do nothing unto others which would cause pain if done to you.” In Confucianism it is: “Is there one word that will keep us on the path to the end of our days? Yes, Reciprocity. What you do not wish yourself, do not unto others.” In Buddhism it is: “Do not harm, but stop harm.” Even a post-biblical Judaism falls into a negative construct: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. That is the entire law; all the rest is commentary.” (Too, has a post-biblical Christianity fallen prey to the same?) Islam is claimed as an exception to this, where it states: “None of you has faith unless he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” The problem here is that “his brother” has historically been understood to refer uniquely or principally to a fellow Muslim, not an outsider, especially an “infidel.” And as we saw above in Margot Adler’s Wiccan ethic, which is historically much more recent, “An ye harm none, do what ye will.”
Thus, the highest concept of freedom outside of biblical foundations is negative – freedom from violation. This ethic says that if you do not violate others, they will (hopefully) not violate you. This is admirable, for who wants to be violated? We all seek salvation from violation. But is it a salvation from, or a salvation to? Without the proactive definition of human freedom found in the biblical order of creation, the highest hope is a negative one. Or as the pathos of Janis Joplin’s 1970 dirge in Me and Bobby McGee puts it: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, Nothing, that’s all Bobby left me…” A negative freedom satisfies no one ultimately.
The First Words in Human History
In chapter 1, we noted the first words in history, when God created the universe and said, “Let there be light.” These words reflect God’s sovereign power, and that power is the power to give, leading to the power to live in the light, all of which reflects his freedom to do the good. Therefore, on the Bible’s own terms, the sovereignty ofGod’s nature is the starting point for all true doctrine, and the root for our human story.
There is nothing that precedes God’s sovereignty, for apart from his sovereignty nothing else could exist. This means that the sovereign God provides human freedom, and the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our freedom is the most important relationship in all Scripture and life.
Thus, sovereignty equals the biblical starting point for describing God’s nature, and freedom equals the biblical starting point for describing human nature.
The text of Genesis 2:16-17 gives us the first recorded words of Yahweh to man:
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 of it you will surely die.”
These are the words of human freedom, the power of informed choice. Freedom begins with a command that is also a statement of fact: “You are free…” Or in other words, the language of Yahweh’s commandments is the language of freedom. It begins with the sovereign God whose will, from the beginning, is for us to be free.
An Unlimited Menu of Good Choices
This command, “You are free to eat,” can be better grasped by knowing the power of the Hebrew idiom in use. The Hebrew words akol tokel, are robustly translated, “In feasting you will continually feast.” The grammatical idea is like an active particle, with the sequential use of the infinitive and imperfect tenses for “eat,” a feast that never stops feasting. It is the idea of an unlimited menu of good choices – not only in terms of food options in the Garden of Eden, but also in the application of this metaphor to all moral and aesthetic choices in life.
This language of eating and feasting, with implicit drink, defines the rest of the Bible. Old Testament worship revolves around the feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost, the Day of Atonement (yom kippur), Tabernacles, Sacred Assembly and Purim. Isaiah, in a messianic prophecy, gave the invitation to come, eat and drink without cost. Jesus celebrated the wedding supper at Cana, gave the invitation to the wedding supper of the Lamb, prophesied that he would again drink wine in the kingdom of heaven, instituted the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, ate fish as proof of his resurrection body, and the Holy Spirit beckons us to the wedding supper of the Lamb in Revelation as well. The final act of redemption, in the last chapter of Revelation, is the provision for the river of the water of life (22:1) and the tree of life (22:2). In Jesus’ final words, he invites us to partake of the tree of life (22:14), and after the Spirit gives his final invitation of “Come!” (to the banquet), the apostle John adds, “Whoever is thirsty let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (22:17).
Feasting permeates Scripture from beginning to end; it is the metaphor of human freedom (akol tokel). This is the freedom to feast from an unlimited menu of good choices – to satisfy our eagerness, hunger and thirst for life (the deepest significance of nephesh). Or to sum it up theologically: “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8).
But access to this feast requires a moral understanding of the freedom to choose between good and evil, and the feast of Genesis 2:16 carried with it the caveat, boundaries and structures for the power of informed choice. All humanity knows protective boundaries in daily life, from gravity to a highway median strip to a thousand other examples.
In Genesis 2:17 we see the “but.” The unlimited menu of good choices had a restriction that is in reality a boundary of protection. Namely, freedom cannot exist without boundaries. Thus, Yahweh defined the power of informed choice. The protection of an unlimited menu of good choices requires the prohibition of a singular evil choice:
“But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”
To understand the trees of Genesis 2:15-17, we must return to Genesis 2:9:
And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
This phrase, “the knowledge of good and evil,” referred to Adam’s given authority on the one hand, and possibly the use of a Hebrew idiom, on the other. Adam and Eve were created to rule over the creation, under God, and thus in accordance with his definitions of good and evil. To eat of the forbidden fruit was for man and woman to say a) God is not good, that he must be withholding something good from us in the prohibition, that is to say, calling God evil; b) thus, to rationalize the will to disobey God; c) to redefine good and evil; and d) thus, to lift ourselves up to the level of God, if not actually seeking to transcend him.
To challenge God’s goodness is the basic nature of unbelief. In the letter to the Hebrews, the writer speaks of faith as the quality of believing that God rewards those who earnestly seek him (see 11:1-6). God is good and worthy of invested faith.
Being limited within the good boundaries of time, space and number, how can we think we can redefine God’s terms and realities, and live in his universe? To eat the forbidden fruit was to redefine good and evil over and against God. Instead, man was to judge good and evil in the universe congruent with God’s definition of terms, recognizing the forbidden fruit as a test and a boundary.
Another factor is a Hebrew idiom for that which is comprehensive. Namely, the polar opposites of “good and evil” can refer literally to the knowledge of everything. Everything there is to know lies in the spectrum between good and evil. The polar opposites of beginning and end are likewise comprehensive in defining time (see Isaiah 44:6; 48:12; Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:16). The polar opposites of height and depth, of east and west, are likewise comprehensive in defining space (Psalm 103:11-12).
Therefore, “the knowledge of good and evil” here is a concept that equals a whole unit. It is knowledge that only God as the uncreated Creator can possess. As well, only God can know the totality of intrinsic evil without being tempted or polluted by it. Evil is ethically the absence of God’s presence, the absence of true ethics, which means the absence of true relationships. To know good and evil is to define it, in the sense of this Hebrew idiom – something only God can do. Adam and Eve were called to judge between good and evil, but based on God’s true definitions. People who seek to define good and evil differently than God does, have become their own gods
Accordingly, as a creature made in God’s image, there was nothing “good” withheld from Adam, as the akol tokel idiom of positive freedom already established. He had been given the “tree of life” to eat from, a tree which is the source for eternal life. Metabolically, it must have contributed to the eternal renewal of all the cells in our bodies. Alongside that tree is the forbidden fruit – forbidden if we wish to live. Metabolically, it must have assaulted the renewal of our bodily cells. Then morally, relationally, to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil equals an attempt to digest what we cannot, as if we who are limited by space, time and number, can grasp or wrap ourselves around eternity. We will explode first.
The choice between good and evil is powerfully portrayed by a parallelism in vv. 16 and 17. The phrase “you will surely die” is likewise better grasped by the power of the idiom in place. The Hebrew here reads moth tamuth, which literally means, “in dying you will continually die.” It is the exact parallel of akol tokel in terms of grammatical construct (but with opposite moral nature), with the sequential use of the infinitive and imperfect tenses for “die,” carrying with it the force of an active participle – always dying, yet to die.
Thus, if we partake in the eternal quality of death, which the forbidden fruit introduces, we will continually experience the taste of death. This is the biblical root for the language and metaphors of hell – a chosen death that never stops dying. What this also means is that the definition of death is principally theological in nature, and not just in reference to the physical termination of life. Theological death is the brokenness of relationship with God and one another. It is alienation from Yahweh’s presence. Adam thus “died,” only to continue “dying.” Adam and Eve had been given the tree of life to eat from continually, so as to live forever. Once they partook of the fruit of death, this alienation from God’s full presence removed from their bodies the regenerative qualities of the tree of life, so they began to die. Adam’s physical life span was shortened from forever to 930 years, and the increase in sin’s impact upon the body over the subsequent millennia has brought the average life span to well under 100 years.
This contrast of choices in Genesis 2:16-17 is marked, and the reader who knows the Hebrew would pick it up immediately:
in feasting you will continually feast, or in dying you will continually die.
Another way of putting it is:
an unlimited menu of good choices, or a limited menu of only death.
With parallel idioms in place, signaling opposite choices, the power of informed choice is defined:
feast or die.
The command to feast was God’s will, but the warning against dying carried with it a power to disobey that will. The very language of “will,” or “willpower,” connotes the exercise of choice. God’s choice is that we live forever, but he does not force it on us.
The Origin of Evil
But why would a loving God permit evil to happen? Outside the biblical worldview, the best attempts to understand the origin of evil are to assume it has always been there, in a dualistic tension and codependency with the good. And therefore the highest aspirations of dualistic religions can rarely see past a negative view of freedom – freedom from violation – which ultimately is an escape from suffering into the “nothingness” of a Hindu eternal destiny or similar concept.
This negative view of freedom was the highest concept of freedom imaginable to cultures that knew nothing of creation, sin and redemption. And it is in knowing these biblical doctrines that we find the key to knowing the origin of evil, for evil is a reversal of the order of creation. The simplicity of evil’s origin may appear to some as a scandal; namely, the origin of evil lies in the goodness of God. (This is an ethical statement, prior to the concern about Satan’s appearance, his nature and origin.) Evil is a parasite, just as darkness is to light.
Therefore, true goodness involves the permission to choose evil, with the power of informed choice being made available by God. Evil does not allow the permission to choose the good.
Evil is a choice, and God’s goodness necessarily allows this choice because goodness is not forced. God’s perfect will, and his loving, giving and good nature, is never diminished by this freedom that is given. The power of informed choice stands above reproach in every measure, and any human attempt to equal or surpass this definition of justice only adds further suffering. Akol tokel or moth tamuth. Feast or die – the choice is ours as the gift of the good and sovereign God.
Is this a scandal to say that the origin of evil comes as a direct result of the goodness of God? Only to those who have compromised the sovereignty and goodness of God.
Hell is an Object of God’s Love
Another way of putting this is by interpolating the love of God in John 3:16 into the text of Genesis 2:16. In doing so, we come up with the following verse in the RSSV (the “Rankin Sub-Standard Version”):
“For God so loved the world, that he gave each one of us the freedom to go to hell, if that is damn well what we want to do.”
Now, I use the word “damn” with theological precision – a curse people choose.
Only God can get away with giving this radical human freedom. Only God loves us enough to let us choose whether or not to accept his love. This is God’s nature, the nature of the power to give, which uniquely provides a level playing field to choose between good and evil.
The nature of Satan is the power to take and destroy, and therefore, he is in no frame of mind to give us freedom to say no to evil, he has no interest in a level playing field. No pagan religion or secular construct allows a level playing field where good and evil are honestly defined and presented side by side, for they have no definitions of an original goodness. Thus the best they can offer is a hope to overcome evil and distrust, but without any means. Thus there is no informed choice, only one unhappy non-option.
God does not force his love on us, for that would deny his very goodness. Goodness is the power to give, and to be forced into accepting God’s love is an oxymoron. Love is a gift, and human nature is predicated on the power to give. To be forced to do good would be evil. Or to be more graphic, forced love equals rape. For God to force his love on us would be evil, it would be pagan – it would be the surrender of his sovereignty, it would be a dualistic condescension to the devil’s ethics. Here is the sequence:
Goodness equals the power to give;
Evil equals the power to take; thus
Goodness cannot be forced – it can only be a gift received by informed choice.
Thus, goodness can never be forced, and when it is attempted, the good that was envisioned turns into evil. By the same token, evil can never act like a gift – it is always something that is deceptive and/or impositional. Another way of putting it is to say that, in the final analysis, love is a choice that cannot be faked, and hatred is a choice than cannot be hidden.
The nature of human freedom comes from God’s nature. God is free, and as image-bearers of God, we are made to be free. But what is freedom? It is the power to do the good. Is God free to do evil? No. To do evil is to be a slave to it, and God is a slave to no thing. And the Creator, if infected by any destruction, could not sustain the universe. To do the good is to be free. But since we are finite, we must make the choice between good and evil, with both realities possible.
As image-bearers of God, if we were forced to accept God’s will, the qualities of responsibility (“ability to respond”) and creativity would be moot – we would be no more than animals or puppets. Love as a gift calls us to respond, and response involves the exercise of choice. Yahweh has taken the cosmic risk, that for the sake of those who choose “yes” to his love, there will be those who choose “no.” The giving of love always involves risk in this sense of the word – the risk that our desire for others to receive our love might be rejected. In 1 Timothy 2:4, Paul says God desires all people to be saved, and in 2 Peter 3:9, Peter says that God wants nobody to perish, yet Scripture also says that not all people will be saved. The dynamics of freedom.
What therefore is God’s perfect will? Simply, I understand that God’s will, consistent with his nature in the power to give, is to give us the opportunity to choose whether or not to accept his will.
One way of illustrating this is to say that hell is an object of God’s love. Those who choose hell are those who actually accept God’s loving provision not to have his love shoved down their throats. When the Jewish context of Jesus’ language of hell is examined, we see that those who choose hell are uniquely a (limited) class of people who enjoy causing injury to others. They are those who hate mercy for themselves (out of their pride) and mercy for others (out of an impositional attitude that is rooted in their pride).
I think of its moral nature in these terms. Most of us as adults know the reality of anger and bitterness. Bitterness is rooted in “trust betrayed,” and if it is allowed to grow, it deadens the human spirit toward love and friendship. If this downward cycle of sin’s vortex is not arrested and reversed through repentance and forgiveness, then the human soul becomes more perversely self-justified in its anger and bitterness. Ultimately, this bitterness is expressed toward God. People with such a hardened attitude toward God would rather stew in their juices than become humble in his presence. They (perversely) enjoy bitterness more than humility. We all know of people who would rather die in bitterness, than forgive someone who has betrayed them.
Though betrayed, to hold onto revenge is to play God, and to be destroyed by the moth tamuth of such folly, disobedience and lack of trust. The Bible says that vengeance is God’s alone – he will repay (see Deuteronomy 32:35; cf. Romans 12:19). He alone has the mercy and righteousness to judge all men and women fairly. And he alone has the power to forgive for those who choose mercy over judgment. Those who enjoy revenge will be given its eternal and perverse enjoyment of its unending implosion. The redeemed will forsake revenge forever. It is a question of which we yearn for – mercy that triumphs over judgment, or self-righteous judgment that trumps mercy (see James 2:12-13).
There are two ways of accomplishing revenge against someone: the “pagan way” and the so-called “sanctified way.” The pagan method is simply to push the person in front of an oncoming Mack truck. The “sanctified” method is to pray that the person will trip and fall into the path of an oncoming Mack truck. When the disciples wanted to call fire from heaven upon a Samaritan village that would not welcome Jesus, he rebuked them – no “sanctified” human revenge was allowed (Luke 9:51-56). Vengeance belongs only to God, for he alone is sovereign, and completely just and fair, consistent with the power of informed choice.
Hell is that dark and therefore colorless community (which is really no community) of people who are satisfied in the fire of hate, in unforgiveness, self-righteousness, in bitterness and in moral darkness. They have forsaken the power to give, the power to live in the light, and the power to forgive. It is that domain where music cannot exist, for the very nature of music is predicated on order and harmony, whereas human irreconcilability equals the cacophony of discordant, sharp and abusive angles.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews (see 6:4-8), and the apostle Peter (see 2:2:17-22), both address this reality as they speak of those leaders who by their own choice moved past the realm of forgiveness. The metaphor used by Jeremiah for the potter and the clay is also applicable (see 18:1-12). If we remain in the Potter’s hands, we remain moist and moldable. If we excuse ourselves from the Potter’s presence and influence, avoiding altogether or cutting short his work, we harden and crack. The more hardened we become, the more softening up we need for restoration. C.S. Lewis describes this in The Great Divorce as people who continually move away from each other, because they cannot stand friendship and the mutual trust and vulnerability it requires. There can come a point when a person becomes so far removed from God’s presence that he sears his conscience.
On Judgment Day, those who have “longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8), who have come to Jesus on his own good terms (see Matthew 11:28-30), will rejoice as they are received into God’s kingdom. Akol tokel. Those who have not loved God will detest his presence and wish to flee from it. They will get what and whom they have loved. Moth tamuth. In John 3:16-21 we saw how Jesus talked of those who loved darkness more than light because they knew their deeds were evil. Jesus came not to condemn but to save, so those who are condemned are self-condemned.
God’s love is to give us what and whom we have chosen to love. Evil people will go to hell shaking their fists in defiance of God in the ultimate perversion of holding onto a self-righteousness that loves sin and pride more than truth and reality. They will love such a defiant stand, for the true heaven would be hell to them, and hell is their actual heaven. The moral dimensions of hell are remarkable, extraordinarily just, and understood as the necessary risk of God’s love as evidenced in the power of informed choice.
This theology concerning the nature of hell is important, for the most common objection to the Gospel in our culture is “don’t shove it down my throat.” How often are people able to misinterpret the Gospel because they have not heard about the good order of creation, and the power of informed choice? Namely, they have encountered preaching that up front seeks literally “to scare the hell out of them.” That is, if we start with the condemnation of hell, absent its moral dimensions of informed choice, we pollute the good news and it is seen as bad news. The good order of creation must be first defined – so the depths of sin can be understood in contrast, not as a starting point – and then the height of redemption can be grasped. An opposite error is to speak only of the goodness of redemption without rooting it in the order of creation and reality of the fall.
In 1991 I was invited to address a group known as the Democratic and Secular Humanists (DASH) meeting at the Phillips Brooks House at Harvard. The leader introduced me as “an evangelical minister who likes to be raked over the coals by skeptics.” As part of my presentation I argued that any expression of order in the universe must come from a greater Order, and that there is no evidence in all of human knowledge for a lesser order producing a greater order – for nothing producing something.
So I asked what came before the beginning of the universe. One man said “Eternal matter.” I responded, “What then, in intellectual terms alone, is the difference between believing in eternal matter on the one hand, and an eternal God on the other? In both cases, we are accepting something greater than space, time and number, and something beyond our finite capacity to grasp.”
He paused, then said, “Theological baggage.”
As we unpacked these two words, it was clear he did not want to admit the possibility of a personal God. He feared that “believers” would then take the license to “shove religion down his throat.” In other words, his resistance to the Gospel was at the ethical level – “do not violate my person” – not at the intellectual level. The true definitions of terms concerning heaven and hell need to be known; and as well, concerning the biblical power of informed choice versus the pagan and secular ethos that allows coercion.”
The justice of these ethics is profiled in Ezekiel 23, as rooted in the prior reality of Ezekiel 16, where the prophet ministered to the Hebrew exiles in Babylon in 593ff B.C. In a parable of two adulterous sisters, representing Samaria and Jerusalem, Ezekiel portrayed their lustings after the Assyrians and their idols, instead of loving Yahweh. Then v. 9 jumps out of the text: “Therefore I handed her over to her lovers, the Assyrians, for whom she lusted.”
In other words, God hands us over to what and whom we have loved. What could be more just? God does not force us into heaven or hell. The text continues in v. 10:
“They stripped her naked, took away her sons and daughters and killed her with the sword. She became a byword among women, and punishment was inflicted on her.”
Choices have consequences. We reap what we sow, we can choose idols if we please, but God warns us of the consequences.
Those who deliberately reject the Savior will have an eternity of stewing in their juices, continually reaffirming their choices, growing more alienated, more lonely, in greater darkness and the gnashing of their teeth in self-righteousness, yet with a fire raging in their breasts – but never for an inch desiring the humility of reconciliation. They will increasingly want to slam their fists into the face of God, also into the face of one of his image-bearers, being aligned forever with the choice of the power to destroy. In this sense, heaven would be hell for the unbeliever, as hell is their chosen heaven.
We are not free to say yes to God, unless we are first free to say no. There is no commission in the Gospel to force, coerce, trick or deceive anyone into the faith. Those are the devil’s ethics. If we honor the power to give and power of informed choice for all people equally, then those who say no to it will actually be receiving a gift, and thus confirming God’s sovereign nature. They cannot then accuse God or his ambassadors of “shoving” it down their throats.
Those who hate God may shake their fists at him, but inside their souls they know they have no just cause for doing so. If there are those who receive this same freedom, and say no to the gift of saying no, which means saying yes, then the angels will rejoice (see Luke 15:7,10). In all capacities, we as servants of the Gospel will always be in the position of giving to others with no strings attached, based in the security of knowing God is sovereign and he alone judges the human heart. Accordingly, hell is an object of God’s love, and those who choose residence in hell are still loved by God, in that he loved them enough to give them such a choice.
True and False Definitions of Terms
In Genesis 2:9, the text defines the two trees in the middle of the Garden – one leads to eternal life and the other leads to eternal death. Yahweh therefore lays the basis for Adam and Eve to make their choice. This sets up a contrast of opposing ethical systems:
God’s ethics = true definition of terms = informed choice = life;
Satan’s ethics = false definition of terms = misinformed choice = death.
There are good ethics, and there are evil ethics. Telling the truth, indeed, “truth in advertising,” is the same as the power to live in the light, and it is the means for discerning the difference.
In Genesis 2:17, God told Adam that if he disobeyed and ate of the forbidden fruit, then moth tamuth, “in dying you will continually die.” In Genesis 3:1-5, we see how Satan, incarnate as the serpent, reversed the order of creation with false definition of terms, which led to misinformed choice, which led to death. In v. 4, the serpent said lo muth tamuthon, “In dying you will not continually die.”
We can note how Satan’s false definition of terms led to misinformed choice and therefore to death; in contrast to God’s true definition of terms which leads to the power of informed choice, and therefore to life. When God said there is a tree of life, and a tree of death, he spoke accurately. On this basis, people can choose life.
The Testimony of Moses, Joshua and Elijah
The gift of human freedom, the power of informed choice and, therefore, its interpretive importance in defining human nature, is strategically restated as the Bible unfolds. We have it first in the words of God to Adam, then restated in the final public words of Moses, the final public words of Joshua and, then in the shortest sermon in the Bible, delivered by Elijah in the apex of prophetic witness against Israel’s apostasy.
In Deuteronomy 30:11-20, Moses brought to a conclusion his long sermon, the final public words of his life before the Israelites entered the Promised Land. He declared the accessibility of the power of informed choice, setting before us “life and prosperity, death and destruction” (v. 15). This is the exact choice given Adam and Eve in the Garden, even now in the face of human sin – akol tokel or moth tamuth.
We do have the power to choose life, for Moses says, “Now choose life” (v. 19). But to have such power does not mean our sinful nature has the ability to achieve salvation, to “ascend into heaven” as it were; rather, that there is within our fallen humanity the remains of God’s image sufficient enough to say “help,” and whether we say “help” is a matter of the human will.
Our human spirit as touched by the Holy Spirit can respond to God. In fact, this power of informed choice was fully in place for Cain before he murdered Abel, one generation after the exile of his parents from the Garden of Eden. He could have mastered the sin “crouching at (his) door,” but instead he chose to let it come in and master him (Genesis 4:6-7). The Hebrew verb at play refers to a leopard prepared to spring on its prey, yet man and women were originally given authority over the animal kingdom. Cain chose to be mastered.
When Israel completed its conquest of Canaan, as much as they would, Joshua gave his final public address at Shechem. In Joshua 24:14-24, he reiterated the goodness of Yahweh through the Exodus, so that all Israelites had the basis for informed choice. This covenant on the plains of Shechem was the final gathering of the exodus community, and Joshua sent them off with a passionate appeal. He used a powerful form of dissuasion, requiring the Israelites to count the cost of discipleship before they said yes. Joshua was pressing them toward the freedom to choose “no” in order to ensure the integrity of their “yes.” No games, no manipulations, no trickery. Joshua was basing his appeal on God’s ethics of true definition of terms.
Theocracy as a Community of Choice
In verse 15 Joshua’s language is remarkable:
“But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
The term “undesirable” comes from the Hebrew root of ra, which most simply means “evil.” Joshua was inviting them to serve other religions if they found anything evil, anything less than desirable or reasonable in the requirements of the Law of Moses. Another way of looking at this is the fact that theocratic Israel was a “community of choice.” God commanded blessings for those who would obey. His theocratic rule was not a forcing of unwanted legislation down their throats. Rather, God told them the exact boundaries of freedom, the power of informed choice. If they did not like or agree with such ethics, they were free to go to Babylonia, Egypt, among the Canaanites, specifically here the Amorite tribe, or elsewhere.
They were free to leave anytime if they thought anything Yahweh said or did was evil. But if they chose to stay in theocratic Israel, it was because they knew and trusted the goodness, justice and provisions of Yahweh Elohim, as demonstrated by the signs and wonders of the Exodus. Yahweh had earned their trust. They knew Yahweh’s goodness. They were free to choose to become part of the “chosen people.”
Never in the Law of Moses are Yahweh’s laws forced on pagans, nor should his goodness be forced on skeptics. This would be an oxymoron. The Gospel is the good news of winning people’s choice to love God as he has loved them.
There is also an interesting balance between the words of Moses and Joshua. Moses emphasized the accessibility of making the right choice, and Joshua emphasized its difficulty. This is part of the merismus of Scripture, “a little part here, a little part there” – when different elements are emphasized in different contexts, in a cooperative tension in the balance of the whole, in the very nature of a storyline. This reflects the balance between God’s sovereignty and human choice. The right choice is accessible if we accept God’s grace and admit our needs in his sight; it is inaccessible if we depend on the sinful nature. Joshua was pressing the Israelites hard to discern the difference.
When Israel was led by Ahab and Jezebel, the prophet Elijah challenged the 450 prophets of Ba’al and the 400 prophetesses of Asherah to a contest on Mount Carmel (see 1 Kings 18:16-40). The devotees of Ba’al called on their god to answer with fire from heaven, but in spite of daylong prayer and self-flagellation, there was no response. But Yahweh answered Elijah the moment he prayed. In his public address to the apostate Israelites beforehand, Elijah was succinct in assuming the power of informed choice:
“How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing (v. 21).
The power of informed choice, as defined at these interpretively key junctures, continues through the balance of Scripture. Jeremiah said to Israel that if they wanted to go ahead and sin, then they were free to do so (see 15:1-2). He knew they knew the power of informed choice, and that they had chosen disobedience. The power of informed choice is the invitation to believe, given in the gospels (see Matthew 11:28-30), all the way to the final invitation in the book of Revelation (see 22:17).
Sovereignty and Choice
The balance between God’s sovereignty and human choice has occasioned much debate in church history, and is a huge subject. For here, consistent with the biblical power of informed choice, we can make some observations. Again, we start with the observation that the first words in Scripture underscore God’s sovereign power: “In the beginning God created…” And God’s first words in human history underscore human freedom: “You are free to eat…” The sovereignty of God provides for the freedom of man.
There is a necessary and positive tension between sovereignty and choice, like a spring or coil calibrated to the exact tension needed to perform its task of maintaining the proper balance and integrity of a larger mechanism. Or like the tension between electrons and protons surrounding the neutrons, necessary for the integrity of molecular structure and the existence of the universe. Such tensions produce the freedom for man and woman to live and prosper. It produces the balance between worship and responsibility.
Jars of Clay
This tension and balance can be easily seen in 2 Corinthians 4:7:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
Another way of translating “jars of clay” is by “cracked pots,” that is, leaky vessels. We are called to acknowledge that we are cracked pots, and therefore not crackpots. By confessing our humanity and fallibility we embrace reality, whereas a crackpot flees reality. The reality is that we have this “treasure” of God – the gift of his Holy Spirit who seals the promised eternal life – in our human frame, to demonstrate God’s power.
And what is God’s power? He is so totally in control, that he can place his perfect gift in imperfect vessels, and achieve a perfect result (in the Hebrew, not Platonic sense). His sovereignty is not wooden, so that it has to condescend to manipulating the human will within the confines of space, time and number.
Rather, his sovereignty is so great, that he alone can afford to give genuine human freedom, and not be diminished in the process, because he is sovereign. If God were diminished by the act of giving human freedom, then he would not be free to begin with – having been reduced to a pagan deity. Pagan deities are limited creatures (literally demons), and they diminish their pretense if they attempt an act of giving. Giving and pretense cannot coexist peacefully.
No Judgment Apart from Chosen Deeds
Nowhere in Scripture are people judged by God apart from the consequences of their chosen deeds. They are never judged for deeds they did not do, or did not choose to do. This language is found often, where the tension and balance between sovereignty and choice is obvious.
We reap what we sow. Hell is that oxymoronic community of choice, populated by people who consciously choose no to God – whether no to his covenant revelation, or no to the revelation Paul speaks about in Romans 1-2. Heaven is that true community of choice, populated by people who choose yes to God and therefore to the completed work of Jesus Christ – whether yes to his covenant revelation, or yes to the revelation Paul speaks about in Romans 1-2.
What About Those Who Have Never Heard?
In Romans 1, Paul begins his concerns with the order of creation, and how godlessness among all people will be judged, for all people “knew God.” In Romans 2, Paul works with tightly constructed language emphasizing the inseparability of belief and action, saying:
God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger (vv. 6-7).
Everything Paul asserts in Romans 1-2 is consistent with the image of God in the order of creation, and with the power of informed choice. Without distinguishing between Jew and Gentile, he says that we will gain what we seek – eternal life for those who do good, and wrath for those who are self-seeking.
Then Paul speaks about how those who sin will be judged by the law they know – either covenant revelation for the Jew who has been given the Law of Moses, or for the grace of the image of God resident in all people, including those who have not received the Law of Moses. They are judged according to what they know and do, not according to what they do not know and do not do:
(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares (vv. 14-16).
Paul says that judgment for those who have not heard the Gospel will be revealed through (the completed work of) Jesus Christ at the Last Day. What this means is that Jesus has the power to save those who acknowledge nephesh (needfulness) in the sight of creation, but whose historical situation precluded them from hearing and understanding the Gospel of Jesus. Their hearts cried out “Help me God!”
There is no salvation by any other means – only in the name of Jesus, and Jesus has the power to give (“grace”) it to those who seek truth in spite of their sin. God’s mercy trumps judgment for those who seek it.
The power of informed choice, vis-à-vis human lineages, is seen as Gentile nations derived from peoples who consciously chose dualistic evil, and the Jews derived from one man who was singular in his age, Abraham, who said yes to Yahweh and no to dualistic evil. Thus Gentile nations were far more deeply mired in sin since they lived and modeled it for generation after generation.
But in the final analysis, each person is judged according to what he has sought and done. Did he or she seek grace from the Creator, or self-sufficiency in his face? It is appointed for each of us to die once, then to face the judgment (see Hebrews 9:27); at that point the content of our hearts will then be made known. Will we love our Creator, and love who Jesus really is as we see him face to face, or will be choose the darkness of our own idolatries?
In his Olivet discourse in Matthew 24 and Mark 13, Jesus spoke in terms of the “elect” – certain people were elected by God to receive the gift of salvation in the face of the coming tribulation. In Romans 11:28-29, Paul speaks of the Jews in terms of election, rooted in their nature as the chosen people through whom the Messiah would come.
This language of “the elect” begs the nature of “predestination.” Jesus said to his disciples: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Yet all the disciples actively chose to say yes when Jesus called them, and this passage is specifically in reference to the 12 disciples. At that time, Jewish men who wanted to study the Torah chose which rabbi they wanted to learn under, if they were accepted.
Here Jesus was doing the choosing up front. He was no ordinary rabbi, and his mission was no ordinary mission.
How do we grasp this balance? The idea of predestination is most thoroughly covered by Paul in Romans 8-9. It is based on a concern of how Christians deal with suffering, and Paul’s encouragement that “we know that in all things God works together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (8:28).
Paul boldly declares that nothing can separate the believer from the love of Christ – whether the present or the future, angels or demons, etc. Thus Paul says, to paraphrase, “Hang in there – you are going to make it. How do I know that? Because God is sovereign, he is in control, you belong to him, and there is no power in all creation that can thwart his purpose – a purpose he ordained for you ahead of time. He is already where you are going to be, and he tells you that you made it.”
Paul is strengthening the resolve of believers to faithfully endure trials, by rooting them in God’s sovereign power and love. It is God’s sovereignty that strengthens their power to make the right choices.
In Romans 8, as Paul uses the terms for “foreknow,” “to know beforehand,” “to predestine” and “to mark out beforehand,” he is expressing his human perspective as a “jar of clay.” Neither he nor any of us can ever access God’s sovereign vantage point. To think we can describe God’s sovereignty from his perspective is what happens when we try to defend God’s sovereignty.
We cannot defend God’s sovereignty – it defends our faith. We compromise God’s sovereignty by bringing it down to the limitations of human understanding.
To predestine is to operate within the limits of space, time and number. Paul can use the language of predestination to describe God’s activity on our behalf, because it is incarnational. Jesus became a man in order to relate to us, because we could not reach up and grasp God in his eternal nature. God relates to us in the use of predestination language because of its ethical purpose – to reflect God’s power to give on our behalf, to encourage us to hang in there and be overcomers.
But whereas God can operate within the limitations of a human time line, as Lord of all, he is not bound by it. To abolish the real gift of human freedom and the power of informed choice in the name of God’s sovereignty, as some are wont to do, is to bind God to a human time line and thus vitiate his sovereignty.
Sovereignty is God’s domain and language, whereas choice is our domain and language – as a gift of the sovereign God in whom full freedom resides.
Space, Time and Number
C.S. Lewis defines an analogy that imagines a time line with God’s universe around us. That line begins at the moment of biological origin, and ends at the moment of biological death. From whatever vantage point the present affords us, we can look back to our origins, and forward to our futures. Whereas we can remember some highlights of our past, and experience the present, we do not have any experiential knowledge of the future, only expectations. For myself, I can graph it this way:
1952/3 [conception/birth] 2012 [present] 2040 [future]
As a human being, I am finite and bound to the space-time continuum while in this mortal body. I have the power to make choices this day, influenced by the past and determinative for the present and future.
The covenantal name of Yahweh connotes the Divine Presence who transcends space and time – the “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14), “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8). The name of the Creator, Elohim, in its honorific plural qualities, transcends the concept of number.
Yahweh Elohim is greater than space, time and number, but the language of predestination is a creature of space, time and number. Yahweh Elohim is Present before my conception, Present at my conception, Present in my present, and Present in my future. It is all in his Presence, and as such the “pre” of predestination does not hold God hostage to the limitations of time. Since my future is in his Presence, God can speak out of that Presence into my present before I have experienced my future, encourage me to hang in there, declare that I will make it, in service to and not in violation of the power of informed choice.
Since I am a creature of time, and my only presence is the time-bound present, with memory and hope, I cannot grasp the future as actual presence. But Yahweh is not bound, and he grasps all the past, present and future simultaneously as the I AM. When we as humans try to say that God predestines us apart from our full choice in the matter, we have made God into a creature of time, like a pagan deity; we have bound him to the limitations of human perspective, and have thus compromised his sovereignty.
To put it simply: God’s sovereignty encompasses time, but time cannot grasp his sovereign nature. It is this perspective alone that can define predestination. In other words, here we are through no choice of our own, in the face of a beautiful creation, empowered to live, to love, to laugh and to learn. How can we but worship God?
God is sovereign, so we worship him; and we are free, so we are responsible – the essence of a godly character. If we know that God the Giver is sovereign, we will not become proud, thinking we can earn salvation. If we know that God the Giver has empowered us to make real choices with real consequences, we will be good stewards of his gifts.
The tension and balance here provides the “no excuse” of Romans 1:20 on the one hand, and the “choose this day” of Joshua 24:15 on the other. One without the other will produce an unbalanced faith. I can state with full integrity this paradox: I chose to believe in Jesus the Messiah – I could not choose otherwise. I said yes to Jesus’ call to repentance (e.g., Mark 1:15), and left my former life to follow him, as did his original disciples. But too, Jesus chose me and I did not choose him (e.g., John 15:16). Merismus. His grace is truly irresistible for truth seekers.
What About Pharaoh, Jacob and Esau?
Well and good. But the question is often asked: What about Pharaoh? Does not the Scripture indicate that God’s choice overrode Pharaoh’s choice, and that God in effect predestined Pharaoh to go to hell?
In setting up this question in Romans 9, Paul first quotes Malachi 1:2-3, saying that God loved Jacob, but he hated Esau. Some might ask: “Is this not a form of prejudice?” For God chose Jacob, the younger of the twins, to take preeminence over Esau, before they were born, and before either of them did a good or bad deed. Again, if we grasp God’s nature as being greater than space, time and number, then this language is clearly reflecting God’s sovereign vantage point, which we cannot attain ourselves.
As well, Paul’s point here is to articulate the just prerogatives of God in the face of human pretense. The “him who calls” (language in Romans 9) reflects the power to give. So also with “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” God gives mercy, and though we cannot grasp his eternal perspective, we can grasp the biblical reality where no one is ever judged apart from deeds they chose to do. Both Esau and Jacob fully experienced the power of informed choice.
In Genesis 25:1-34, we see Jacob was conniving, but too, Esau the skillful hunter could not wait an extra minute for a hot meal. As he came in from the open country, and wanted some of the stew Jacob was making, Jacob demanded that Esau sell him his birthright. “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said, “What good is the birthright to me?” Esau could have found himself some other food easily – bread, vegetables, grains – without needing hot food. He had been sometime without hot food as it was. Instead, he “despised his birthright,” a position of honor and privilege, in his momentary and lazy hyperbole.
He despised a birthright that was a gift of God, the blessing of his father as the firstborn, the largest inheritance in that culture, but especially the inheritance of the messianic promise through his father Abraham. To despise it was to despise, or hate, not only his father, Isaac, but likewise hate God as his heavenly Father; to reject God’s goodness. Esau took a cavalier attitude toward God’s blessings, similar to Cain’s attitude toward God in Genesis 4. The use of the word “hate,” in both the Hebrew and the Greek, literally means to “regard with less affection than” in the context of human relationships. It can then lead to abhorrence. This was Esau’s attitude – he regarded God and his birthright with less affection than his belly in a moment of hunger. Thus God regarded Esau with less affection than Jacob, from Esau’s perspective, and Esau knew he got what he deserved, what he had chosen.
As well, it is important to note that the “hate” of God toward Esau, recorded in Malachi, is contextually addressed to the Edomites, the nation that came from Esau, and hated the nation that came from Jacob, that is, the Israelites, even cheering on their enemies from the Exodus to beyond the Babylonian exile. Too, this language says nothing about the salvation of Esau as a person. It is consistent with the power of informed choice.
Paul anticipates the proper concern with the justice of God: “Is God unjust? Not at all!” The power to give defines all. Thus Paul focuses on God’s prerogative for mercy – his act of giving mercy to those of us who do not deserve it. To exemplify God’s prerogative to show mercy, Paul cites Pharaoh.
The question is this: Is it fair to assume that the reference in Romans 9 to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart means Pharaoh had no true choice in the matter? Once I tallied the number of clauses in Exodus 4-14 that refer to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. There are various Hebrew verbs used that connote “strengthening,” “hardening,” “making heavy,” and “yielding.”
Depending on how clauses and references are calculated, the following balance emerges: 14 clauses where Yahweh took responsibility for Pharaoh’s decision; 4 clauses where the language does not tell us who took responsibility; and 35 clauses where Pharaoh took responsibility for his own decision. A 5-2 ratio emphasizing human accountability.
Of the 14 clauses where Yahweh took responsibility, in 9 instances it specifically says he “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart. Of the 35 clauses where Pharaoh took responsibility, in 4 instances it specifically says Pharaoh “hardened” his own heart. Then in verses like 10:27, we read the balance that Yahweh “hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was unwilling to let them go.”
In other words, Yahweh’s sovereignty precedes and defines Pharaoh’s fully owned choice – just as in the Garden of Eden with Adam. In Exodus 9:16-17, we read the passage that Paul quoted in Romans 9, as the balance is again in place:
But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. You still set yourself against my people and will not let them go.”
Or we can note the balance in Paul’s words on Mars Hill, where God “determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live … so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him …” (Acts 17:26-27). Sovereignty and choice, the latter made fully possible by the former. Pharaoh actively chose to oppose freedom and justice for the Israelites.
The showing of Yahweh’s power to Pharaoh is his power to give. Egypt had forgotten the deliverance it received some 400 years earlier by the hand of Yahweh through Joseph, and the subsequent pharaohs enslaved Joseph’s descendants with cruelty. In Exodus 4-14, Yahweh again and again gave Pharaoh the chance to relent from such cruelty, but he did not do so – he owned the choice to resist God, to resist his mercy. The judgment that Yahweh passed on Egypt was for their sin of despotic slaveholding, which was a derivative of their idolatry. Egypt mocked God by forgetting God’s servant (Joseph) who had brought them deliverance in an earlier time, and now they compounded that sin by building their nation’s wealth on the backs of Joseph’s progeny.
Accordingly, when Paul alludes to Pharaoh in a context designed to emphasize the sovereign prerogative of God and his power to give, he assumes the reader’s knowledge of Exodus 4-14, its antecedents, and the balance between sovereignty and choice found there. Pharaoh chose to be judged by God rather than relent his position of self-aggrandizing power – he loved the darkness rather than the light.
The Cosmic Risk
Finally, in this abbreviated review of the content of Romans 8-9, we come to what I call the “cosmic risk” taken by God, as I brushed by earlier. That is, God loves us enough to allow us to reject his love, for he loves us enough to risk those who refuse to believe for the sake of those who do believe.
But too often we think of risk in strictly human terms, in the sense of an investment that might not bring in its expected return, or one in which the principal could be lost. Not so in theological terms. In Matthew 25:14-30, in the parable of the talents, Jesus says that those who invest in the kingdom of God will gain the return proportionate to their ability and the risk they take. God is sovereign over his “markets.”
In Romans 5:1-5, Paul speaks of a hope that has been honed by suffering, perseverance and character. It is a hope that “does not disappoint us” because of the reality of the Holy Spirit. Too often, we use the term “hope” not with its theological certainty, but in a sense of uncertain wishfulness.
The only risk we have in deciding to follow Jesus is that of losing worldly reputation, its material goods and therefore any false security they may bring. But if we know the Lord and the reality of the kingdom of God, this is no risk at all. In the parable of the man who found a treasure buried in a field, Jesus says that he went and sold all he had in order to buy that field (Matthew 13:44). He risked his whole material well-being in the certainty of knowing the treasure was there.
This is what we see reflected in Romans 9 (vv. 22-24) where God says he bears with patience “the objects of his wrath” for the sake of “his objects of mercy.” He ethically treats all people the same – as Scripture says, he shows no favoritism (see Acts 10:34-35; Romans 2:9-11). He is willing that some are free to choose his wrath for the sake of those who choose his mercy. Satan and Pharaoh, even in their wickedness, remain servants of Yahweh (however unwillingly, in their exercise of the will to disobey). Yahweh is sovereign.
Yahweh’s Sovereign Invitation for Abraham’s Choice
When we consider the balance between sovereignty and choice, the question of prayer and its nature is crucial. Do we pray for something we cannot change? That would be a passive and puppet-like faith. Or do we believe that God’s character can change due to our influence? That would be folly and idolatry.
God’s character is that his sovereign goodness provides for our human freedom. As the Bible is examined across its pages, it is seen that all prayer involves spiritual warfare – as image-bearers of God, we are called to take our given authority over the demonic powers. We pray for their presence to be removed in the lives of people and nations, so that people can experience the level playing field to hear the Gospel, to choose between good and evil, as designed for Adam and Eve from the outset.
In reading Genesis 18:16-33, we enter a remarkable saga where Yahweh informed Abraham of the coming judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. He was an image-bearer of God, called to judge between good and evil in Yahweh’s sight. And yet Yahweh allowed Abraham to challenge the propriety of the judgment, and to negotiate the threshold down to the point that Yahweh would have withheld judgment had there been only ten righteous people in those cities. Here we see the power of informed choice, and the power to love hard questions (the substance of the next chapter), merge. We already noted the antithesis to Abraham with Bala’am in Numbers 22-24, where the same freedom of informed choice, grounded in reality, is given.
Yahweh does not change in his character (see 1 Samuel 15:29; Psalm 110:4; Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 7:21 and James 1:17); and Yahweh seeks people to repent and change, so that, consistent with his character, he can change prior outcomes they were enslaved by (see Jeremiah 18:7-10; Ezekiel 18:21-32).
The Power of Informed Choice
The power of informed choice, the gift of human freedom as defined in the biblical order of creation, is without comparison in its beauty, justice and mercy. Do we know it and live it in such a way that unbelievers are attracted to the Gospel by our witness?
The good news of the power of informed choice provides the seeds for theological maturity, and for political justice and mercy. We are called to announce the good news of the invitation to the feast of akol tokel, to the wedding supper of the Lamb in the politics of the kingdom of God to come.
Mars Hill Forum #96, Bangor Baptist Church, Bangor, Maine, October 16, 2005, Guest: Rev. Kalen Fristad; prepared comments by Rev. John C. Rankin
“Can A Good God Allow People to Dwell in Hell Forever?”
Good evening. This is our fifth and final forum together on this subject, and a great learning process.
Kalen Fristad argues that while hell is real, and for a season many people will dwell there, eventually God will persuade all residents of hell that heaven is a better place – all will be saved.
He says God will neither coerce nor manipulate anyone into salvation. However, if in the end the only choice is to say yes, is it really a choice at all?
In the biblical order of creation, the unique power of God gives us a level playing field to say yes or no to his goodness. This is the nature of true freedom, along with the caveat that we will all reap what we sow.
No pagan religion allows such a level playing field, only slavery to the gods. The only possibility in paganism is hell. Pagan religion cannot allow people to attain the biblical heaven, and Kalen’s religion cannot allow for the possibility of people choosing hell forever. Neither allows for an ultimate freedom to say no.
Kalen bases his argument not on clear biblical reality, but on three unsustainable points; 1) a mistranslation of the primary Greek term for “eternal,” 2) his understanding of the language of “all” in the New Testament, and 3) his use of 1 Peter 3:18-20.
The Bible‟s definitions of creation, sin and redemption, introduced in Genesis 1-3, interpret the whole Bible. In the order of creation, God is good, and everything he makes is declared as good. Sin breaks this goodness. Jesus as our Redeemer restores us to this original goodness.
Yahweh Elohim is the Lord God, he who by definition is greater than space, time and number. His power is unlimited and he uses it to give us life and all blessings. Thus, we can define God‟s goodness as “the power to give.” Indeed, the Hebrew and Greek words for “grace” (hen and charis) simply refer to a gift given. The nature of a gift given also gives the power to say no to that gift.
The question about hell starts with the nature of true freedom. The first words of the Bible in Genesis 1:1 introduce the sovereign God – “In the beginning God created.” Then the first words of God to Adam are in Genesis 2:16-17, words of freedom.
Only a sovereign God is great and good enough to give us the gift of freedom, and not be diminished by it if we use it wrongly. There is no freedom to fully say yes without the freedom to fully say no.
Genesis 2:16-17 reads: “And Yahweh God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not east from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’ ”
The words translated “you are free to eat” come from a Hebrew construction that acts like an active participle, akol tokel: “In feasting you will continually feast.” What this means is that the freedom to eat from an unlimited menu of good choices is an unlimited and never ending freedom to live. The hope of eternal life is dynamically written into these words.
The words translated “you will surely die” come from a parallel Hebrew construction that acts like an active participle, moth tamuth: “In dying you will continually die.” What this means is that the freedom to eat poison and die is an unlimited and never ending death. The possibility of eternal hell is dynamically written into these words.
There are thus two choices given to us in parallel contrast:
“In feasting you will continually feast” or “In dying you will continually die.”
Why does the eating of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” bring a death that keeps on dying? It is a Hebraicism for all knowledge. Namely, everything there is to know is between the opposites of good and evil. Who alone can know everything, and who alone can know evil in its totality and not be tempted or polluted by it? Only the Lord God.
Thus, to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is 1) to say that God is withholding something good, thus he is not fully good himself; 2) it is an attempt to become equal to God, to know everything; and 3) it is to redefine good and evil the way we see fit.
Can we redefine hell without eating the forbidden fruit? To say that all people will automatically escape hell in the end redefines good and evil.
In a nutshell, both life and death are active participles, and they are never ending once we make a final choice no later than the Judgment Day. God’s grace and patience with us until that time is remarkable, but grace, being a gift, allows us to choose our final destinies, including rebellion and its consequences.
The active participles of life and death are also seen in Isaiah 66:24 which speaks of the new heavens and new earth, as well as judgment being one where “their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
The Hebrew word for death here is the same as Genesis 2:17 – a death that never stops dying. The first metaphor is that of a worm which would naturally die when a corpse is consumed, but here the corpse is always dying, so the worms are always having a perverse feast. The second metaphor is that of a fire that is never quenched because there is always fuel to burn.
Jesus assumes this active participle of death when he speaks of hell in Mark 9:43-48. He quotes Isaiah 66:24 concerning the worms and fire that always consume, rooted also in the active participle of Genesis 2:17: “In dying you will continually die.”
In Matthew 25:46, at the end of the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus says: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
This is a parallel of opposites, just like the opposites of “in dying you will continually die” versus “in feasting you will continually feast.” Jesus is clearly saying that just as punishment is eternal on the one hand, so is life eternal on the other.
But Kalen, in his first main point, and against this grammatical force, argues that the word translated “eternal” really refers to something shorter in length. He says that the Greek word in use here, aionios (acc. sing. masc.), refers to a long period of time, not to eternity.
But in the Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich Greek Lexicon, aionios means “without beginning and end.” Never in classical or New Testament Greek does it refer to a limited time frame. Its root word (aion) does so occasionally, but that word is not used here. In fact, in the major 30 English translations of Matthew 25:46, it is only translated as “eternal,” “forever” or “everlasting.”
In our last forum, Kalen could not give one example of aionios ever being translated otherwise. He only cited the third century theologian Origen. But Origen, in his argument for universal salvation in Book 1, Chapter 6, and Book 2, Chapters 5 and 10 of De Principiis, does not examine the Greek term aionios at all. Rather he cites certain biblical verses atomistically, and does not address the deep range of biblical texts which state otherwise. Curiously, in his Preface, section 4, he starts by citing “points clearly delivered in the teaching of the apostles,” including a statement in section 5, that after death human souls are “destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness” or “to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments.” Origen thus goes against the prior apostolic unity.
Kalen mistranslates the word for “eternal,” aionios, rejecting the consensus of all Greek scholars. Thus, his first main point does not stand at all.
What then is the nature of hell? Jesus uses the Greek word gehenna. It comes from the Hebrew words ge’hinnom, for the Valley of Ben Hinnom outside Jerusalem. There the trash dump burned day and night, and children were sacrificed alive in fire pits to pagan gods. Thus, Jesus’s language for hell was dramatic to the Jewish soul – unquenchable fire and insatiable worms. Peter and Jude also speak of hell as darkness. Now, how do fire and darkness go together?
Here we need to look at the deeper question concerning the moral and chosen nature of hell. And I would recommend a little book by C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce.
In John 3:19, Jesus says that “men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” Now, do people really love darkness?
In Ezekiel 23:8-9, Yahweh judges Samaria: “Therefore I handed her over to her lovers, the Assyrians; for whom she lusted. They stripped her naked … and killed her by the sword.”
This is a radical justice. God gives us what and whom we love – whether the light or the darkness, Yahweh or a pagan deity, Jesus or a false prophet. But do people always want that darkness even after they have chosen it? This is Kalen’s question. He says no, God will somehow persuade them once they are in hell that they do not really love the darkness.
Let’s compare two responses to the Second Coming of Jesus. In Luke 21:28 (with prior reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70), the believers look up and rejoice at his coming. It is the language of an eyeball to eyeball loving expectation of reconciliation at the end of the age.
In Revelation 6:16, the peoples of the earth prefer to be crushed by the mountains and rocks rather than look at Jesus. It is the language of people loving darkness, choosing to be crushed to death rather than have reconciliation with God. They view Jesus not as their Savior, for they do not want forgiveness; they view him as their Judge who passes sentence because they hate the light that by definition means humility and honesty. They are a bitter people.
Bitterness can be defined as “trust betrayed,” and there are people who would rather stew in their juices, growing more bitter, self-righteous and perversely satisfied across eternity – as the darkness of their souls thicken, as the fire of revenge burns in their hearts and always consumes them.
This is the reality of a chosen and, yes, a loved hell of one’s own shrinking humanity – like an atomic half-life multiplied across eternity, always extinguishing but never being extinguished. Choices made at the Judgment Day are choices forever owned again and again. This is the active participle of the freedom to choose death.
In his second main point, Kalen quotes many verses such as John 12:32, Romans 5:18-19, 1 Corinthians 15:22 and Philippians 2:10-11, to say the Greek use of the words for “all” or “every” (pas, pantas and pan) indicate that all people will eventually be saved. However, a review of these Greek terms shows that, depending on context, “all” can be specific or representative, it can be “all” or “every kind of variety.” There is much detail here, but the sum is that Kalen fits its use only in one direction. I am glad to examine any such text.
Let’s look at one briefly. In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus speaks of the narrow gate that leads to life and the broad road that leads to destruction (apoleian). Then Jesus says in v. 21, “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Here the Greek is literally ou pas, “not all.” Not “all” will enter the kingdom of heaven. Kalen’s argument concerning “all” is thus undermined with specific clarity.
Thus, Kalen’s second main point concerning “all” is a faulty foundation.
Then there are larger issues concerning the reality of a final Judgment, a final choice being made, with no passage in the Bible ever delineating Kalen’s central doctrine of a second chance once in hell. Hebrews 9:27 says: “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people.” According to Kalen’s religion, shouldn’t this passage have said “all” and not “many?” And if after the Judgment Day “all” people will be eventually saved, why is this idea not present?
In Revelation 20:10-15 it speaks of the devil, the beast and the false prophet being thrown into the lake of burning sulfur to be “tormented day and night for ever and ever” (eis tous aionas ton aionon). And so too for those whose names are not found in the book of life.
This lake of fire here is also called the second death. In other words, as we look at the language of the Old and New Testaments, it speaks of Hades and other language for the abode of the dead, where people await the final Judgment. All of us, believers and nonbelievers, taste the first death. The second death is the actual hell. Only in Revelation 21, with the new heavens and the new earth, is death finally abolished, not beforehand and not for those who chose hell.
In Revelation 22:15, with the new heavens and new earth in place, with the tree of life restored, we read of the New Jerusalem, the capitol of the new earth, that “Outside are the dogs (kunes), those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”
Those outside love their falsehoods, and God gives us what and whom we love. This language is the finality of the Bible, as Revelation 20-22 sums up the redemptive completion of everything introduced in Genesis 1-3. There is no second chance after the second death.
In fact, not only does Kalen run into the danger of eating the forbidden fruit from Genesis 2:17 as he redefines good and evil in redefining hell, but he also faces the danger of the apostle John’s final words in 22:18-19: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from his share in the tree of life and in his holy city, which are described in this book.”
Can Kalen show me where there is a second chance after the second death of hell, for people to repent and believe? If not, then he has added to the words of “the prophecy of this book.” Can Kalen show me, in the Book of Revelation, where the second death of hell is not an active and endless participle, rooted in the warning against the forbidden fruit: “In dying you will continually die?” If not, then Kalen has taken words away from “the prophecy of this book.”
Kalen’s third main point is his use of 1 Peter 3:18-20 which speaks of the risen Christ preaching to the spirits of those who disobeyed the preaching of Noah. But nothing in the text says they believed even Jesus’s preaching, and also this preaching happens before the final Judgment, so there is no universal salvation in view. Then, in 2 Peter 3:6-7, the apostle says, in reference again to Noah‟s Flood, that there is a coming “day of judgment and destruction (apoleias) of ungodly men.” Here the parallel between the judgment of the Flood and the final Judgment is made, there is no universal salvation, but there is a final destruction of the ungodly.
Thus, Kalen’s third main point is without substance.
As well, in Luke 16:19-31, Jesus speaks of “a great chasm [that] has been fixed” between heaven and hell. What basis in the biblical text ever says that such a chasm later becomes unfixed? Also, the final words of this parable have Abraham speaking to the rich man in hell: “He said to him, „If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
Or, to put it another way, what new form of persuasion will God use after the second death he did not use beforehand? Kalen argues that people in hell will be eventually convinced, but Jesus shows human nature in the opposite light: “they will not be convinced even if ….” The Book of Revelation demonstrates a powerful escalation of God calling people to repentance, and they continually refuse, choosing instead “their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality (and) their thefts” (9:21). Choices made at the final Judgment are choices always being remade in the active participle of chosen death.
In sum, Kalen faces these obstacles:
- In the Bible, life and death are active participles; both are eternal.
- To redefine hell is to eat the forbidden fruit, and it both adds to and takes away from the Book of Revelation;
- He mistranslates the term for eternal, his chosen use of “all” does not equal universal salvation, especially as Jesus explicitly says “not all,” and 1 Peter 3 does not apply; and
- He needs to show us biblically what new form of persuasion God uses for those in hell.
Finally, if Kalen’s religion is true, it does not matter how we live our lives. Live for the selfish moment, and once you enter hell, you can become “persuaded.” But if Kalen’s religion is false, then the consequences for those who believe him are eternal.
Addendum 3 (excerpted from portions of Chapter Four of The Six Pillars of Biblical Power)
In Matthew 11:20-24, we read:
Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
Jesus pointed out certain Gentile peoples as a reproving example to unbelieving Jews, this time in a “what if” scenario. Judgment begins with the household of God. He judged Korazin and Bethsaida, towns on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, because they did not believe in Jesus when his power and nature had been made known to them. He judged Capernaum likewise, a much larger town in the same area that was also his hometown, and thus, its people were well familiar with him. In his judgment of Capernaum, Jesus used language reminiscent of Isaiah 14:12-15, where Yahweh judged the “king of Babylon” as the devil’s surrogate who sought an exalted place of power above God.
Jonah preached to the Ninevites and they repented. The queen of Sheba sought out Yahweh through his servant Solomon, had her questions answered, and believed. But what about those in Tyre, Sidon and Sodom? Tyre and Sidon were trading cities in Philistia along the Mediterranean Sea, and the prophets Joel and Amos reproved them for selling captured Jews into slavery to Greece. And Ezekiel 28:1-9 profiles the king of Tyre as representing Satan. Then, Sodom’s reputation was widely known for its social anarchy, including sexual perversions and the trampling of the poor and needy.
Thus, Jesus said that these people would have responded better than did these Jewish towns “if” they had had opportunity to see the miracles of Jesus. The Pharisees and Herod may have wanted to see miracles as a sideshow, but Jesus said, in contrast, that the pagans would have been interested in them as signs of the goodness and authority of the Lord. The slave traders in Tyre and Sidon would have repented and believed. The residents of Sodom would have at least restrained their wickedness enough to avert God’s judgment. Thus, these peoples will face a more “bearable” judgment for deeds they did not do, but would have done, “if” they had been given the opportunity.
These are the words of Jesus, and they opens up a wide array of hard questions. For example, if God is just, why then did Tyre, Sidon, Sodom and Gomorrah not have an opportunity, as it were, to hear the words and see the miracles of Jesus? Also, what does it mean that here we see one people repenting, but the other people are not said to have repented – yet both gain a more “bearable” judgment?
Cain and the Beginning of Opposing Lineages
In the moth tamuth of the power of informed choice, God promised that sin would lead to the continual experience of death, to the brokenness of relationships. Following the reversal in the Garden of Eden, as mankind propagated and spread across the planet, they did so with the freedom and accountability to reap what they had sown.
Very quickly the growth of wickedness begins in Genesis 4. Abel truly worshiped Yahweh, but Cain did not. Cain murdered him as a result, was banished from the “presence” of Yahweh to become a “wanderer,” and his lineage traces down to a braggert, murderer and the first bigamist, Lamech, who exalted himself above Yahweh.
The purpose of Genesis 4-5 is to delineate the difference between those who chose or tried to choose the good (the lineage that led to the Messiah), and those who chose or acquiesced to evil (the lineage that leads to the antichrist). In Genesis 4 we also begin to embrace the hard questions about the outflow of the sin nature that commenced in Genesis 3. And we note that in Yahweh’s employment of the “if” question with Cain (see 4:7), the father of the unrighteous fled the power to love hard questions.
The first question here involves the nature of worship. Cain was cavalier and Abel was principled. The distinction in the text is between Cain who “brought some of the fruits” versus Abel who “brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” The distinction is not between grain and meat, but between “some of” and “the best of.” In other words, Cain was passive in his worship of God, and he was just going through the motions in a minimalist fashion, with no real thanksgiving for God’s provisions. But Abel was active in his worship, offering Yahweh the best of the best, the prime rib as it were, as a statement of heartfelt thanks for Yahweh’s provisions.
Cain knew this distinction and he became angry when he did not get away with it, and his face became downcast, turning away from the blazing fire (holiness) of Yahweh’s full presence (the Hebrew term here is “face” – panim). This is the averted gaze of those who live in the darkness of their own chosen sins (no eyeball-to-eyeball power to live in the light). When Yahweh confronted Cain with the hard question of his sin, he said that Cain would be accepted if he did what was right. In other words, doing what is right flows out of heartfelt worship, in trusting the goodness of Yahweh. Consistent with the power of informed choice, Yahweh said that Cain had the ability to choose the good and overcome the sin, but if he didn’t, then sin would be crouching like the leopard at his door (as we noted earlier). Cain’s choice to say no to the good was a choice to invite the devourer to leap on him.
When Yahweh made Adam and Eve, he gave them his best. They were made in his image to rule over the goodness of his creation. No higher goodness was possible for the original man and woman. This they naturally taught their children, and especially after they first reaped the fruit of sin. Abel learned it, and Cain refused, per their respective powers to choose. Because Cain would not worship God truly, he was despising the goodness of God. Since he did not acknowledge that Yahweh had given him his best, he did not give back to Yahweh his best. And thus he hated Abel, because Abel did thank God for the best he had been given, and gave back to God the best he had to offer.
Give and it will be given, or take and you will be taken. Since Cain was a taker and could not get away with it with Yahweh, he then became a taker of God’s image, as he took Abel’s life. As we treat God, so we treat our neighbor.
After the murder, Yahweh rhetorically asked Cain the whereabouts of his brother. When Cain pretended not to know, we learn how the pretension of ignorance is the weakest form of moral argument in history. Cain would not admit the truth and repent, because he was (damned) sure not to give up his self-sufficiency and self-righteousness; nor could he market a lie and say that Abel was at some other place and doing fine. So he pretended not to know, just as the Pharisees did with Jesus when they would not, could not, answer a question without first repenting (see Matthew 21:23-27).
Cain, in a revealing profile of his sin, then posed a false question and asked Yahweh if he were his brother’s keeper. It was the spiteful response of a murderer. There are questions that seek the truth – this is the power to love hard questions – and those that do not. Cain opposed the power to give, the power to live in the light, the power of informed choice and the power to love hard questions.
In Cain’s chosen rebellion, he nonetheless complained about the deserved curse, complaining to Yahweh, “I will be hidden from your presence.” But Cain was the one doing the hiding, as evident in his prior averted gaze.
So now we can grasp something of the moral nature of chosen sin, and how when worship of God is resisted, social evil is the result. Sin metastasizes culturally as moth tamuth becomes a reality. Not only in terms of the murder of Abel, and of Cain’s subsequent wanderings, but especially in terms of his lineage. The balance of Genesis 4 chronicles in brief space the reality of how parents teach their children.
The fifth generation from Cain brings us to Lamech, who proudly celebrated his bigamy and power to murder, thus mocking the power to give, just as his ancestor Cain did when he would not give true worship to God. Instead of the man and woman becoming one flesh in mutually exclusive marriage, Lamech broke this boundary of freedom given in the order of creation. As well, instead of treating his first wife as his moral equal, he became the first misogynist (“woman-hater”), the first male chauvinist in recorded history. This was the original basis for polygamy, which in ancient culture was the prerogative of pagan kings
Lamech’s evil only grew worse. Yahweh had earlier promised, in an act of redemptive grace, to protect the sinful Cain from anyone who would take vengeance on him for Abel’s death, “seven times over.” But Lamech took Yahweh’s prerogative of vengeance, and applied it not to the protection of others, but to his self-aggrandizing position. Namely, he declared he would avenge himself 77 times if a person even laid a hand on him. That is, he would avenge himself much more than Yahweh would, 77 as opposed to 7 times, thus elevating himself above God. And he bragged to his wives for having thus killed a man, a young man. Cain’s sin was now magnified in his progeny.
At the end of Genesis 4, we have Seth’s birth, and chapter 5 traces Seth’s lineage through Noah. Seth replaced the fallen Abel, and he sought Yahweh faithfully. Cain’s lineage, through Lamech, was the unfaithful one, from whom paganism traces its origins; and Seth’s lineage was the faithful one leading to the Messiah. This portended a conflict as both developed culture, one using the resources of the image of God against God, the other in seeking God.
In Genesis 6:1-12, the sin of Cain and Lamech’s lineage magnified further. The “sons of God” language in v. 2 confuses many. It does not refer to angels, for angels cannot marry and procreate. Rather it was a common designation for pagan kings who viewed themselves as the “sons of God” in a self-aggrandizing manner. Adam and Seth were sons of God literally (see Genesis 5:1-3; Luke 3:38), but submitted to the power to give.
The pagan “sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.” In the Hebrew, a man having a sex with a woman means literally “to marry” her. The union of man and woman, once consummated, forever changes the dynamics between them. If marriage is rooted in mutual fidelity, then it is “very good.” Otherwise it portends great brokenness and subsequent evil. Thus, here we have the pursuit of polygamy by the pagan kings, and the rejection of the power to give in godly marriage. So Yahweh declared judgment, “My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal, his days will be a hundred and twenty years.” This was a timeline until the judgment of the Flood, when Noah preached the coming judgment but no one listened outside his family.
Then the text follows with a mention of their offspring, the Nephilim (Hebrew for “fallen ones”), and how Yahweh “saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” The power to give had been replaced by the power to take, all rooted in forsaking the original power to give and receive in the image of God, where men and women are equals and complements, and marriage is monogamous and lifelong.
With sin having become the cultural norm, God was determined to work with the most faithful, with the “remnant.” This was his purpose for Seth’s line, which led to Noah, of whom the text says: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” He stood out hugely because a) he was a true son of God who walked with his heavenly Father, b) he was clearly a leader, and c) he maintained fidelity in his marriage.
Yet sin entered again with gusto after the flood, and became the norm once more. In redemptive history, one thing the Flood demonstrates is the power of sin upon human culture apart from God’s grace. The planet was purged, but the human heart remained unpurged. External remedies will not cut it. Inward transformation is needed.
In the history of human culture subsequent to Noah, we see the same pattern that developed beforehand. Namely, most people fled God and eventually produced lineages ignorant of his covenant revelation to Adam and Noah, but never ignorant of God’s testimony through the order of creation as Romans 1 says. The Lord allowed this to happen because of the power of informed choice where the power to procreate and influence our children is real. It is a blessing for the faithful to pass on what they know to “a thousand generations,” but it is a curse which is passed on to “the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5-6; Deuteronomy 5:9-10; 7:9-10).
God allowed this as a necessary consequence of his love with no strings attached. Therefore God did not force sinful cultures to listen to him. He let them go on their chosen ignorant ways, with their own chosen relationships; and many innocent offspring suffered as a result. But as well, many such offspring equally chose the evil they learned from their parents. Only God discerns the difference in response among those who have not heard the Word of God. This is where our hard question comes into play, as Jesus introduced the “what if” with regard to the “ignorant” people in places like Sodom and Tyre.
Thus Again, What If?
This whole trajectory is examining the “what if” question that Jesus posed concerning Tyre, Sidon and Sodom. We are examining the justice of God. Very simply, God holds us accountable to what we know, no more and no less. But to whom much is given, much is required. God’s power to give and the power of informed choice reflect the nature of genuine relationships, so he allows people to experience moth tamuth as they move away from his presence throughout history.
As our forebears reaped the fruit of sinful choices, they learned to admit their need, their nephesh in God’s sight, apart from which salvation is not possible. In order for Yahweh to restore right relationship to us, he demonstrated it in the specific community of the Israelites, who would come to know his goodness in relational intimacy. God found only a minority of sinful people who were willing to embrace such a relationship. He found Noah, and he found Abraham; and from Abraham came the covenant community of the Israelites that led to the Messiah, and the preaching of the good news to the Gentiles.
Tyre, Sidon and Sodom were among those peoples who had fled God, who rejected his revelation in the order of creation. The “what if” question is used by Jesus to highlight the rebellion of Jews in the covenant community. They should have known better and believed in their Messiah. And he was using it to indicate that, following his death and resurrection, the good news of God’s love would be sufficiently demonstrated in history in order to redeem, for the Gentiles, the power of informed choice and call them to repentance.
Thus God is just and merciful. He is just in letting us choose our own destinies, as Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom had done. And he is merciful, knowing that sin robs the ability for complete justice in this world, and as such, people are victimized when born into sinful cultures. As Romans 1-2 makes clear, and as we have already reviewed, Gentiles without the law are judged by the content of their hearts in response to the clearly known God of creation, and this will be made known when they stand before him on the Last Day.
When we grasp the merismus of Scripture as it looks at this issue, we can understand why Jesus posed the hard question of the “what if” scenario about Tyre, Sidon and Sodom. God’s power to give, and along with it, the power of informed choice, rooted in the order of creation, are consistent throughout the Bible.
These ethics alone exhibit the exquisite balance of justice and mercy, with the goal for mercy to triumph over judgment for all who believe. Paul identifies this balance in Romans 5:12-21, as he merges Adam’s individual sin and accountability, with our passive inheritance of, yet active participation, in the same. We are our parent’s offspring, whether with blessings or cursings, and yet we stand accountable for our moral choices individually before God, regardless of how many blessings or how much victimization we have experienced.
There are those who receive blessings and mock them; and there are those who receive blessings and honor them. There are those who suffer and grow more embittered against God as a result; and there are those who suffer and grow more humble and dependent upon God’s mercy as a result. God alone knows the secrets of our hearts, and only the Bible provides the basis for a final and satisfying justice. What pagan origin text or religious and philosophical systems can compare with the reality and balance of the biblical witness, and the final triumph of goodness?