This is a repost from some years back. I remember that this was intended to be a prelude to a further, more protracted discussion on the subject. I still feel the same way about the issue – and I might say that my own position has grown in both its depth and ‘nuance,’ and I still probably need to fully articulate “it” somewhere, so that someone who would want to, could fully ‘check my own theological math’ as it were.

On a personal level, it is interesting to read these words, as I wrote them, just before I started my first go-around in German 101. I would pull a C, and then wash out second semester. My professor retired, and new ‘new school’ teacher was brought in, Dr Apgar. I retook 101 and was 1 point away from an A. I pulled B’s from there on, and went on to finish a minor in it. My only other C was in Advanced German Grammar. Now, as I write these words, and repost my old – I will hopefully take my place among French 101 students, as I start to close in on a double major in Philo & Religion. Double foreign language minor too? We will see…..

 

Mar 15, 2008

Getting The Hell Out Of The Closet: An Agnostic Addendum – Hell & Conditional Immortality

I thought about just leaving the title of this post “Getting the hell out of the Closet” – since it is pretty obvious what is meant when a guy says ’I’m coming out the closet;’ however this assumption does not hold true in this case. Rather – I wanted to come out of the closet about something else that may not be as sensational, but should be just as equally thought provoking.

Recently, I had a discussion with an Evangelical, Old-School Pentecostal friend regarding the idea of Hell as being eternal in nature in terms of Eternal Torment. The French Existentialist Philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre once said that ’hell is other people’ – but for many Bible-believing Christians, Hell is a place where sinners who die without Christ go, and they burn in a lake of fire for all eternity.

As some of you may know, I have set my goals on eventually going to Seminary and maybe eventually teaching somewhere; I have felt like I was answering that call in going back to school this last year to complete my Bachelors. As a part of this process of getting ready, I have continued doing what I was doing before, studying theology and reading lots of old dead guys; which was what I enjoyed doing before, and seems a bit more practical since it is actually connected back to something that God seems to be calling me to do. As is the case with such things – a lot makes sense now, now that I know a bit of the potential future. If God does use me as a teacher someday in a seminary either here or on the Mission Field, then I aspire to ready myself for that task by pursuing a Doctorate in Systematic Theology; though getting my Batchelors comes first and then a Masters – before I can even think of working on that. So I have a lot of work cut out ahead of me. I have to get back into the German that I had two years of in High School and sometime I need to start teaching myself French, as a Doctorate Student in Systematic Theology is expected to be fluent in both; a truly daunting task even before considering the Greek and Hebrew a Seminary Masters will require. But God will enable if I am really called to this.

But besides teaching myself a bit of Greek and German, just to try to get a bit ahead of the Game – I have also at least indirectly as part of the process, been steadily reexamining the stones of my own theological foundations. This is a decidedly important part – in my own opinion – in the education of anybody who would propose to submit themselves to eventual be teachers themselves of theology or even pastors or teachers themselves. Those who build foundations, ought reexamine the stones of their own; before they make Stone Masons of Doctrines of themselves in the lives of others. This process of reexamination can be both exciting and painful – especially if it is done in a process that includes honestly and vulnerability. Unfortunately – few teachers, in their own education, rarely do this; and all the fortifications of Dogma in their respective Institutions go from protectorates to potential miscreants; because they never question – they only obey and follow. It is a part of a mature theological/spiritual growth; that upon reaching “Adulthood/Maturity” that what was taught as acknowledged and unquestionable – be re-appropriated as personal and thought out and not blindly imparted. It is for this reason that many theologically lopsided or otherwise patently non-biblical churches/doctrinal systems thrive and grow exponentially – because nobody ever questions the truth and validity of their assertions; which if they were looked and examined closely would be found to be vaporous and completely invalid. What I am advocating is not being “blown about by every whim of doctrine” but that even if you have grown up in the most solidly-biblical tradition you could imagine, that you would study out and ground in the scripture and prayer everything you believe with as much passion and diligence as you would recommend to any of your Mormon of Jehovah’s Witness associates. Before you allow yourself to be frustrated to any degree by their lack of attentively to Biblical truth; you need to, yourself, immerse yourself in the same process of judgment in regards to your own doctrine before you ever recommend such process to anybody else with any degree of casualness.

The honest truth is this -that there is a lack of pervasive doctrinal self-reexamination throughout the church today. Some churches realize the fragility of their own persuasions and for this reason outright forbid their adherents to patronize or fraternize with other non-aligned Christians. Others – perhaps merely out of some form of bloated self-confidence, see no need for such a process.

In my own mediations on this process – I came to see and be affirmed in my own desire to see things “Systematically” in terms of Dogma/Doctrine; and it was not the only step in settling my lofty aspirations to eventually seek a higher understanding and even education in that regard.

Many teacher/pastors ’poopah’ or ridicule the idea of such an agenda. In my own personal consideration of their contestations; I see them as sort of being ’disinterested architectural engineers’ of their own systems. They are, as an engineer of a bridge would be – were he to be only interested in the development/design & building/testing of just a few aspects of a given bridge they were tasked to design/built/maintain. “Just as long as this bridge support is strong” or “We’ve made sure that the pain selected will not fade or rust for a very long time” are not notions that are necessarily conducive to safe bridge design. Certain supportive structures can be engineered to be very strong, and they can be painted with the most attractive and weather-resistant of space-age paints, but if the foundations of the bridge are not built strong enough, or the connections that hold the bridge together are not adequate to handle the long term stress/traffic load the bridge was supposedly built to handle – then an catastrophe has been made on both paper and translated into expectant being. I should have no need to recant to you a long list of spectacular and terribly tragic engineering failures that have involved bridges, planes, buildings, and even tunnels – where despise extremely thought out precision and attentivity to exacting detail was provisioned throughout the entire design/build process – one small, nuanced aspect escaped the attention of the Master Engineer; and he sign off on a design and/or process that invariably resulted in a horrible tragedy that resulted from his lack of oversight in some small regard; a girder fastener that was not designed strong enough to support stress loads, the wrong kind of concrete, or just plain bad design; all these things have both sent people into eternity and wealthy, well-respected architects & engineers into new and considerably alternate vocations.

The position of a Pastor or a teacher is no less different, even if the title of “Systematic Theologian” is the last thing he would ever think of himself/herself as having; and even if you are not a pastor or teacher – no one is exempt from this process. If you are a Christian, it is a mark of your spiritual adulthood to take this task up: examine your foundations – count them one by one, make sure that they are solid and biblical or dispose of them, regardless of the cost.

Within the context of a general failure to “reexamine foundations” the church is also sometimes guilty of blind reactionism.

Many people – as I still do – call themselves ’Fundamentalists’ – but what they don’t realize is, is that this term was, to some degree, invented as a reaction to those who were actively tossing out “the fundamentals” of the faith. The reaction of an coordinated attack on Biblical Doctrine was to fight back. But fighting back can get pretty messy; after all – ’war is Hell’ right? Are we to assume that theological battles are nondescript affairs themselves somehow? I think not. A Systematic Theologian/Master Architectural engineer must give no less attentivity to detail in a time of War then in a Time of Peace; because the Doctrinal Artifacts/Bridges & Buildings built during War will often persist many years, if not many generations into Peacetime.

My entire argument with “Prohibition” can be framed within this context. I wholeheartedly agree with the great Gresham Machen when he said that the Church’s Prohibition against alcohol consumption was “Overblown Pietism” – but many don’t. When alcohol abuse became rampant in the 1920-1930’s the church though the solution was simply avoidance. I would concede that an understanding that this doctrine is incontrovertiblely and systematically-biblically flawed served as a genesis/starting point for my own theological disagreement with my then-fellow teetotaler friends – long before I ever first tasted a vintage merlot – but the process of thoroughly reexamining my own theological foundations – even long before I felt that it was a precursors to the Call to teach – has caused me to make other changes as well; some of which have been met with equal disapproval from fellow Evangelicals. And it is within this context that I have to tell you that I am of the strong opinion that there is a very real possibility that Hell Ain’t Forever.

I suppose in the next blog, I will go through some of the theological details of this process – so that you too might – if you dare – examine this stone in your own theological foundation. Someone once told me out here in myspace land that I was “their favorite Heretic” – but before you pronounce me as heretical or otherwise; consider the following. I do not disavow that Hell is forever – as I insinuated in the title of this essay; that it is an ’agnostic addendum’ – I have found myself in the position that I cannot wholeheartedly agree with either position; that Sinners will burn for eternity – or that they will not. It is for this reason that – on this issue – I am agnostic; which is to say – on this specific issue – I must admit (come out of the closet) that I can only say, we cannot know for sure either way. For me- there is too much ambiguity and openness. There are strong arguments for each (which I will articulate in a further blog) both of which are very strong – and not just in argument but in Biblical Support. I will outline the position that I would ’lean towards’ which is to say that I can say I believe it’s probability – but I am not going to “hang my hat on it” in terms of saying – “this way and no other”

In conclusion – though this may be of further offense – The idea of the Eternality of Hell or it’s converse notion; that we are “Conditionally Immortal” is in the same bag as my Eschatology. I beleive in the Rapture and hold to a Pre-Trib position; but I allow for a ’pan-millennialist’ mind-set as to be attendant to too; regardless of what I think is probably – it may not be as it is in its actuality; but regardless – it will all “pan out” in the end.

So there you go – I admit to it: I can’t believe that Hell is absolutely forever anymore. There is a possibility that it is- but I feel there is a strong argument that “the second death” spoken of in the book of Revelations in regards the Devil and Hell Being cast into the Pit – is not a “metaphorical” spiritual death -in terms of merely just being completely separated from God, but it may well be a literal spiritual death. In closing, I would ask that you reconsider the words of God in speaking to you to fear Him – “who can destroy your soul” vs. the devil, who can only destroy your body. If your soul is never to be destroyed – then that would seem like an empty threat.

But the God I serve doesn’t do that sort of thing.

…more to follow…

In Christ,

-matthew

P.S. If you are someone theologically read, you may know of and have some respect for F.F. Bruce and John Stott. Both of whom – I should point out – are very respected in Biblical Evangelical circles – and both of whom admitted to being adherents to Agnosticism in regards to Eternal Suffering of the Damned.