Saturday, May 29, 2010


I've recently discovered the 'Unbelievable' podcast from Premier Christian Radio. Its quite good, if a bit biased, and cheesy. The basic format is to have a Christian guest and a non-Christian guest on each week to debate the issue of the week. Occasionally they break from this format to have, for example, a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim on the show to debate some topic. On other occasions they have Christians with different viewpoints debating the issue.
I've just listened to the podcast on 'Hell' (from August last year). On the show they had three Christians representing two different viewpoints: James White was defending the "eternal conscious torment" position while Roger & Faith Forster were defending the "conditional immortality" position, that is, that at some point the people in hell will be utterly destroyed and will not live forever.

I found the whole debate to be a bit pointless, quite annoying and, to be honest, the in-built beliefs of both sides were pretty distasteful at points.

Its amazing what you can end up believing if you build your world view and your belief of God on certain selective verses.

The most distasteful (in my opinion) belief that the "conditional immortality" camp put forward was this: that the sinner cast into hell would experience suffering and torment for a period of time, more or less proportional to the amount of sin, after which they would be annihilated and would cease to exist. In other words, they believe in a God who tortures people before killing them. There is no love in that picture. Sorry, but I can't reconcile that with an awful lot of statements about God which are in the bible.

However, I have to say that on the whole, if I had to ally myself to one side or the other in this debate, theirs was the more agreeable position. I found much more to disagree with in the other opinion.

The other opinion seemed to rest on this assumption - that any sin committed against an infinite God requires infinite punishment. Sorry, what? How do you come to that conclusion? The bible never paints God as being infinite for a start (infinity is a mathematical concept that cannot be applied to real things; if God were infinite, there would be no room in the multiverse for anything else except God, so if its true, then we're all God, and so is the devil, and so is the internet, etc. - this is clearly not the case), but beyond that, the bible is quite clear that the punishment should always fit the crime. There is no logic in this deduction, a finite crime should always have finite consequences.

Where the debate really broke down, for me, was when they came to the subject of the Cross. Somehow - in the mind of James White at least, and in the others to a lesser extent - Jesus was able to pay for all the sin of all those who believe in his name in a period of suffering and death that lasted about a day, followed by up to three days in hell (according to some). Meanwhile, it is not possible for one sinner to atone for his own sins in an infinite eternity of suffering in hell. Sorry, I just can't go along with that view of the atonement.

If sin can be atoned for by suffering & death, then finite sin can be atoned for by finite suffering and death. Therefore hell should not be eternal.

If sin cannot be atoned for by suffering and death, then an eternity of suffering counts for nothing, and a loving God would not impose this on anyone. Therefore there should be no hell.

Am I missing something here? Or over-simplifying it?

Personally I hold to the opinion that 'hell' is the destroying fire where the rubbish is thrown. The fire may be eternal, but the rubbish is consumed and destroyed. It is not a place of consciousness, but of annihilation. Anyone cast into hell will cease to be. But this is not a belief that is foundational to my belief system, and I admit that I may be wrong on this. Its just what I currently believe. Listening to this debate has not provided me with any compelling evidence or reasoning to change my stance on this belief.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Am I a hypocrite?

There was some discussion of a minor issue in a bible passage at housegroup on Thursday. Doesn't really matter what the passage or issue was.

I have my own personal opinions on the subject under discussion, some honest doubts that are really quite technical and not really suitable for the level of discussion we were having in housegroup.

But I also knew the 'orthodox' answer. And so when the discussion started to get messy, I stepped in, quoted the appropriate verses from the appropriate passages and resolved the discussion to the satisfaction of the group.

Thing is, I have some serious issues with the passage I quoted and (along with some proper bible scholars) am reasonably convinced that it is a very late-written passage, written by someone other than the person it claims as author. Basically, I'm not sure that the passage has any right to be included in the canon of scripture. Thus the reasoning I used is (in my opinion) false.

Does that make me a hypocrite?

In my defence, I did it 'for the sake of the weaker brother'. It was the appropriate way to deal with the discussion and it probably helped boost the faith and understanding of some of the group. But I do feel a bit of a hypocrite.

I wonder, do ministers often have this feeling? Presenting the opinion that the congregation needs to hear, even if they personally disagree? If you're a minister reading this, please let me know. Anonymously (or, preferably, pseudonymously) if you like.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Apostles' Creed

The Apostles' Creed (3rd Century, or thereabouts) says this:
I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost;
The holy Catholic Church;
The Communion of Saints;
The Forgiveness of sins;
The Resurrection of the body,
And the Life everlasting.
What I find interesting about this creed is not necessarily what it says, but rather what it doesn't say, and what is implied from the things it does say. Of course - and this will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog - I don't agree with all of it. Its not necessarily that I disagree with all of it, but just that I think some of it is treading on that shaky ground where I'm happy to say 'I don't know' and not happy to land on one side or the other.

Most of the 'I believe' statements actually need some unpacking. When it says 'I believe in the Holy Ghost' what does that mean? For example, it doesn't say 'I believe that the Holy Ghost is the third person of the Trinity'. Its more like 'I believe that there is something or someone called The Holy Ghost', but it tells me nothing about what the claimant believes about the Holy Ghost.

And what about the 'Communion of Saints' - we say these words, but what do we actually mean by them? As I understand it, Catholic teaching traditionally means that there is some mystical unity between Christians who are currently alive and those who are currently in Purgatory or Heaven. But I've never, ever, in nearly 40 years of church-going heard this preached upon, and I very much doubt that the majority of Evangelical Christians actually believe this, although they might repeat these words in Church every now and again.

What else? Well, why is the virginity of Mary such an important point here? If I believe all of this, except the virginity of Mary, does that mean that my salvation is lost? I doubt it, so why specify it? Even more than that, why include 'under Pontius Pilate'? The only conceivable reason for mentioning Pilate here is that, at the time the creed was formulated, there must have been some debate - some voices must have been claiming that Christ died at some other point in history, and this creed was aiming to stamp out the heresy.

And what about the 'descended into hell' bit? Is there a hell that is a physical place? Is it below? Was it there 2000 years ago or is it a future thing, like Revelation seems to imply? So much of Jesus's teaching relates to lifestyle-choices which will keep you out of hell, surely he is the least likely person ever to have gone there, if such a place even existed?

But what doesn't it say? It says nothing about how to live, it says nothing about love, relationship, service of others, acts of generosity or sacrifice. It doesn't acknowledge that Jesus did or said anything during his earthly life. The only thing he was born to do was suffer and die, if this is any kind of basis of faith. His commands were clearly not fundamental to faith.

The more I think on these issues, the more annoyed I get. I reject this creed and all others.