Scratching Where it NEVER Itches

My daughter is a nursing student at a hospital here in the Philippines. She was looking through some of the reading materials that were left lying around. One caught her attention enough to take a picture of every page. It was a “gospel tract.” Fairly long one. I will put a few quotes here.

In response to the possible objection that spending an eternity in hell is unreasonable (or I would probably reword it as unjust), the writer states:

“It is obvious to everyone but ourselves that eternity in hell is the correct sentence for lawbreakers. A preacher once said, ‘The moment when you take your first step through the gates of hell, the only thing you will hear is all of creation standing to its feet and applauding and praising God because God has rid the earth of you. That’s how not good you are.’

… Not only does God see sin as exceedingly sinful, He is the One against whom each and every offense is primarily committed. If anyone should be angry about sin, it is God Himself. And He is. And that anger will last for an eternity.”

In a different section titled The Inevitable Verdict, the writer says,

“If God finds you guilty, and He will, you will be instantly whisked off to God’s eternal prison, hell. This is your final resting place, but there will be no rest. God’s righteous, holy, indignant wrath will rest on you for all of eternity.

Your first day of activities involves weeping, gnashing your teeth, and torment. Your ten-thousandth day is no different from your first; your suffering will never decrease in intensity. You would give anything for a drop of water or a ray of sunshine, but it never comes. Ever.

You will find no comfort in being surrounded with friends. Hell will not be an eternal party; it will be eternal punishment. And the One inflicting the punishment will be the One against whom you have committed all of your crimes: God Himself.

God, the just judge of the entire world, is going to judge you, and He is willing and able to pour out His anger and wrath on you forever and ever and ever. His holiness, righteousness, and love demand it.

You will receive only ongoing, unrelenting, and intense misery— eternal, conscious torment with no reprieve. You will forever receive the just reward for the unrighteous life you have willingly and knowingly lived.

Is there any hope for sinners like you and me? Is there any way we can escape the horrors of hell?”

I think that is enough. Here are some random thoughts to the presentation. Some are theological, while others are practical. However, my biggest complaint is the first one.

  1.  It scratches where it doesn’t itch. A survey a few years ago found that only about 3% of Americans are afraid of hell. I suspect the writer knows this because he spends 20 pages trying to convince readers that one SHOULD be afraid of hell. He seems more interested in convincing people that Hell is horrible, than that God is loving. But why do that at all? If a person’s itch is on their arm why scratch their shoulder? If a smoker is worried about money, why focus on cosmetic blemishes caused by smoking? Why not focus on how expensive smoking is short-term as well as long-term? Why not scratch where it itches? Salvation brings blessings, meaning and purpose, a place in God’s family, ability to endure struggles, give victory, and more. Why focus on the most negative (and least valued) motivations in this century to reach people?
  2. It focuses on the least interesting (or at least most ambiguous) metaphor. There are many metaphors used in the Bible for salvation. There is the shepherd seeking a person as a lost sheep. There is the adult choosing to adopt an orphan. There is the father seeking a wayward son. There is a person who liberates another from bondage. There is God as a sheltering refuge. There is God as a vinedresser grafting in new branches to an old vine. Instead the writer uses, and reifies, the metaphor of the courtroom. There is value in this metaphor— that is why Paul uses it. But it also places God in the most ambiguous position. God is the judge seeking to pass sentence… while Jesus, as God’s Son, is seen as the one acting as a mediator and payer of debt. This seems to place God the Father as wrathful while God the Son as loving.  It looks like God is schizophrenic (Mark 10:45 has a metaphor with a similar problem). Of course, this problem comes when one takes a metaphor and stretches it too far. God the Father is FAR MORE than a just God seeking to express his “just” anger against EVERY SINGLE PERSON WHO EVER LIVED, into hell for ever and ever and ever, The Father is, after all, the one who sent the Son to rescue mankind as an act of unjustified mercy. This brings the next point.
  3. The writer spends too much time defending God. Over and over again the writer says that God is just. But why would he being doing this? I think it is because he really wants us to condemn ourselves. If we can buy into the idea that God is just, and that we have violated God’s law, then we can embrace the idea that hell is where we belong. But does God really need defending? And more to the point, are we really supposed to be intellectually comfortable with the idea that our Creator truly hates us and wants us to exist forever in torment? I feel that one reason the writer spends so much time defending God is that there is a bit of an unraveling in the logic because of the next point.
  4. God is not all that just. Now before you get all bothered by this point, hear me out. The Old Testament describes two coexising qualities of God throughout… God’s justice and God’s mercy. Mercy, is, in part at least, the quality of suspending justice due to compassion. Thus, God is just… but His justice is limited by His compassion. In the New Testament, John notes that the quality that best defines God is Love, not Justice. I don’t think that it is correct to say that God is fully loving and fully just. There is an imbalance, and that imbalance is in our favor.
  5. God, as described in the gospel tract, is not all that just even in human terms, not just Biblical terms. The writer suggests that God is just for punishing even though we have no option but be guilty, that we have no formal knowledge of standards we must live by, and that everlasting torture is appropriate. This is expressed even though by every standard of justice that we have… including in the Bible (“eye for an eye” is meant to show that punishment must not exceed the act) … would make the activity seem unjust. The most comon emotion recorded of Jesus, the most complete revelation of God, is His compassion and showed great ability to spend time with, and even enjoy the company of, sinners. Also, Paul, who popularized the metaphor of salvation in terms of the courtroom, told unbelievers (in the book of Acts) that God has chosen to overlook their sins because they did not know better. It is hardly surprising that the metaphor of the courtroom is passed over to other metaphors as the role of grace is emphasized in Paul’s writings. (I am not trying to minimize the issue of sin, but to note that the Bible expresses it in a more nuanced way than is commonly expressed in morality plays.)
  6. Some of the hermeneutics in the tract is pretty awful. The writer says that if one is angry than one is guilty of murder, violating one of God’s 10 commandments. Likewise if one has sexual fantasies than one is violating the commandment about adultery. If that was so, than certainly anyone must jump in and say that God is truly unjust since these actions do not violate the letter of the law. A just judge must follow the law. Of course, the writer is drawing from the sermon on the mount, but Jesus did NOT say that anger is the same as murder, or that fantasies are the same as adultery. They are different things. That interpretation violates any sound interpretation of the respective passages. (And it is so unnecessary. The Bible says these things are sinful. That is really enough.) Additionally, the Bible does not actually say that Hell is a place of Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). Now I know this is a hot button topic for some. I will simply say that I don’t know what hell is like… but just note that describing it in Revivalistic terms rather than what the Bible actually says tends to undermine the strength of the argument. Clearly it is a bad place, but going beyond what the Bible says should make one question the writer. Bad hermeneutics tends to lead to distrust in the reader.
  7. The tract is WAY too long. It takes 20 pages just to place the reader in hell. It takes reading that God is unjust and angry for 20 pages before one finally gets to the area where God is presented as (unjustly) being merciful through Christ.
  8. The expressed goal of the writer is to scare the reader. Is that really a good path to loving God?  Maybe, but I doubt it.

To note, I am an Evangelical (although its ties to politics and to nationalism in many circles has made me want to distance myself from the term of late). As such, I generally agree with the basic massage. We need to seek God’s love and mercy to be saved by Him. And this comes through Christ. But as Jackson Wu humorously demonstrated in his book “One Gospel for All Nations,” one can take a lot of true, or at least theologically justifiable, statements and create a hideous monster of a gospel presentation. While there are some weak or doubtful statements in the presentation, the biggest problem is that it creates a hugely unappealing presentation of the gospel. True is never good enough. One must scratch where it itches.

What to Do with the Unresponsive?

unresponsiveOne of my students is writing on the mission work of Paul as it may provide insight to his ministerial context. Describing the targets of Paul’s work, my student described three groups. First, he noted that Paul reached out to Jews. He would go to the synagogue and share Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and Savior. Paul would present Jesus through the Hebrew Bible. Second, Paul would reach out to Gentiles. These would include both the God-fearers, who he may find in the synagogues, and others that might be labeled as pagans. The presentation of the Gospel for the Gentiles starts out from Creation and a benevolent God, rather than Hebrew Scripture, and Israel’s redemptive history.

But then my student added a third group. That was the Responsive. I felt that was redundant. If one wanted to speak of three groups, one could choose Jews, God-fearers, and Pagans. But as I read, I could see why it made sense. My student was following the thought of Roland Allen, that a key to Paul was not just in who he targeted, but also who he did not target. Paul did not focus on those who were not (fairly quickly found) responsive. Not everyone would feel that way. One of the books we read for Evangelism class was nice in many ways, but the writer promoted a “don’t take NO as an answer” attitude.

My student quoted a passage from Roland Allen’s classic “Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?” (p. 75 of the 1962 printing by Eerdmans)”:

The possibility of rejection was ever present. St. Paul did not establish himself in a place  and go on preaching for years to men who refused to act on his teaching. When once he had brought them to a point where decision was clear, he demanded that they should make their choice. If they rejected him, he rejected them. The ‘shaking of the lap,’ the ‘shaking of the dust from the feet,’ the refusal to teach those who refused to act on the teaching, was a vital part of the Pauline presentation of the Gospel. He did not simply go away,’ he openly rejected those who showed themselves unworthy of his teaching. It was part of the Gospel that men might ‘judge themselves unworthy of eternal life.’ It is a question which needs serious consideration whether the Gospel can be truly presented if this element is left out. Can there be a true teaching which does not involve the refusal to go on teaching? The teaching of the Gospel is not a mere intellectual instruction: it is a moral process, and involves a moral response. If then we go on teaching where that moral response is refused, we cease to preach the Gospel; we make the teaching a mere education of the intellect.

I wouldn’t say it is strongly as Allen, and I am not sure that Paul would either. Most adults who convert to Christianity, in the US at least, do not do so on the initial presentation. Still, there is an underlying truth that is worth dwelling on.

There is a similarity between Paul’s strategy and Jesus’ strategy in Luke 10. Jesus sent out his disciples to different villages 2 by 2. They would minister in different villages. If people were responsive, Jesus would come there for more ministry. If the people were not responsive, the disciples were to shake the dust of the village from their feet (taking nothing, not even dust). They would then go onto the next village. The 12 were sent out on one occasion and they were to focus on Jewish villages. On a different occasion 70 (or 72) were sent out with no constraints. As far as we know, they went to all — Jewish, Samaritan, and Pagan villages. We know that Jesus prioritized Jews, and yet reached out to Samaritan and Gentile communities as well.

In missions there has been an argument as to who should be targeted.  Should one target the hardest soils or the easiest soils? Some would say that one should reach the easiest soils. If people are coming to Christ, if the Spirit appears to be working in a place, then we should be putting our efforts there. Others would say that we need to target the hardest soils, the UPGs (unreached people groups). We need to reach everyone and especially those who have not been reached because they are difficult.

Perhaps with Jesus and Paul, we see a FAIRLY OBVIOUS synthesis:

  • Share the message with everyone
  • Focus on those who respond

One could argue that is a reasonable lesson from the Parable of the Four Soils. Some soil is going to be productive, while some soils mostly won’t. But the sower doesn’t decide that. He spreads the seeds everywhere and then tends what grows.

…And Then Sometimes They Just Get It

I teach a class in Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD). Since I am a Missions professor at an Evangelical missionally-minded seminary, I like to challenge the notion that IRD is anti-evangelistic. IRD is not preaching (1-way communication to change someone’s mind) or apologetics (2-way communication to change someone’s mind).  IRD focuses on understanding, but I point out that, much in line with Dale Carnegie, one does not influence another person by trying to win arguments. Mutual understanding builds trust, and opens the door for more effective sharing of one’s own beliefs.

Part of that class was to have my students practice Inter-religious Dialogue. They were to have two good conversations with individuals of another faith.

Most did okay enough. There were some issues:

  • Some really did not talk to those of another faith, but of a different Christian denomination. Why? In some cases, they may have been shy about making a conversation with someone from a different faith. For others, I don’t know. This is a Baptist seminary, and there is a temptation (a very unhealthy temptation in my view) to identify people from other denominations as people of other faiths.
  • Some did a conversation more like a quiz. “Can you answer me these following questions about your beliefs?” and “Okay… thanks for your time. Good day.” That is not the worst thing. Evangelicals sometimes almost revel in their ignorance of other faiths… so I can’t really complain that they took time to listen. But perhaps they could have done more to build relationships.
  • A few quickly fell back into argument— trying to ask clever questions, or make poignant statements that would leave the other at a loss and realize that their faith is invalid. That rarely works. But I know that argument is commonly taught as if it is a great method of sharing one’s faith. Just this morning, I saw a tweet from a Christian author that said something like. “Evangelism today is spelled A-P-O-L-O-G-E-T-I-C-S.” Personally, in a post-modern society, most real (inter-religious or inter-faith, rather than inter-denominational) evangelism should be spelled D-I-A-L-O-G-U-E. But I know that the desire to be clever and “score points” can be strong… and there are valid roles for apologetics.

One student in particular really got my point. When I first started teaching the class, he seemed rather skeptical thinking that I am disrespecting Evangelism. This is not surprising since Dialogue as promoted by John Hick, Raimon Pannikkar, and others on the Relativistic side of the spectrum of Dialogue thought certainly did not support proselytization… and often found it to be anathema, or at least inconsistent with dialogue.

But over time, my student came around to the idea that there may be benefit in using dialogue to reach some people.

He presented a case where it was very helpful. He was having a conversation with a person from another of the Great World Religions. That person was quite cautious and suspicious of my student. My student was very non-combative– he did not preach, he did not argue. They talked about life and faith. Over three or four meetings, they were able to get to the point where they could talk about issues of faith and faith allegiance in a mutually safe environment. The other person decided to become a follower of Christ. My student is now mentoring that person… but is for now cautious in integrating that person into a church. (Sadly, there are far too many horror stories of well-meaning Christians who destroy young Christians from other religious backgrounds because they don’t know how to respond well.)

So does that mean that Dialogue can work in Evangelism. Absolutely Yes. Is it the only thing that works? No, but for a person from a radically different faith background, canned presentations, clever arguments, and polemics are likely to create a hostile response, not the desired response.

My student was thankful for the class because it helped him respond in a way that the other person was prepared to respond well to… rather than react against.

I find it amusing sometimes, and sometimes disappointing, when I teach a class and my students do almost the exact opposite of what I recommend. It is their right, and I don’t really trust professors who feel that their students must mimic their own views and behaviors. Still, one hopes that the students at least struggle with what they learned from the course trying to figure out what to value and practice, and what to set aside….

… And then sometimes they just get it.

 

Condemnation and the Gospel

Today there is a bit of a theological revolution going on as many Evangelicals are questioning the ECT (eternal conscious torment) view of hell, in favor of an annhilationist view, or purgative view, or some other form. To me, it seems odd how dogmatic people are on something that is, frankly, not clearly answered in Scripture.

Often, when something is not clearly

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For fun I decided to show an Islamic “Bridge Illustration” rather than the Christian One.

answered in Scripture, I believe there is a reason. Perhaps we are becoming fascinated with a topic that we are not supposed to be fascinated by. Maybe we are not supposed to be fascinated with Hell. Maybe we are to know it is where we don’t want to be, and then seek somewhere else.

 

Of course, the temptation for some is there… with Jonathan Edwards and other well-known “hellfire preachers” of the 19th century following the pattern of morality plays of the Middle ages, giving graphic imagery to some dark imagination. In this they are following Dante, except lacking the political and social satire. The great industrialist Andrew Carnegie decided he was an atheist after hearing a very graphic impassioned sermon on a hyper-Calvinistic God who arbitrarily sends many dead infants to suffer eternal torment in Hell. (It does make one wonder what the purpose of sharing such a controversial doctrine to a congregation would be.)

The fascination with Hell, historically, can rival present fascination with focusing on End-time events. This is despite the dearth of specific details, as well as statements inthe Bible that clearly point us towards focusing on living faithfully now rather than seeking to work out the timing.

Today, fascination for Hell has generally subsided except in cartoons.  Some of the lack of fascination is due to disbelief. But even where there is a belief in Hell, global culture tends to move mysteries into abstractions, so belief often is more of a simple adherence to a doctrinal statement.

An exception to this downplaying of hell is in many of the the Evangelism methods out there. Many incorporate strong imagery of hell, while some even seem to seek to “scare the ‘hell’ out of you.”  “Hell is Real” on youtube, some versions of the Bridge Illustration, and others often put a very strong emphasis on Hell. Walking around Baguio City here a few years back, I found a gospel tract lying on the ground called “The Burning Hell.” It had a picture of faces in agony surrounded by fire, with a strong message of condemnation, with a related message of hope at the end.

Now I believe in teaching the whole counsel of God. And I certainly believe that salvation is not just a “save to” process, but a “save from” process. Still, it did get me thinking about actual presentations of the Gospel in the New Testament. In most of them, it seems to me that there was a much greater focus on being “saved to” something than “saved from.” That is not always the case, but it does make me wonder about the focus of some presentations.

  • John 3:1-20. This message to Nicodemus emphasizes the necessity to be “born from above.” The focus is on how God grants eternal life to those who believe on the Son of God. Hell is not mentioned, except perhaps implied in that there is a choice to be born from above or not. Later in the passage it is clear that an alternative to such salvation is to have his (or her) evil deeds exposed, be condemned, and then perish. The message overall, focuses on the positive aspect of responding to the Gospel, with the results of refusing given in only vague terms. (Of course, Nicodemus was a Jewish scholar, so giving details may not have been necessary.)
  • John 4:1-26.  Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman. In this passage there is no real clear condemnation listed, although it is arguably implied.  Since the Messiah saves and grants eternal life, there is presumably an alternative. There is no condemnation of the Samaritan woman, and only the slightest condemnation of the Samaritan people. Jesus says that the Samaritans worship what they do not know, and apparently worship where they should not worship, but in the future, such boundaries will disappear. The message here is almost completely positive.
  • Acts 2.  Peter’s message to the people at Pentecost is spoken of in almost all positive terms as well. The dangers of rejection of Christ are only hinted at. The central message is here,  Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”  And with many other words he testified and strongly urged them, saying, “Be saved from this corrupt generation!” -Acts 2:38-40.  There are negative repercussions hinted at, but overall, the message is on the blessings of responding to Christ.
  • Acts 8.  Philip’s messages to the Samaritans and to the Ethiopian are very limited. The first is described as the “good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.” The other was described as the “good news of Jesus Christ.” The only condemnation mentioned was for Simon the Magician… who was actually described as an immature believer, not an unbeliever.
  • Acts 10.  Peter’s message to Cornelius. This message is also almost totally positive. The only condemnation listed is implied in the statement regarding Jesus… “He is the One appointed by God to be the Judge of the living and the dead.
  • Acts 14.  Paul and Barnabas in Lystra.  “Men! Why are you doing these things? We are men also, with the same nature as you, and we are proclaiming good news to you, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in themIn past generations He allowed all the nations to go their own way,” -Acts 14:15-16.  The curious thing here is that Paul really underwhelms in terms of condemnation. In fact, he suggests that God has overlooked their rebellious behavior, rather than condemned it… at least for now.
  • Acts 17.  Paul in Athens provides an interesting attempt to contextualize the Gospel. He does, actually, note condemnaton:  “Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent,  because He has set a day when He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed.  -Acts 17:30-31.  The strange thing here is that although God is definitely judging, the passage also notes God overlooking past sinfulness, because of their ignorance, muting to some extent the condemnation.

You can look up other presentations yourself. What to make of this? Do we remove all references to Hell? Perhaps not. What about judgment of condmenation? No. In fact, most of these presentations at least imply judgment.

However, Hell does not appear to be central to most presentations of the Good News in the Bible. The Good News is more a message of hope than condemnation. Does that mean that we put the gospel into a form that is all sugary and pleasant? Not necessarily, but presentations that focus on condemnation don’t appear to be any more Biblical than those that ignore judgment.

Top Posts on Evangelism

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I am far from an expert on Evangelism, but I have gained some perspectives of it as it is commonly practiced over time. Here are some of the Top Posts on this topic.

Critique of Evangelism (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).  These three posts summarize many of my views regarding Evangelism as it is commonly practiced. The posts were done back in 2010, so my views have evolved somewhat over time, but I think my critique is still generally sound.

Multi-Dimensional Evangelism.  Looks at 0-dimension (Simple Conversion), 1-dimension (Engel Scale), 2-dimension (Gray Scale), and 3-dimension (“Evangelism Cube”) regarding evangelism.

Evangelism 315.  A modified version of evangelism (more like permission-based) inspired by I Peter 3:15.

Salvation versus Conversion: Missiological Implications.  Perhaps a bit controversial, at least in its vocabulary. I suggest that Salvation (the process of God’s transformational work in the life of a person being conformed to Christ) should be valued more than Conversion (the one time salvific event of adoption into the family of God).

Evangelism Thoughts: “Savior Salvation” and “Fallen from Grace.”  More questions than answers. Brings up some questions regarding Lordship Salvation, Savior Salvation, and issues of Grace.  Definitely more questions than answers.

High Context Evangelism.  Short post noting the importance of contextualization of the message of the gospel.

New Evangelism.  A long quote from Alan Walker’s “A New Evangelism” with my own commentary. Some of it points to the fact that people’s attitude about death affects their resonance to salvation presentations. The question is, “Do many presentations ‘scratch where it does not itch’?”

The “Toolbox” and “Big Hammer” Theory.  Suggestions for a broader base of understanding and skills for Evangelists to be able to effectively reach a broader number of people. This is contrast to the one-size-fits-all idea for evangelism.

 

Missiological Thoughts on Pastoral Diagnosis

As I have said before, one of my jobs in missions is administrator of a pastoral care center. So I have always been interested in the correlation, compatibility, and conflict between missions and counseling. This presentation utilizes the 7 benchmarks for pastoral diagnosis established by Paul Pruyser back in 1963. However, we put them in a logical order, as seen in the diagram, Looking at it, there is a correlation between this method of diagnosing and doing pastoral care, with evangelizing. The lowest tier is essentially “good talk” and understanding their beliefs, and social support system. One goes into tier two seeking to find out their felt needs, and connecting that with issues of faith and future. The top tier is exploring response, especially with regards to grace and repentance. I still need to think about how things correlate a bit more, since some of the terms are utilized differently in the pastoral care and evangelism camps.

An important thing that evangelists can (and frankly, must) learn from pastoral diagnosis is the need to understand the hearer, client, patient, recipient, help seeker. The agenda needs to be based, considerably, on their situation and their felt need.