Life-Ecstatic (Faith)

God, Judgement, Hell, Grace, Universalism and Rob Bell

Many Christians know about Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived and how it has stirred up so much controversy. This is because Rob Bell has been accused of promoting a kind of Universalism, a belief that in the end all people will ‘go to heaven’.

Love Wins by Rob Bell

"Love Wins", by Rob Bell

Most Christian Universalists believe that those who choose to reject Jesus or choose to live in wickedness will be sentenced to hell ‘for a time’ but after the allotted time of discipline in hell is up, God will let them into heaven. Apparently this is what Rob Bell is hinting at, although I don’t know myself and haven’t read his book.

I’m late to the party and I know this. I didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon at the time of the book’s release. Practically every blogger of faith in the world had something to say, some good and some ridiculous, and I didn’t want to add to the noise, to be honest.

But now I think it’s time for me to weigh in as this conversation keeps coming up. I’m going to weigh in by saying I think the questions we are asking are wrong, some of the terms we are using need to be clarified, and a great deal of assumptions need to be examined.

Classifying terms

The term ‘go to heaven’ is particularly misleading because it often conjures up images of some ethereal plain where everything is white and see-through and people float around on wings. This is all ancient Greek or Platonic thinking, and it’s pretty silly stuff in my opinion.

It’s not about whether we’ll ‘go to heaven’ but whether we’ll partake in the new age of Christ’s rule, where there will be a ‘new heaven and new earth’ (Rev 21). Why this is important is to realise that God loves the Earth and creation, and He intends to bring it all into a final redemption. We will have human bodies in this new age as well. Heaven and Earth will finally be connected. In this discussion I think these things need to be realised so we know exactly what is at stake and we can correct misleading and frankly unscriptural ideas about heaven.

Throughout the ages of Christian theology this has been the accepted thinking, although pop-theology throughout the ages has made heaven akin to the kind of picture we see below.

How some people honestly think of 'heaven'. Not sure if I'm looking forward to living on clouds. I prefer grass, to be honest.

Asking the right questions

He who asks the wrong question will come to the wrong answer. From experience, it seems to me when we ask the right questions then we start seeing some clarity. Some years back I took up this question on hell, spent two years coming to some form of conclusion, and realised that perhaps, all along, our questions are what trip us up.

We’re allowing this discussion to be framed incorrectly. Yesterday on a Theological chat Facebook group a poster said this:

“The choice between God and Hell (or annihilation) is not true freedom.”

But is this truly the choice God presents us with? Setting the question up like this immediately paints God in a certain, rather dark, light. The question (I’m not saying anything about the poster here) is misleading and is saying in an undertone, “Why is God such an evil dictator – he gives us no real choices because he threatens us with hell?”

Is the choice Hell and God? No, not from a Scriptural perspective. God sets up a choice between life and death, which is mentioned after he presents the choices between wickedness and goodness (Deut 30:19). The choice He lays before us is to choose to live wickedly or choose to live well. The way of life we want is up to us. Each have consequences because if they didn’t this wouldn’t be a world of justice. If there were no consequences, no cause and effect, then the universe could simply not continue and would surely self-destruct.

God does not say, “choose me… or else.” He simply lays down the way the universe is created – live well and you will live, live wickedly and you will die. It’s a fact of life. Now stop being silly and live well.

I don’t see anything unfair about that, do you? Is it unfair to say that when you step out onto the highway and stand in front of a car, you’ll probably be hit by the car? No, it’s not unfair, it’s just a fact.

Is it unfair that God created the Universe to work in the way it does? Why would it be? That’s when the potter turns to the clay and says, “why did you make me like this?” It’s absurd to say that the physics of the Universe are unfair.

Who does God send to Hell?

The second question which people often ask is, “Who does God send to hell?” Rob Bell asks this question in the blurb of his book which asks, “Will Gandhi go to Hell?”

This is the wrong question. The right question is “Who is God?”

Asking this question doesn’t mean I am ignoring the other question because it’s ‘too difficult’. Rather, I’m answering the question more effectively. To cut a long story short, Christians believe that Jesus is God (part of the Trinity) and when we look at Jesus we see exactly who God is, what He is like, and how He judges.

The divinity and humanity of Jesus is central to the Gospel message – more central than the doctrine of hell, because it answers the hell question. Let me present a few Scriptures to show why I say this.

The first is Acts 10:34 – 43, where Peter gives his first sermon to the Gentiles. Here Peter expounds on Jesus’ authority, His Lordship, and makes special note that the resurrection points to Jesus now being the ‘judge of the living and the dead’ (vs 42). After that, all who believe in Him receive forgiveness of sins through His name (vs 43).

No mention of hell or eternal condemnation. Only mention of Jesus being the judge and those who believe will receive forgiveness. How does Peter’s sermon line up with popular preaching today?

Jesus as Judge is most important

Jesus as judge is an important part of the Gospel, more important than a doctrine of hell. Once we understand correctly that Jesus is the judge and we look at His life (how He treated others), His death (the price He paid for us) and His resurrection (a sign of the promise to us and a sign of His authority) then we know that the Judge is both just and good. And His life is important because we see in it that He understood something of context and judged people accordingly.

All theology must be Christ-central. Making your theology Christ-central helps you to avoid getting sidetracked. It stops you making your life’s work about defending ideas rather than living in faith. It keeps you humble and yet determined. It makes what is important, important. And it keeps you out of heresy.

Think of how He treated the Pharisees, how He treated ordinary people, how He treated the woman caught in adultery. If the Judge of all is like that then the question of hell becomes a lot more clear.

Romans 2 is another key scripture here. In it Paul makes the same point as Peter in Acts above, that God shows no partiality (vs 11). He also says some interesting things about judgement, taking careful note how God will judge according to works.

vs 6 – 10: “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury… tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil… glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good…”


vs 12: “all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.”

He goes on to talk about how Gentiles, who didn’t have God’s law, are nevertheless “a law unto themselves” because of their conscience. In other words, they are judged according to their conscience.

(The word ‘Gentiles’ here is talking about those who are not God’s people. In our context, non-believers.)

This means, if I’m reading it as plainly as a I can, that God judges based on context at all times. All men everywhere know the difference between good and evil; not one single man on this planet (including the hypothetical dude who is stranded on an island since birth, who always comes up in these discussions) is without a conscience.

See the choice isn’t ‘choose God or die’ because so many don’t know how to choose God. The choice is ‘choose goodness or wickedness and you will be judged accordingly’. When I say ‘accordingly’ I mean ‘accordingly’. I’m not saying ‘hell’ I’m saying ‘accordingly.’ Asking the right question, in terms of “where does wickedness get me?” gets you the right answer. Wrath and fury.

That’s a fact of life, just as much as gravity or the sun coming up in the morning. No one needs to be told that wicked deeds lead to bad things. Certainly most people who believe in some form of afterlife know that wicked deeds will have bad consequences eternally. God will therefore judge all according to conscience.

Dealing with assumptions

Does wrath and fury mean eternal condemnation? Perhaps. But we cannot assume always. If the Scripture doesn’t say “hell” we shouldn’t assume it means “hell”. We should take it for what it actually says.

Likewise when we do some theological study. One may be tempted to believe early church Christians were quite a viscous and bloodthirsty lot, with all their talk of ‘judgement’ and ‘fire’ and so forth. But you need to be reading too much into the Scriptures and even those writings to think that all mention of judgement and fire means condemnation to hell.

The Scripture doesn’t say “hell” it says “wrath and fury” (Rom 2:5.) That doesn’t sound good, though. But I choose to go no further or no less than Scripture in this debate. I think that’s the key in getting this right.

God will judge according to context. The question here is: Will you take the risk and try and offset your wickedness with a couple of good deeds, to tip the scale in your favour? You can try. But good luck to you.

But there is a way in which you can be free from worrying about that, and this is through faith in Christ.

But if you know the way out, a way where your salvation is guaranteed, but don’t take it, you are the biggest fool there is. And you’re probably pretty proud and wicked for thinking you don’t need Jesus but can do it on your own. You will be judged accordingly. That judgement seems pretty bleak for you, to be honest.

Those who believe in Jesus receive eternal life – their eternal judgement is decided. (John 3:18). But you can’t believe in Jesus unless you are told (Rom 10:15). Therefore, those who are not told are judged according to works and their conscience. According to context. However, those who reject Jesus stand condemned already (John 3:18) because they were too proud and wicked and thought their own good deeds would save them. Once again, we see context is important.

23 Minutes in Hell Bill Weise

Books like "23 Minutes in Hell" and other books about people supposedly going to hell and living to tell the tale, or those where they've supposedly gone to heaven, I think are unhelpful and perpetuate myths in this discussion that are not Scriptural - like Satan torturing people in Hell and that sort of nonsense.

The John 3:18 verse says, “whoever does not believe is condemned already, because He has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” This does not mean that people who are ignorant stand condemned already, because, once again, how can anyone believe unless they are told? (Rom 10:15).

So to wrap it up here: we have no idea on the outcome of every single person who ever lived except for two groups – those that accept Jesus and those that reject Him, with full knowledge and willingness as to what they are doing. Everyone else God judges based on conscience and context – what and who they do know.

Those who persist in wickedness of all kinds, whether they be rulers of countries practicing injustice or the guy next door who persists in cheating everyone, will find wrath and fury (Romans 2:5). Obviously, because justice requires a consequence. Will this wrath and fury lead to eternal condemnation? Very possibly. Or perhaps not. God will judge. Do they have a way to guarantee that the judgement will not end in hell? They do now, if we tell them about Jesus.

That’s probably why Romans 2:15 says that people who don’t know God’s ways (his law) are either accused or even excused according to their conflicting thoughts and conscience. I honestly can’t see how anyone could read Romans 2 and come to any other conclusion I’m presenting here.

Many will die never knowing Jesus and He will judge well and perfectly, because He is perfectly good and perfectly just.

This is nothing new

What I’m presenting is nothing new. I spent two years mulling over this doctrine of hell to come to some of the conclusions I’ve come to. In the interim I’ve read theologians new and old and just read the Bible for myself with this question at the back of my mind. I see no injustice done or being done to us by God at all in this light.

The reality is that I think Rob Bell’s book is good in that people need to address this issue. However, there’s just way too much philosophising taking place around this discussion. There are too many assumptions, too much reading into Scriptures and Christian theology. There’s also too much emotion and too little study and wrestling with the issue sincerely.

There’s also too much of “God must be like this and fit into that” rather than seeing that God is, well, quite capable of knowing all and understanding context and judging each individual himself and not obligated to fit into our boxes, categories, and limited understandings of what justice and love should look like. Why even Christians persist in making up rules for Him outside of Scripture is beyond me, but yet we do it.

To Conclude

The summary of all this is to say that we should not presume we know the outcome of God’s judgement for everyone. The subtitle of Bell’s book, The Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, is rather silly. Can anyone really tell us the fate of every person who ever lived? No, I fully doubt it. When it comes to anyone’s ultimate fate, we leave that up to God, but that doesn’t mean we don’t preach a warning message about God’s fiery judgement which will fall upon all of those who persist in wickedness.  Including Christians, who won’t go to hell, but will certainly lose significant rewards that God wants to give them (See 1 Cor 3, although this requires another discussion). And it doesn’t mean we don’t preach God’s amazing salvation which includes His Holy Spirit living in us to live lives that are worthy of a calling as God’s very own.

Justice will always catch up. Love wins. Justice wins. That is the Gospel.

* [THEOLOGIANS NOTE: Paul must be referring to unbelievers in vs 6 – 10 because of vs 12 and Romans 1, and his mention of ‘every human being’ in vs 9. If he wasn’t he would be supporting a salvation by works. It can’t be referring to heavenly reward for believers due to the context and vs 9.’]

Blogs (Faith), Life-Ecstatic (Faith)

Dying in Obscurity: In Praise of the Ordinary Life

After Steve Jobs’ death, and not to trivialise the death of anyone, I was left wondering about our success obsessed culture. Or, more aptly, it augmented things that I felt I had to be dealing with and indeed am still dealing with: the fear of dying in obscurity, not having been seen as someone who really did anything for this world.

Our culture and our time seems to view obscurity as the most saddest thing ever. In fact, obscurity is so shunned upon in this celebrity, success obsessed culture that you could swear it’s a moral sin. But who is defining success anyway? And for Christians, why should we be so worried about whether or not we will be a success?

For Christians we often like to talk about how “it’s all about Jesus” and that’s great and completely right, in my opinion, but if that’s the case why is it that so many of us – and I include myself here – are so afraid of obscurity? Why is it that we are driven to doing something big, something so all-important with our lives?

The good news of Jesus Christ is that, well, Jesus gets all the glory. He is the only one glorified. Neither you nor I are the true heroes of the story – it’s Jesus who gets the attention. The good news, and our life’s goal, is to be known by God (which we are in Christ) not to be known by men. I realise for non-Christians that doesn’t sound very appealing, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any less true. It may be that everything we’ve been taught in this world, everything about happiness, is actually just not true.

Our culture would view the ordinary person who lives and dies an ordinary life as so sad, such a waste of life. Well, is it a waste? Or is it because our culture hasn’t a clue what real life is supposed to look like, anyway? I suppose if you view your 60 to 90 years as all you have, the goal of life will be to try and squeeze in as much as possible. But the problem with this driven-ness and idealism is that it results in less contentment, frustration, disappointment and ultimately no happiness at all.

The drive for happiness becomes a slog and a mission, missing the very point. What if our culture actually has it wrong? It’s not an impossibility.

Having high ambitions, lofty goals and reaching them is the pinnacle of success in this world. Yet 1 Thessalonians 4 tells us to make it our ambition to “live a quiet life.” That hardly sounds like the adventure we’re all looking for. While many of us will say we’re not so keen on world-wide fame ala Tom Cruise style, we are so often looking for fame within our own circles – praise from our work colleagues, our friends, our family, and even in church circles for those of us that are involved in that kind of community.

Of course it’s good that our friends and family build us up, but when we are seeking our own glory we are missing our own freedom. After all, he who tries to save his life will lose it. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. These are hard-hitting realities about our Kingdom. (Luke 17:33, Matt 20:16)

If anyone would go after Jesus they are to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23). Jesus is the greatest treasure, ever. If you don’t agree that’s OK, but I haven’t found anything else to be true, to be honest, and I have tried numerous alternatives.

But to have Him we need to deny ourselves and take up our cross. Hardly an easy thing. Yet there it is. Life is not about us. When we finally give it up that’s when we find the contentment and joy we’re looking for. We may die in obscurity, nobody will ever know who we were, yet we will die far happier than many of this world’s greatest heroes who go down in the history books as men and women to be praised. When we finally give up the drive to be known by everyone we can actually focus on those people who count in our lives and finally, at last, joy can be found in the ordinariness and humdrum of our lives. Because I believe that true and eternal joy is actually only found in the person of Jesus Christ, and that’s why I call myself a Christian.

Life, Life-Ecstatic (Faith), Worldview & Culture

Kurt Cobain and Jesus

Kurt Cobain from Nirvana

Kurt Cobain (centre) with Nirvana band members Krist Novoselic (left) and Dave Grohl (right) in a fabulously 90's-styled photograph

Last week was the 20th anniversary of Nirvana‘s Nevermind album, an album (and a time) that had a profound effect on my generation and culture – a middle-class Generation Xer who was just entering high school when the whole ‘grunge’ music scene broke in America. This little write-up is my way of commemorating the album.

I watched a documentary on the making of the Nevermind album with my dad on Saturday and walked away with a buzz of thoughts in my head. The question of what made Kurt Cobain (the lead singer of Nirvana) so influential and moving was on the mind. I then delved on the thought of how people called Cobain ‘messianic’ in a way and began to wonder about this phrase and think of how Jesus and Cobain could possibly be similar.

The crunch is an interesting one. The thing about Cobain is that he was aregular guy getting on with the struggles common to his generation and he sang about these. That was the instant connection many had with him. In a world that was, prior to the grunge revolution, dominated by glam, fashion, corporate perfectionism, Christian religious conservatism, and a myriad of other voices telling us how to live, act, and be; a lone voice singing about how things really were and how we really felt – alienated, different, misunderstood – was a welcome change. Even though many times no one really understood what he was singing about (he would regularly say that people got it wrong) there was some understanding that he was singing about something you knew all too well.

Cobain’s struggles and the struggles of my generation, in retrospect, were actually not that unique. Many people trumped the whole thing up to teen angst, but the reality is those feelings of alienation and frustration with this world are not unique to teens. As adults we might have learned to handle those things in various areas in various ways, or we might have just given up and gone with it, or learned to hide our feelings better etc. but the simple truth is that most common people, like me (and probably you reading this) are still, quite truly, powerless in this world and frustrated with its voices and the pressure it puts on us to be what it wants us to be.

Cobain might have been a kind of messianic figure in that he resonated with the common person (and this is an interesting point which I’ll delve into below) but the problem is that I think he both didn’t really know his enemies – he was almost boxing the air, rebelling against a system but not knowing exactly how to do that – and he provided no actual salvation out of the situation.

Now we look at Jesus and we see some connections here. Jesus was also a revolutionary, a rebel, but he wasn’t boxing the air. He knew who the enemies of mankind actually were, and these are precisely the things he rebelled against.

When you look at Cobain’s music you see these enemies pop up but he doesn’t know how to deal with them and in many ways he actually just accepts that he’ll need to live with some of his demons – indeed, just do what those demons tell him to do. I’m using the word ‘demons’ first metaphorically but I’m going to come at it a different angle later.

One of the three enemies we see Jesus rebel against is the system of the world. And this is precisely where, I think, many Christians have misunderstood and have actually lost their ability to be relevant. Cobain was relevant because he rebelled against an oppressive society (that’s what the Bible refers to when it talks about ‘the world’). Jesus was relevant because he did as well.

In the society of Jesus there was the religious society which hated him, because he rebelled against their oppression. Religious society was intrinsically linked to politics and Jesus rebelled against this whole idea as well. Now, in our days, we see this all too often (especially in America) – religious ideas are tied into political ideas and vice versa. The result is an oppressive system that tells you how you ought to look, what you should eat, how you should talk, what kind of music you should listen to, who you should vote for, what you should vote for, and so on. It tries to control every area of your life – your private and your public – and sets itself up to be God.

God is very interested in every area of our lives but not in the same way. The life of Jesus shows how God is interested – he wants to bring healing, restoration, joy and life into every area of our lives. Rather than tell us what to wear, he wants us to be ourselves. Jesus is not that concerned over who you vote for, but there is a reality that the Kingdom of God is about seeing society transformed from an oppressive society to a free society. A society where my freedoms actually don’t encroach on yours, either. (This requires more explanation and I don’t have the space.)

Jesus also understood the powerlessness of the ordinary man, mainly because he lived like an ordinary person. He wasn’t even some rich king who give up his goods to live amongst the ‘common people’ but was a common person from birth – the son of a carpenter, living in dusty desert towns.

In those days, much like these, if you didn’t have a lot of money, weren’t of noble background, or were in the wrong place at the wrong time you were powerless. Consider today, how common people like you and I are powerless in the face of corporations, governments, banks, and even religious institutions. Cobain often sang of this powerlessness as a young man starts realising that, quite honestly, all the dreams of his childhood are crushed by real living. It’s not because real life sucks, it’s because the system of the world sucks life out of you, oppresses you, ensures you’re powerless and that all the money and power goes into the hands of the elite which we must serve with our hearts and lives.

I realise this might be a melodramatic picture but it’s not too far away from my reality as a middle-class white guy living in South Africa. If I’m not careful the banks, as an example, will own me for the rest of my life. If I don’t know how to discern religion from what the Bible calls ‘true’ religion, I will be driven by a religious organisation that wants to control my life. If I don’t know how to separate my political opinions correctly, politics will dictate to me for the rest of my life. If I don’t keep my wits about me, corporations will tell me what to buy and why I’m not a success if I don’t buy their car, product etc. and consumerism will start consuming me. The system of the world oppresses us on every corner.

If Christians, like me, want to be relevant we better know how to relate to the common person. In many ways, I think God doesn’t take us out of tough situations sometimes so that we know how to relate to the common person. If I didn’t experience the oppression of the world in my own life in some way, then I would never understand just how the world oppresses the common person and I would be irrelevant to the common person. Rebels are relevant because they’re really the common person who understands the common struggle. Jesus is relevant today because he not only knew the struggle, he experienced it himself – eventually experiencing the ultimate injustice as the systems of the world put him onto a cross when he was the least deserving of such a death.

There are two other enemies which haunted Cobain and which Jesus understood and looked to defeat through his life, death and (yes) resurrection. These other two are sin and Satan. These two are difficult for people who hold different beliefs to me to really take seriously (indeed, sometimes I struggle to as well because of our culture) but they’re worth bringing up.

We see Cobain struggles with his own sins regularly – it seems to me they troubled him and he was frustrated because the world and not even religious institutions had any grace. This is true – there is no grace in the world system. If you’re not on the top of the game (and even if you are) you are vulnerable and, if you make one mistake, you can pay with it for the rest of your life (think of debt and so on). Religious systems are the same in their own way. It’s unfortunate that, from a spiritual perspective, Cobain turned towards more religion (Buddhism) as an answer. Buddhism doesn’t really have any grace but, as far as I’m concerned, ties you into an oppressive system of karma that insists you will pay, if not in this life, in the next for everything you’ve done wrong and the only way of changing that is to do right. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to indicate just how much you need to do right before you’ve satisfied Karma – and besides, even sometimes we do the right thing and people still get hurt.

Jesus attacked the enemy of sin and how our sins haunt us through grace. That’s what his death is all about – he paid the price of sin so that we don’t need to. God has come to heal, not condemn. He gives us His spirit if we trust in Him so we can change and sin can rule over us less and less (sometimes even instantly with certain sins) but we now sit under a system of grace, not oppression, of acceptance not performance. Again, this can be explored in many books but I think the basic point here is made clear.

The last one, Satan – the spiritual evil of this world that tempts, deceives, and so on. People believe that they’re doing the right thing by oppressing others because they’re deceived into thinking that. People think their sins can save them because they’ve been deceived into thinking so.

I don’t believe there’s a little red man sitting on our shoulders telling us what to do, but I do believe that demonic oppression is very real and we see Jesus dealt with that thing over and again in people’s lives and, ultimately, by defeating Satan on the cross and being raised up to life on the third day. Satan’s deception into bringing us all into sin has brought death into this world. Jesus conquered death and promises all those who believe in Him that they will too.

The reality is while there isn’t a little red man sitting on our shoulder there is certainly a world system that truly looks like it’s influenced by some sort of spiritual evil. You don’t look at the Nazi ideology and think that humans came up with it all themselves. There’s always this underlying Madness, this strange Insanity, a dark spiritual evil that looks to influence in various ways.

I realise this may come across to some as superstitious but it requires some thought and also a clearing away of cartoonic ideas of a man with a forked tail and a pitchfork. Jesus knew that his enemy was not people but the spiritual evil influencing those people and that’s precisely what he targeted. Cobain, unfortunately, fell into the trappings of such spiritual evils and as a result couldn’t love himself, with the end result seeing him dead on the 8th of April 1994. (And, then, unfortunately pop and rubbish music went back to being the mainstream. Man, I miss those days in music!)

Jesus has defeated this spiritual evil and will one day bring His final justice on it by throwing Satan and his demons into the place reserved for them (not reserved for humans) – the lake of fire. I’m not keen to get into a discussion about hell here but if you struggle with God as a judge, read the Gospels and see that Jesus’ heart is not to judge mankind but to judge Satan and his demons, sin and the oppressive systems of this world. (Unfortunately, though, some humans have decided that Satan, the world and sin are all pretty good ideas, and they will be judged appropriately.)

Cobain was a legend in his own way and it’s a huge pity that his life was ended by the very enemies he tried to rebel against, but this is the way it goes when you don’t fight with the right weapons. I don’t believe we can rebel against the unholy trinity of the world, sin and Satan without the power of God – which God gives us through his Holy Spirit when we decide to put our trust in Him and not in ourselves or the unholy trinity. Cobain is an example of how we are unable to save ourselves.

I don’t mean to set up the sad death of someone as some sort of moral example, trivialising the sadness of his death, but in a way it is also honouring to him (I believe) to learn from his life.

Nirvana were never a technically good band in terms of music but I have to say that I miss that whole time of music when the scene wasn’t dominated by fashion and glam and image and, frankly, stupidity like we have to be subjected to today with Lady Gaga and the like. The record industry did, admittedly, make a fashion out of non-fashion (as true Capitalists would) and make a trend out of rebellion against the trends, but heck it was still a lot more real than Lady Gaga who thinks that being bisexual makes you relevant. I don’t think it does. (Yes, I know Cobain once said he might be bisexual too, but anyway.) It just means you’re a part of this oppressive system that hates us. It doesn’t make you a rebel it makes you a conformer.

I, for one, refuse to conform to any of it. That’s why I follow Jesus.

Blogs (Faith), Life-Ecstatic (Faith)

Jesus, Psychology and the Holy Spirit: Don’t be the Victim

psychology and Jesus

Isn’t it interesting how you can’t really find much psychology in the Bible? Unless, of course, you really start interpreting verses in a particular (and even awkward) way?

This has often been a frustration for me because when it comes to morality I want to know how I’m supposed to live morally, not just what morals I should have. But the Bible is rather silent on this.

For example, let’s look at the case of addictions. If you have a certain addiction problem, such as a sexual addiction, there are many answers in the world of psychology to help you deal with it. But when you go to the Bible you can’t really find anything rock solid in terms of a formula. What you’re told are really a few basic things:

(1) Don’t do it
(2) Walk by the Spirit
(3) Think of things that are good and pure

But we want to know how to do all these things. Which steps do I put in place to walk by the Spirit? How do I think of things good and pure? Doesn’t God know it’s not that easy? And yet the Bible offers not much (if anything) in that department. All it says is do it.

But beneath this frustration lies something profoundly deep, yet profoundly simple and profoundly liberating. If that’s all the Bible says about something like sex addiction, it means that God really believes we can just do it. You never see Jesus offer a psycho-analysis of a problem, ever. You don’t see him say things like, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye” and continue with, “I’ll tell you why. It’s because when you were a child your parents shouted at you too much and judged you. The need to perform was ingrained into you. So now you are judgmental of others.” Rather, Jesus simply says, “Hey, stop judging others. First take out the log in your own eye.” (Matt 7:3, paraphrased of course.)

We like to shirk our faults onto others. For quite some time our Western society has punted the victim mentality. Every action of yours has a supposed psycho-analytical background and, of course, solution. It’s not your fault – it’s the fault of your parents or even, in the case of pop-spiritual-psychology, it’s because your great grandfather was a Freemason or something like that.

It’s rather typical of our society and for humankind in general, in its thirst for knowledge of everything without having accountability to God (remember the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden?) to formulate mathematical equations even around how to become a better person. This is nothing new. Except it’s always complicated. For example, to sort out a judgmental attitude we have to travel back in time to when we were kids and assess what our parents did to us and forgive them and work through the hurt they (often ignorantly) caused. Because this kind of thing involves forgiveness many people think it’s a very Christian way of looking at things, but I daresay it isn’t. It’s good to forgive our parents – when I realised they weren’t perfect and forgave them for that it was liberating – but how many times must I go back to my childhood to find the source of my attitudes, problems, addictions, sins and guilt?

Jesus says we should forgive and yet provides no reason why. It’s something we should do because God says so and He knows what’s best for us. It seems obvious that forgiveness is good and healthy and all of God’s morals bring lasting joy (some of them require pain first) but there’s not always a logical reason why we should do something Jesus commands us to do. Such as love our enemies, for instance.

And what is the point of going back in time anyway? That’s like tripping over a rock during my morning run and breaking my leg, then going back to the rock later to see how I tripped over it expecting that knowledge to sort out my broken leg. There’s obviously no point in doing that. We can’t go into the past for everything, that’s blaming the past rather than taking care of the problem in the now.

I’m not advocating a problem with psychology and with Christians who feel called to that field. Their task is a difficult one, however, as that field is in desperate need of some decent moral reasoning. It’s also in desperate need to stop nurturing the victim mentality. But more than that so is our culture.

As a generation X-er I was psycho-analysed and characterised from the day I was born and grew up in a culture when psychology really had become the new religion for many. Talk shows were and are all about it. In school it was drilled into me. The subject of ‘guidance’, for instance, never equipped me or anyone for the real world but only ever was interested in psycho-analysis and sex, at least as far as I can remember.

I couldn’t even get away from it in the Church, except here psychological ideas were tagged with an extra spiritual component. For example, you need to find where you were hurt in the past and let Jesus heal there; your grandfather was a Freemason so you are suffering from some sickness; you were laughed at in school and so you have a low self-worth, and that’s the result of your depression, but Jesus can give you a better self-worth, etc. While this may sometimes be the case(s) (although I question the Freemason thing) it’s not always the case for everyone, but the problem with our culture is it expects a blanket answer and formula for everyone. Many churches, books, pastors etc. got on board with this thinking and pop-psychology became the new religion. This is still a problem. Go into any Christian book store and it’s plain to see.

Getting rid of guilt

We do look for where we can shift the responsibility for our actions in the great quest to ease our conscience and no longer feel guilty anymore. I acknowledge this wide-ranging problem of guilt, but I believe the solution lies in the grace of God – coming under his Fathering and knowing there is grace and forgiveness there. I also acknowledge that true moral living can only be lived in reality when we have the Holy Spirit, which requires us to be born again.

But the issue is that when we believe too strongly in psychology (you need to go through endless healing ever to live morally well) and too little on what God says (you really have the ability to do this thing) we find ourselves constantly battling to live the way we want to. As I’ve jettisoned pop-psychology in my life more and more I’ve found it really is easier to live the way God wants me to, because it becomes simpler to do so. It’s liberating. My mind and my attitude aren’t hampered by a victim mentality and endless formulas for getting things done.

In parenting my kids I want to teach them very early to stop pretending to be a victim and to take responsibility for their actions and just live well. Victim mentality is not helping anyone. Pop-psychology and spiritual-pop-psychology is creating a society that doesn’t know its right hand from its left anymore, because every action has an excuse. Don’t be the victim. Walk by the Spirit. Don’t rely on psycho-analysis. Take Jesus’ word for it that we can just do it. He has given us everything for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). We can do this thing.

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The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) and Why I Cringe

Oprah Winfrey NetworkOn New Years day Oprah Winfrey launched her very own television network, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) and I cringe, more than I would if someone took a piece of blunt chalk and scraped it on a board for 10 hours.

In numerous interviews and articles I’ve seen Oprah define her goal for the network to revolve around people being ‘all that they can be.’ Finding the potential inside of you. Becoming everything you are.

I cringe at all of this because I find it incredibly shallow and fluffy. That’s not because I’m a man. My wife agrees with me. It’s not the crying or the so-called straight-talk that bugs me, it’s all this you, you, you stuff that’s mixed with a thorough ‘works’ and ‘formulas’ view to a better life and even salvation, with the latter end promoted by a shallow mystical spirituality that Oprah tends to really believe in, evidenced by her quote where she says she has asked God to “Use me… use me until you use me up.”

Oprah finds support because she appeals to something that is hardly new and has been around with us and has been the cause of many (or perhaps all) of our problems: this idea of ours to be the master of our own destinies, to be the gods of our own lives, where God’s main purpose in all of this is to bring us a better life, and our way of attaining God’s favour is doing all the right things.

Oprah’s many shows on her network represent all the formulas. We’ve got some phsycoanalysis with Doctor Phil, who might be a straight-talker and I can sometimes appreciate his way of dealing with things, but the whole vibe glorifies the West’s therapeutic culture where we are, in some way, a victim and ALL things are easy for us to overcome, if we just do it right. We needn’t worry about God’s grace or His Spirit (even though there might be talk of His Spirit in Oprah-land, but more in a way where its all about us and not about the Spirit), we just need to follow the formulas. The same idea even comes out in Oprah’s sex show. Good sex boils down to right formulas, even formulas for relationships, and formulas save us — not God.

You might say I’m taking a narrow and very conservative, gun-ho Christian fundamentalist attitude, but let me show you why I don’t believe I am. Oprah’s message resonates with many Western Christians and churches, liberal or conservative, precisely because it’s so formula driven. Even conservatives, who may say in one corner of their mouth that Oprah is some form of false prophet and New Age and whatever else, will go around saying that if we do thing’s “God’s Way” then we will find ourselves living in freedom. We need to raise our children “God’s Way”, or run our businesses “God’s Way” to enjoy a better life. In principle I might agree, but in experience even doing thing’s “God’s Way” doesn’t provide a ‘better life’. The problem is that the goal of a ‘better life’ may not be what God wants for us after all.

Both of these views rely on formulas to get what we want — a better life. But there are two problems here. Firstly, why do we think the point of living is to get a ‘better life’? And secondly, why is it that there are so many formula’s out there?

Christian teaching talks about grace, how we need God’s grace to have eternal life. The difference here is joy within circumstances, not joy because our circumstances have changed. The difference is also trusting God for salvation, salvation in this life and in the next age; not trusting formulas. So both Oprah and high conservatives I view on the same side — they’re both just selling different formulas that will get us to the same old myth; the same mirage; of a ‘better life’. Neither of them can promise joy in our circumstances, because that’s not really what we think we want. The goal is a better life now. And whoever can sell their formula the best, wins.

But joy in our circumstances — rather than our circumstances taken away — may just be what we really want, because it seems that these formulas work for some, but not for others, and I for one refuse to live my life going from one answer to the next trying to make it work. I’ve been there, done that. None of the formulas I was taught worked for me, and none of those I taught myself have consistently worked. Rather, I’ll rely on God’s grace, not to make life work, but to sustain me with his joy, peace, and love through the hard times — which can’t be avoided and <i>will</i> come.

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Do We Know How to Ask?

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened … If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:7-11)

I write this in a time when I am doing a LOT of asking God for things, many of which I have been trusting for for years now.

In our modern McDonalds fast-food culture, we can get confused with scriptures that tell us to simply ‘ask’ and we will receive. Attempts at making this easier to understand by including the idea that we must ask what God wants can sometimes just aggravate us, because many things we ask for (such as health or a healing) seem to make sense to be God’s will, both biblically and logically.

But the kind of asking the Bible talks about is different. It incorporates these other two actions as well — seeking and knocking. The knocking can, quite clearly, refer to a persistence and the seeking to a knowing of what God’s will is, but I think there’s more to it than just that (as profound as those might be).

We don’t just seek to know His Will but we seek to know Him. We seek His presence. In our asking, seeking His presence is a huge part of the whole thing. We don’t just want to know what God wants, we want to know who he is. And we want to keep knocking on the door where we keep asking, “Who are You Lord? Show me who You are!” If we seek we will find, if we knock the door will be opened.

Do we know what asking means? Do we know how to ask? God is not a McDonalds, clearly, we don’t do much seeking and knocking when we pick up our double cheese burgers. Neither are those double cheese burgers very nourishing. As we seek and knock to know Him, we find ourselves nourished, with peace, joy and such things; the very core need of any of our prayers.

God wants us to ask, seek and knock at the same time. See, God is not one who is quick to reward, but when he rewards, he rewards richly.

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Why Theology is Important for Social Justice Pt 1

World religions, theologies and spiritualities

I think theology is a highly important topic. That’s why I write about it so much. Our theology (or lack of one) is important because it influences the way we live, and therefore it influences the way we see justice and how we take action.

Justice, or social justice, is a big topic these days. Everyone’s talking about it in some form or another, while fewer may be doing something about it, and even fewer can get to do something about it full-time.

If you’re a pantheist (the belief that God is everything, and everything is God, basically) or a panentheist (the belief that God is IN everything, and everything IN God) I think social justice will be a challenge. If God is everything, God is also the evil people of the world, and he is also that instinct, that tendency, to do evil. If God is IN everything, he is also IN that tendency, and IN evil people (and they are IN him).

Pantheism and panentheism is a very interesting and romantic way of looking at the world. But I think it can lead to problems of justice. I think Taoism is one of the most mature pantheistic philosophies out there, but a core tenet of Taoism is not to disrupt the flow of things — as the Beatles sang: “Let it be.” Evil and death can seem so natural because it’s all we’re used to, but if we believe we must not disrupt the ‘flow’ of things, then how could we be passionate about social justice? I don’t see any logical way that we could.

Now I would like to be fair to pantheism and panentheism and not write it off just like that with a few words. I’d be open to debate it as I think it would make an interesting discussion. But even pantheism’s modern cousin (a kind of spiritual environmentalism) presents the same problem. Even its strange cousin (a sort of atheist pantheism, which we’ll talk about) presents problems for justice.

Our theology influences our worldview, and our worldview influences the way we live. We’ll expand on this through a series of posts.

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God’s Glory is not a Laser Show

(Image from here)

What is God’s glory, exactly? What do (some) Christians mean when they talk about the ‘glory realm’?

Well, I think for a lot of Christians God’s glory looks something like a laser show, metaphorically speaking. For them it’s about bright flashing lights, angels appearing, the skies cracking open — THAT’s God’s glory for them. It’s all about the eyes — it’s all about seeing something amazing.

But Christianity can not and should never be relegated to that. This isn’t a laser show. This is about hearts changing. The fruits of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness and self-control. When people talk about God’s glory why don’t they ever talk about that? Is God’s glory about seeing something amazing, experiencing something out-of-this-world? Or is it in the simple day-to-day reality of becoming a person that reflects Jesus — a person who produces those fruits in a real rubber-hits-the-road kind of way.

A lot of people get stuck in hype rather than reality. Flashing lights are cool and all but they last only a moment. The Spirit producing His fruit is a lifetime thing. God’s glory is in the quiet un-hyped transformation of hearts. I recall Elijah’s experience when there was an earthquake and a forceful wind — yet the Lord was not in them. Rather, he was in the small, still voice. (1 Kings 19.)

Perhaps the reason for this disparity is when we don’t understand how glorious God’s creation actually is. The earth is glorious, and so are we — God’s creation, made in His image. Heaven and Earth met in Jesus when he walked this planet and now meet in us, by His Spirit. And, surprise surprise, most of that isn’t a big light show.

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In the World But Not of the World: Transformation

(Picture from here)

This is the last part on a series of posts that link to a sermon I recently did at my church, Church on the Square in Sandton, Johannesburg.

In the last post I mentioned that in this post I would talk about transformation, since the series has focused more on the separation of Church and State and how that means the following:

1) That the Church should never be the State and should never wield the sword. The State’s responsibility is to wield the sword. The Church is a people, not an institution.

2) Christians are transferred into a Kingdom which functions under a King named Jesus — ie. political opinions must be seen as separate to the Church. If you’re a socialist and I believe in democracy our core mission, the Kingdom, is the same — which is to love others sacrificially and unconditionally like Jesus did, and let the world know that they can find love, joy, peace, salvation, real eternal life, and much more in Jesus. We should make sure we understand that political opinions are not the same as theological opinions — democracy or socialism is not a theology, it’s merely just a political opinion. Sure, one might turn out to be better than the other, but that doesn’t mean it is necessary more Christian, because the only thing Christian in this world is essentially people.

3) That the Church (the people) should never mix world ideologies with Christian ones — ala thinking that democracy is of the Bible and the spread of democracy akin to the advancing of the Kingdom; living like capitalists with our money instead of Christians who give generously and don’t make upgrading their lifestyle their core mission in life; always exercising our rights over others and looking to have power over them rather than serve them as Jesus served/serves us; judging people according to their income, education; and so forth.

4) The Church should never run as the world does — ie. running a church like a democracy (pastors / elders are voted into their job); running a church like a socialist state; and so forth.

That summary shows how difficult it can be to understand how we are still to transform our world and make it into a better place. After all, Christians do pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is done in heaven. Plus, the Kingdom works its way through the whole dough, meaning that it is meant to permeate every aspect of society in every way.

‘In the world but not of the world’ is probably the best way to explain this. I think that the principle way transformation is done is through love first, which puts us on a relational level with others or those in power. Only then can we suggest (and only suggest) what might be good in a particular situation, or point politicians towards the basic principles espoused in the Bible, leaving it to them to work it out in detail, as that is, after all, their job.

Christians should also get involved with social causes as much as they can, as long as the social causes don’t become the core focus. We can bring as much food to poor people as we want, but until their hearts are changed (by Jesus himself as they believe in Him) they will not be able to truly break out of the systems of thought and spiritual entanglements that hold them in poverty.

Poverty is perhaps the easiest way to show what I mean. It seems pretty obvious that God has a big heart for the poor and so should we. This means that we should encourage our government(s) to look after the poor in various ways. But HOW that is done is a matter of political and economical opinion, not biblical opinion. It probably makes more sense to work in helping poor people be lifted out of the systems of thought that hold them captive rather than just give them hand-me-outs, but there is a time for hand-me-outs too. How that is worked out is not mentioned in the Scriptures — the Scriptures merely show us that we SHOULD care for the poor and for justice, but it’s up to us to work that out in the details, and to work with the State as best we can to work it out, but only as advisers never anything more.

Something like freeing people from slavery is an obvious evil to work against. But there are evils that are not so obvious, especially when it comes to things such as whether the State should allow homosexual couples to get married. (I realise this is controversial but it’s worth saying and it might stir up some conversation.)

After all, is it fair for a State to give benefits to heterosexual couples but not homosexual couples? Shouldn’t it view all people equally? Aren’t all viewed equal in the sight of God? The argument for or against it can be quite persuasive both ways.

I believe the Bible speaks against homosexuality as a lifestyle, but that’s something for Christians. Whether or not the State should allow such couples to get married is more a matter of political opinion than of anything else. Sure, I think a healthy country boils down to healthy families, but how this is all worked out in detail is a matter of opinion. What I do know, however, is that the State should never force the Church to marry homosexuals, as much as the Church should never enforce its morality through the State. Both have disastrous consequences.

People should come to Christ willingly. Our job is to love them sacrificially and unconditionally so that they would choose our God, enjoy the life He gives, and then choose His morality and lifestyle for themselves. The legalising of homosexual marriage I don’t think makes our job any harder than it already is. We love people just the same and counsel them just the same. Sometimes we have to love through difficult situations, but we ought to do it just the same.

Through the changing of hearts society itself will look more Christ-like, which is what we want, but that would be through people exercising a freedom to choose, rather than being under a compulsion — either socially or legally — by the Church. And it will come through us loving and living like Jesus.

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In the World But Not of the World: Ideologies Do Not Rule Us

(Picture sourced from here

Because the Church and State are two separate entities and serve two different functions — the State serving to keep justice in the land, the Church serving to love others sacrificially — Christians can hold different political / economical opinions and yet still work together in the same Kingdom, because the Kingdom is our primary concern.

In Jesus’ day Simon was called a Zealot, which indicates that he held a certain political opinion. Basically, the zealots believed the Romans should be chased out of Israel by brute force.

On the other hand, Matthew was a tax collector, who effectively was working with the Romans and collecting tax for them. It’s easy to see that these two men held two vastly different political opinions, but Jesus calls them to the same Kingdom and they work together for the same end. That’s how the Kingdom works.

Likewise, you may be a socialist and I may be a capitalist. Or, rather, to prevent those ideologies from being our identity (calling you a socialist makes it your identity, which it isn’t) let’s rather say that you may believe a socialist form of government / economics will work, while I believe a capitalist economical system will work for the nation. We may hold extremely different viewpoints politically / economically, but we can work together because we agree on the same things in the Kingdom — we both agree we should love all sacrificially, that we should tell people that God loves them and wants them to know Him.

There are a couple of points that can be highlighted here.

First, neither capitalism or socialism is more biblical than the next, because the New Testament makes no comment on how a country should be run, but more on how a Christian should live. There are some basic principles that a country should do (uphold justice), but there are no detailed policies listed in the New Testament. As I said in my previous post, Christians are called to turn the other cheek, the State is not.

Because neither is more biblical we should never use the Bible to promote a political / economical ideology. Many pro-democracy people, especially some Americans to be honest (I’m not slamming Americans), think that Democracy comes from the Bible, and that the Bible supports democracy, so if they spread democracy they believe they are spreading the Kingdom. But if you check it out there are scriptures to support socialism in the Bible as well, and there are many. The point is that the Bible isn’t interested in these ideologies.

Second, in reference to this, our ideologies do not rule us. We are born into a Kingdom with a King, who is Jesus. HE rules us. He tells us what to do and we do it.

Third, we should never bring these ideologies into the church. Churches must not run like democracies or social governments. They run according to the Kingdom, under one Head, who is Jesus, and work through relationships between those in the church.

So when it comes to how we live we don’t apply the principles of capitalism on how we should handle money. We may believe capitalism is good for the country and good for our business, but it’s not good for our personal lives, and it’s not good for the Church. Jesus said we cannot serve two masters. We serve God and Him alone, and we don’t run our personal lives or the church by ideologies like democracy, capitalism, socialism, collectivism, or any other of these types of ideas.

So do you run your personal finances like a capitalist or a Christian? Do you approach your income like a capitalist or a Christian? That’s the challenge for us in South Africa, where capitalism is becoming the culture.

Sorry for the long post. The next post will cover transformation — so how should we affect government / society / politics / economics then? Do we have nothing to do with these? Or do we influence them in some way? And how could we influence them without getting sidetracked and with keeping our focus intact?