Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Satan's Oldest Trick

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die." (Genesis 3:1-3, NIV)

For the past 10 years or so, I have spent a good deal of time studying and questioning a doctrine that most Christians hold: the doctrine of never-ending punishment. Although I have written about this several times on this blog, I don't really bring it up a lot in personal conversations (as hell is a somewhat awkward topic to work in most conversations- unless the topic is Razorback football). From time to time, though, I do visit with folks about my work on the topic who seem interested. Most people, in my experience, are deeply interested in exploring this doctrine. 

On a couple of occasions, though, I have had people express a grave concern about questioning such matters. For some people, the Bible is so clear in supporting this doctrine that they equate critically examining what the biblical texts mean with rejecting the authority of the Bible outright. One time, after giving someone what was probably too lengthy of an explanation about why the Greek word in the New Testament often translated as "everlasting" doesn't necessarily imply a chronological period of never-ending duration (a point, by the way, which is granted even by most defenders of the traditional doctrine of hell), my conversation partner quickly and easily rebutted my whole explanation by saying, "You know, Satan's oldest trick is to get us to doubt what God says."

There are a couple problems with this response. First, as a rebuttal, it is inadequate because it assumes what it is trying to prove. It assumes the traditional interpretation is true and then accuses me of refusing to accept it, when the whole question in the first place is, "What does this text really mean?" Second, and I think more interesting, is the fact that this objection actually distorts the meaning of the text that it alludes to (Gen. 3:1-3). 

God told Adam they they could eat from any tree except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. When the serpent arrives and starts doing his thing, he plants the suggestion in Eve's brain that God prohibited eating from any tree, which Eve quickly corrects. However, notice that in the way that Eve plays back the command from God to the serpent, she adds to it the words "and you must not touch it." God never said they couldn't touch it, only that they couldn't eat from it. The serpent's clever plan, to make God seem more restrictive and harsh than God really is, was a success.

Satan's oldest trick isn't to get us to doubt what God says. 

Satan's oldest trick is to get us to think that God said something that God never said. 

It is to get us to believe that God is harsh and unreasonable, so that we will turn away from God. Satan knows that if he can get people to imagine God as being unreasonably punitive and unnecessarily restrictive, this will turn people away from following God. It is worth noting that in Jesus's parable of the talents, the servant who was disobedient was so because he wrongly thought of the master as harsh and vindictive (Matt. 25:24-25). 

Many people have turned away from God because of the doctrine of a never-ending hell. They have rejected God because deep down they believe that a God who would torture people forever is not a God worth loving and serving. Ironically, while many people stereotype atheists as immoral, many atheists in fact reject religion for deeply moral reasons. (See Phil Zuckerman's Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion). 

I believe that the Scriptures and the Christian faith unequivocally affirm that God is just and that God's justice will one day make all things right. There is a challenging edge to the Christian conception of God because God cares about God's world and God isn't going to let sin, evil, and injustice have the last word. A God of love must be a God of judgment. 

That said, it seems to me that Satan's oldest trick, to make God seem excessively harsh, could be more fittingly applied to those who hold to the doctrine of never-ending punishment, rather than to those who question that view. If I were Satan (which isn't a hypothetical that I entertain often, just so you know), I wouldn't try to get people to not believe in God. I would try to get people to believe that God is really a very angry and vindictive being. After all, what better way to keep people from really loving God than to keep them afraid of him? So, a number of years ago, I started asking myself these questions:

What if the doctrine of a never-ending hell is actually the result of Satan's oldest trick? 

What if God never actually taught that in the Bible?

What if the Western Church's dominant interpretation of what the Bible says about divine judgment has been shaped and distorted by the whispers of the serpent?

What if?

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Review of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate

Justin Lee has a voice and a story that everyone needs to listen to. He is the leader of The Gay Christian Network (, a regular blogger (, and the author of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate. In his first book, Lee offers his readers a wide-ranging discussion of the gay debate in the church today, including very even-handed and brief overviews of the biblical and scientific debates. Far and away the strongest aspect of this book, though, is the honest and candid nature in which Lee shares with us his own story. I have never met Justin Lee, but after reading the book you feel like you know him and you can’t help but like him. He’s funny, for starters. How he manages to keep a sense of humor in the midst of such difficult and painful struggles is pretty amazing. He also obviously has a strong desire to live his life as a faithful Christian and to take the Bible very seriously, and you can almost feel this desire coming through every word he writes.

Doing that, however, is complicated by the fact that he is gay. Lee grew up in what he describes as an ideal evangelical home. He has always had a strong interest in being a disciple of Christ (so much so that in school he was labeled “the God-boy”). He very candidly shares with us his deep and painful struggle with his emerging awareness of his sexual orientation. Lee also lets us in on his failed attempts at “fixing” himself through so-called “ex-gay” ministries.

For most Christians, this issue comes down to what they think the Bible teaches, and rightfully so. Lee has done his homework, and is very fair about how difficult it is to determine what the best interpretations are. For those who already find themselves on the liberal side of the biblical debate, my hope is that this book would help you cultivate more understanding towards those who ultimately interpret the Bible as condemning all same-sex relationships. Not all conservatives on this issue are hate-filled bigots, and the conversation is not advanced by assuming otherwise. For those who already find themselves on the conservative side of this issue, my hope is that this book would help you appreciate the thoughtfulness of the way in which Christians on the other side approach the biblical texts. This discussion would take a huge step forward if we could all acknowledge that neither position is obviously true, and that intelligent and loving Christians can come to different conclusions, as we do on virtually every other theological and ethical issue.

We are taking something of a risk regardless of which view we hold. We might be giving in too much to the culture around us. We’ve done that before and we might be doing it now. Or, we might be blocking the movement of God’s Spirit among us and putting a bucket over the fresh light that is waiting to break forth from God’s Word. We’ve done that before and we might be doing it now. The church is torn over which it is, and probably will be for a good while. In the mean time, I am very thankful for people like Justin Lee who set the proper tone by writing with such honesty and grace. Everybody can learn from that.