Dear Rob –
First of all, I wanted to thank you for giving me something to do from my flight back from Europe last Friday as my choices were looking rather bleak. In-flight movies were lame (except for the re-run of the Dark Knight, which of course I cannot pass by), and thanks to your new publisher, I had the Kindle version of your new book to keep me occupied. I had 9 hours to go over your new book, and I wanted to send you a note about it.
Before I get to the single bite of meat and the one french fry I wanted to add to the total conversation about your new book and your take on what constitutes the Christian faith, there’s a video out there from your friend Doug Pagitt which I wanted to bring to your attention.
It's an interesting reproach, but it also gives an insight into the way Doug (and I think you personally) receives and responds to criticism. One of the things I took away from your book is that you have a pretty wide net when it comes to the Gospel. Now by that I mean not that you take in all manner of things and call it the Gospel (which, maybe that’s true, but that’s for another day), but rather that you want the Gospel to cover everything that man does. In fact I think it’s totally fair to say that you think the Gospel does cover everything that man does, one way or another. You sum it up nicely when you say this in the Kindle version:
Right? In your view the unlimited love of the Father is for everyone and will be manifest for everyone because it’s His love, and not ours. Now, I bring that up in the context of your friend Doug to say this: you and Doug have this horrible problem when it comes to the kind of Christianity you think you are trying to explore and expand: you can’t live it.
See: if this is the kind of God there is, and the kind of Gospel there is, then your outburst in the promo video about whether we can know who is and is not in Hell (that is, your incredulity at someone who said that someone else is in Hell) which casts indignation and aspersions on that person is a contradiction of the Gospel you preach. If indeed the person who never hears the Gospel preached and who never knows for certain that Jesus is both Lord and Christ has nothing to fear from the Gospel, then I suggest to you that the person who thinks Hell is the place where people who reject Christ wind up also has nothing to fear from the Gospel – and your attitude toward him should be the same as your attitude toward others you perceive as unbelievers. And likewise, when Doug Pagitt get all frothy in the mouth because John Piper says you have exited orthodoxy with your promo video and your new book, why can’t he find the tentless love of God which he says works out for Buddhists and Muslims and atheists -- but for Dr. Piper? Why does he have to transgress the circles they both travel in to make a point of saying Dr. Piper is a very bad man?
The fun part would be to speculate on that – but that’s not why I’m writing. I leave it to you to speculate why the truth claims of some make you livid when you demand that truth claims should make no one angry or scared but only hopeful. That speculation would be profitable for you, I am absolutely certain.
Now, that said: your book.
Others have made much of it, so I’ll be brief. The only chapter worth going back to for me as I think about what I’d say in response to you, or (if we’re lucky) to open a discussion with you, is the chapter titled “Hell”. In it, you make three significant claims:
- The OT does not mention Hell at all
- There are only a handful of mentions of Hell in the NT (you say there are 12+2 mentions of Hell), and those are probably metaphors or object lessons and not references to a final, eternal place where God’s judgment is carried out.
- Our modern view of Hell is a superstitious one based on “devious” “pagan” notions meant to control people.
For #1, I can take it or leave it – that’s a pretty shallow reading of the OT if you ask me, but it’s not any more shallow than any other one-paragraph summary of any topic which may or may not be in the Hebrew Scripture. I think it’s close enough to being true, and common enough in all kinds of commentaries, to be your part of a longer hermeneutical discussion, and something a reasonable person can stipulate without an onset of theological madness.
For #3, it’s an unsupported statement – you toss it out there as if there is a legion of theological, anthropological, and historical work in this field which just makes this common knowledge. I think it’s not entirely kosher to do that, but it doesn’t make you a liar. Maybe you’re just writing devotional literature where the broad brush is just fine because you’re not trying to really convince anyone. Maybe you’re just trying to draw a dividing line between pre-modern worldviews from what you have today, which I guess is more enlightened than Shakespeare, Augustine, and Luther. Again – I can take it or leave it. I disagree, but it’s not worth the academic battle of attrition that would have to ensue to show you that this is a poorly-imagined statement.
What I want to get serious about is #2 – that Hell is only mentioned a few times, and probably not as a place, in contrast to the place where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all dwell with God.
I think your assertion here tells us how you read the Bible. You say that the Bible only mentions Hell 14 times, but conspicuously-absent from your list are the passages where the end of those without faith and without Christ is discussed explicitly without saying, “and this, of course, is a place called ‘Hell’ which is a real place.”
For example, in Luke 6:46-49, Jesus himself says that those who come to him are like the man who builds his house on the Rock, which is therefore not washed away; there is another man who builds without a foundation, whose house falls immediately, and the ruin of his house is great. That has to be disturbing to you because it speaks to the fact that Jesus – in the great wisdom literature tradition – polarizes the issue of having faith in him. He is the one who makes out the proposition to be either/or, and that there are two groups of people in the ultimate tally. That theme comes up again and again in Jesus’ storytelling, but you don’t really go there to say that this is about how Jesus thinks about his Kingdom. And it's funny that in your view, all the Kingdom talk of Jesus doesn't set up the contrast between what is in the Kingdom and what is outside the Kingdom.
And that’s an important matter: what is the Kingdom like, right? Turns out, if you ask Jesus, in Luke 19:11-27, he tells us the parable of the 10 Minas. There are lots of conclusions to be drawn there, I think, but the first is that there are servants who the returning ruler will not receive – he will in fact punish them for being unfaithful. And I think you and I would identify those guys the same way: people who had the riches of Jesus who did not use them to bring great things back to Jesus. But the other is a stunning portrayal of what the Kingdom of God is like -- because after sorting out his own servants, the ruler then orders that all who opposed him from the far away country will be brought as a footstool under his feet. “Let them be slaughtered before me,” he says. That doesn’t sound very promising, does it? But "H-E-L-L" or "G-E-H-E-N-N-A" isn’t spelled out as a word there, so you have simply not included it. The same, I think, is true of Rev 20-21 where there is judgment and then some meet the same fate as Sin, Death and the Devil. The word “Hell” is missing, so these passages are missing from your system of references.
But even where Jesus does say “Hades”, in Luke 16, you don’t really tell the reader the right version of the story. The context of that story is the Pharisee’s love of money – not a socialist vision of the equality of man. And to that end, you dismiss or ignore that the man, there in agony in the afterlife, fears for his brothers and does not want them to suffer as he is suffering. You make it out to be a story of a man who wants others to serve him -- a point not at all in the context of the Pharisee's error!
So how can we receive that? In the very best case, maybe you just haven’t read all the NT, and therefore you may simply not know the NT. That’s forgivable – but you are writing a book here, and the least an author can do is to actually know what his source material says before he refers to it. I think, however that you have read the NT, and this simply shows how you are willing to treat it as a text – which is, without respect.
You know: if I read your book and made a case against it which says you don’t really even show the hope of the Gospel when in fact you have specifically spent a chapter on it, that’s simply disrespectful.
But maybe it’s more than that: maybe this speaks to us of how you’re willing to reason about the Christian faith and its message. See: the problem with the Scripture is that it is not written by us for our purposes. It’s written by God for His purposes, and in that it’s going to make all of us uncomfortable.
Let me admit to you that God’s Law makes me uncomfortable – both in the OT and the NT interpretations of it. I know that I am not the person who can keep even some of the Law. If the measuring stick is Jesus’ retelling of the law in the Sermon on the Mount, my score is zero. I have never done anything right – even when it looks pretty good on the outside. If it were up to me, we ought to find a way to read the Law as maybe good advice. Then we could aspire to it rather than be condemned by it.
But that’s me – maybe you don’t have a problem with the Law. But clearly: you have a problem with the Gospel. That is: you have a problem with the need for it. As I read you, all your real-world examples are about how Hell is what other people do to us. I should believe in hell because there are children maimed in war; I should believe in hell because there are rape victims; I should believe in hell because those who commit suicide have families. That is: the hell I should believe in is the one other people inflict on me. That’s how I know there is a hell: bad people make innocent people suffer.
But then when you retell the Rich Man and Lazarus this gets utterly inverted. See: if your reading of what Hell is holds up, the Rich Man put Lazarus in Hell. That’s the definition you build from real life: Hell is the bad things others do to us. But when Jesus tells the story, the one who did bad things winds up in Hell. To your credit, you don’t actually try to make Jesus’ version of Hell into the Hell you have already explained to the reader. But what you do make of Jesus’ version of Hell is not any better – because now you try to make this into a tale where Jesus tells us that those who do harm to others, and think selfishly, make their own hell. Really? Someone knows this for sure?
Here's how you set up the reader for your answer:
Let me say it frankly: this characterization is a slander to those who hold to the traditional, majority-held view of Hell. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, for all its flaws, teaches a literal hell and is also one of the largest international providers of humanitarian relief – so much so that the Red Cross relies on them as first responders. But to see traditional religious people this way means that you have to give them credit for thinking in categories that are larger than the ones, frankly, you play at for those who read your books and listen to your sermons. They see traditional people as evil haters, and therefore you have to see them that way.
This goes back to my preface about you and your enthusiasm for God’s grace. It’s crazy that you can extend a hopeful view of the final destination of Gandhi – who, in spite of the movies, was not a ruler with very modern ideas of how to rule India – but you make out the kid with the “turn or burn” t-shirt to be some kind of thug? Why is it that all manner of people with real sociological -- and indeed: moral -- faults can get a pass from you, but that people who hold to an older and more-robust view of the Bible and the Gospel than you do have to get cast as intellectual hicks and people prone to uncivil behavior?
I’m at my normal 3-page limit, so I’ll close with this: one of the reasons Jesus was so hard on the Pharisees is that they had a tradition which they thought was greater than Moses – greater than the Temple, greater than what God actually wants from men, which you have framed in your own Sunday talks as the “greater matters” of “justice and mercy”, the greatest commandments to love God above all and your neighbor as yourself. To that end, they taught all kinds of things, and behaved in all kinds of ways which made them blind to Jesus and to dismiss Jesus and ultimately to hate Jesus – to the point of plotting to kill him.
And in your view of your message, you are keyed on the question of the greater things so that we do not miss them. But the greatest thing was not the Law: it was Jesus himself. It was his work on our behalf. When Peter knew Jesus was the Christ, Jesus started to tell him that he didn’t come to reclaim the throne of David: Jesus said that he had to suffer and die, and be raised on the third day.
For your own good, please think about this. What you are teaching now is, in the best case, a Christian-flavored secular Judaism. That is: you make Jesus a good rabbi and not a great savior. Repent of it, Rob: repent because there’s no shame in turning away from even decades of wrong teaching to turning over a new leaf and teaching that Jesus saves sinner from their own sins and from God’s displeasure if they repent and believe. That is actually the message of the NT, and it ought to be your message if you’re really concerned with the real people you meet every day.
Think about it, and thanks for your time. As always, I’m available at email@example.com if have any questions.