Is Hell Eternal Separation From God?

Many Christians define Hell as eternal separation from God. However, I wonder if this is born out by Scripture. It seems that a lot of people go to Jesus Christ’s cry on the cross to prove this point: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” If Christ experienced Hell on the cross, as most Reformed believers rightly believe, then Hell seems to be defined here as being forsaken by God.

Another argument that seems to point in this direction is the relationship of Revelation 20 to Revelation 21. In Revelation 20, the dragon and the two beasts are thrown into the lake of fire, along with Death, Hades, and everyone whose name is not written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 20:15). When one reads on into Revelation 21, it says that God will dwell with His people, which seems to suggest that He is not dwelling with those who are in the lake of fire.

To answer the first argument, it is not true that God the Father abandoned God the Son at the cross. The cross did not result in a rift in the Trinity. The abandonment consists of the God-man suffering the full wrath of God the Father. It is a giving up of Jesus to the judicial wrath, not an ontological abandonment. This becomes clear when the judgment context of Psalm 22 is taken into account, from which Jesus’ cry comes.

To answer the second argument, I wonder Who keeps the lake of fire hot? Who throws Satan into it? Who torments Satan day and night forever? Are these not divine passive constructions? Who can administer the justice but God alone? How would we ever trust that the punishment fits the crime perfectly unless it is God who punishes?

A passage that gives a bit more light on this is Revelation 14:6-13. In this passage, those who worship the beast, and receive the mark of the beast will drink the cup of the wrath of God, poured full strength (verse 10). This torment is eternal (verse 11). Therefore, John is talking about eternal punishment in Hell in these verses, not a temporal punishment. The key phrase, then, for our purposes, is the last part of verse 10: “in the presence of the holy angels and the presence of the Lamb.” It is the torment that will happen in the presence of the Lamb and of the angels, a torment that lasts forever. It is, therefore, true that the torment will last eternally in the presence of the angels and of the Lamb.

Another argument can be deduced from the principle of God’s omnipresence. If God is everywhere (see Psalm 139 for an extensive proof of God’s omnipresence), then God is present in Hell as well. Some of us might be uncomfortable saying that, as if God shouldn’t be involved in the punishment of Hell, as if it would dirty His holy hands. I would counter by saying that I wouldn’t want anyone BUT an omniscient God administering punishment for eternity! How else could permanent justice be assured?

I conclude that the formulation of Hell being eternal separation from God needs a bit of tweaking. Hell is eternal separation from the grace and mercy of God. It is not eternal separation from God entirely. I believe that people will fervently wish that they could escape the judging presence of God! Hell is a place where God is present only to judge and punish. Heaven is the place where God is present only to love and cherish.

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Corporate and Individual Responsibility: An Introduction

I want to write some posts about corporate and individual responsibility in the Bible. This is an extremely thorny issue. At the moment, I am only beginning my investigation of the biblical texts. Thus, this post will raise more questions than answers. In the future, I will be focusing major attention on Ezekiel 18, and what it does and does not say. Other related passages are Joshua 7 (the account of the failed attack on Ai), 2 Samuel 21, Deuteronomy 24:16, 2 Kings 14:5-6, Daniel 9, and Exodus 20:5-6. Assessing how these texts relate to each other to form a coherent picture is a very thorny task. The reason I am addressing this issue is that the PCA has addressed and will be addressing corporate responsibility regarding the race issue.

What are some categories that the Bible uses to address the question of corporate and individual responsibility? The first category is a distinction between guilt and consequence. Obviously, guilt is one consequence of sin. However, there are other consequences that can be incurred by someone who has no direct guilt. This might be a helpful way of understanding why it is that 36 men get killed in the attack on Ai for something that they themselves did not do. One might say that Achan murdered those 36 men by transgressing the ban.

A second category distinction is between human retribution and divine retribution. Who assesses the punishment, in other words? Does human retribution apply to corporate guilt, or that only the purview of God? Bear in mind that this particular distinction is not the same question as repentance, and whether repentance needs to be corporate or individual.

A third category distinction is between sins of omission and sins of commission. This one should be familiar to most of my readers. A sin of omission is something that we (or I) should have done but failed to do, whereas a sin of commission is something that we (or I) should not have done, but did anyway. This has a bearing on possibly composite sins. On the racism issue, for instance, if a church committed racist acts, and the presbytery of which it was a part failed to discipline that church for said actions, then the presbytery incurs the guilt of omission. While the presbytery may not, as a whole, have committed the action itself, it is still responsible for its required and biblical response. The same is true on a denominational level.

The fourth, and perhaps stickiest question of all, is the question of covenantal continuity. There is a tension between the continuity (on the one hand) that the true church has with itself in all generations, regardless of denominational boundaries; and the discontinuity of governing bodies that are directly responsible for the discipline of members within its scope. In the case of the PCA churches that Sean Lucas has in mind, for instance, the question will revolve around some of these questions: have these churches ever repented? Did the southern presbyterian denomination repent before the founding of the PCA? Is there continuing sin on the matters of racial equality? If so, what is the responsibility of current bodies within the PCA, and is the whole denomination at fault, or only some presbyteries?

A fifth question to ponder is a very important question: what constitutes racism? I have addressed this question briefly before. Having read a bit more, and done a bit more thinking, there are some things I might say differently. For instance, the question of how the biblical passages relate is a far more difficult question than the previous post would seem to indicate. I still hold to my position on affirmative action being inherently racist. I also hold that evolution and a theory of polygenesis (that we do not all come from Adam and Eve) open the door to racism.

Why talk this way about all these careful distinctions? One reason is that we want to tell the truth. It is not truth to confess to sins for which we have no guilt any more than it is truth not to confess for sins of which we are guilty. We need to assess carefully and biblically what guilt we have in the question of racism. Whatever truth of guilt we have can then lead us to repentance and restoration.

I attended recently a memorial service for the Charleston Nine at a black church in Winnsboro. It was a wonderful experience. I was afraid at first that the talk would all be about social justice. Instead, it was focused on Jesus Christ and the gospel, while mentioning racial issues in the context of the gospel. Yes, there was much talk about the unity that the church has in Christ, as was appropriate. But it did not sideline the gospel, for which I was very thankful. As was mentioned by my black brothers at GA this year, any repentance that we do needs to have feet, so that actual change can happen in our churches. Some churches are further ahead in this process than others. Some degree of compassion and understanding will need to be present.

Quote of the Week

Today we hear from Doug Kelly, from his commentary on Revelation, p. 292:

I have never understood how, when the gospel is explained, and the great love of God to us in Jesus is held forth, some people are angered and will not accept it. After a fairly long preaching and teaching ministry, I have gained the impression that preaching the sheer grace of God is far more likely to anger sinners than preaching the requirements of the law. In my early years, I had assumed that it would be the opposite, but the years taught me better.

I will never forget one Sunday night, many years ago, at an evening service at the First Presbyterian Church, Dillon. I preached a rather long sermon on Psalm 22, setting forth the wonderful grace of God in Christ, who was forsaken that we need never be forsaken, whose blood is the only thing that can get any sinner into heaven. One man at that service became extremely angry. he was not angry over the length of the sermon, but over what was said. At times, I have made people angry, but I have never seen a person more infuriated than on that night. That older gentleman said something like this: “What do you mean by saying we cannot do something to please God to help us get into heaven, and that if we do good works, they are not sufficient? I have never heard such things! You are excluding people here who are trying to do good.” I quietly and calmly replied, “Well, do not argue with me; argue with the Lord.”

It worked out well. Time went by, and he was getting into the Word of God, attending every service and reading Holy Scripture daily. God saved his soul! Then he was very glad that grace would be preached. Sinners do not like the law, but there is something they like even less: the mercy of God in the cleansing blood of Christ, that requires them humbly to bow at the foot of the cross. But keep preaching it, for it is the only way lost men and women can get in touch with that tabernacle and the God whom it represents.

War Room – Actually Pretty Good

by Reed DePace

I tend to be down on Christian movies. They usually are very lame in both the Christian and the movie departments. But War Room is surprisingly not, lame that it is. On the contrary:

War Room – A Review (Yes, I’ve seen it)

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Good: good story, well told; uplifting, particularly Christian in content.
Bad: some weak, even dangerous, expressions of prayer.
Recommendation: positive for nominal to mature Christians; not necessarily for non-Christians.

The story line of the movie War Room is very credible – for the average middle class evangelical. This is not a criticism, but an observation. Indeed, in terms of the struggles and circumstances faced by the average evangelical believer in Christ, this movie is rather sound and well worth the time and money to see it. As most evangelicals fall into this social strata, this movie is rather well tuned to confront and challenge them about the purpose, power, and promise of prayer when one is in a saving relationship with Jesus.

At first I wasn’t sure about this movie. In the first 45 minutes there was no specific mention of Jesus or even anything that could be considered exclusively Christian. Up to that point if the Christian elements were removed the movie would still have made sense, and still have been interesting, to the non-Christian. Yet when the turning point came the gospel was presented in a clear, forceful, and particularly consistent with the Bible manner. In fact, this has got to be the best presentation of the gospel I have ever seen in a movie targeting a popular audience. I was quite surprised and encouraged.

Even more, as the characters then turned to practice their new found convictions in prayer, the scenes were (for the most part, see caution below) quite believable and compelling. As a pastor I could easily recommend any of these scenes as what sincere prayer in faith would look like in such circumstances. Further, the growing experience of answers to prayer were well balanced. These were presented not as things that could be written off as just ordinary coincidences. Nor were they so outlandishly “miraculous” as to strike at credibility. Instead, these answers to prayer were portrayed as exactly the kinds of changes one should expect if Jesus is real and the Bible is His inspired-infallible-inerrant word.

The movie was filled with little throw away lines that were actually gems of faith-wisdom, worthy of being placed on a church’s sign for the public to ponder. One of my favorites was the wife’s response to her husband, as he determined he needed to take a job paying about half what he was making, “I’d rather have a husband chasing Jesus than a house full of stuff.”

By and large the methods of prayer portrayed in the movie were biblically sound and worthy of emulation. I was especially encouraged by the primary use of Scripture as the foundation for prayers. I also appreciated the scenes at the end showing the key family, and others, praying together in scenes that were brief snapshots of a much neglected and much needed form of prayer called family worship.

Having said this, I do need to warn and caution against one glaring and dangerous error, that of rebuking Satan. The character did this as an application of James 4:7, and actually was doing EXACTLY opposite what the verse teaches. We do NOT resist the devil by having a conversation with him, by praying to him as it were, even if we speak the truth to him. Instead, as this verse says, we resist the devil as we submit to God. As we humbly bow towards God, with our backs to Satan, Satan is then face to face with the One who has already defeated him. That is why he flees, not because we’ve rebuked him, even in the name of Jesus. We are NOT to talk with anyone in the spiritual realm except for God, even for otherwise good reasons. The example of Michael the ArchAngel serves here to demonstrate just how much we are NOT to engage in conversation (which is what prayer is) with Satan (Jude 1:9). I understand this is a common prayer practice among some sister churches, and they mean well by it. Yet like prayers offered to Mary or the saints, this is nothing more than a worship practice that is a man’s good idea that actually breaks God’s law. Better we stick with neither adding nor subtracting, neither turning to the left or to the right, in our worship practices, especially in prayer (Deuteronomy 12:32).

As to the audience for this movie, it will work for those who think of themselves as Christians. This can be either the very weak, Christian nominalists who like the main characters are like lukewarm coffee, or more mature Christians like the prayer “general” Clara. This movie will be understandable and compelling to them. As a movie to be used for evangelistic purposes, well, I’d say again only with people who have some Christian background. It is certainly not going to mean anything to a Muslim, a Buddhist, etc. In fact, they might very well watch and reinterpret the movie to fit their pagan worldview and come out just as pumped as their Christian friend who took them. Now, if we’re talking about some non-Christian friends who are finding that their pagan faith is coming up short, then this movie might be a good conversation starter to get into the gospel. But for broad evangelistic purposes, the War Room is NOT the movie.

And that’s o.k. This is not a criticism as I gather from the nature of the movie that the Kendricks, as with their previous movies, were really trying to challenge those in/around the Church. This movie does that well, and on a vital topic. If I could get one prayer answered from this movie it would be that every Christian was moved to pray and submit to the last prayer in the movie. If that were to happen, then everything else isn’t even academic.

By way of follow up on the topic of this movie, let me recommend a recent book by Don Whitney, Praying the Bible (http://www.wtsbooks.com/praying-the-bible-donald-s-whitney-…). This is an exceptional book teaching the foundational practice of prayer, as taught by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer. When Scripture forms the basis of our prayers, then we are truly blessed, and God is glorified. This IS the key secret to the prayer practice portrayed in the War Room. If you don’t do this, your prayers are hindered. Learn it and you will rejoice, and not because a movie made you feel good. (Even though that’s o.k., sometimes. )
images by Reed DePace

Tchividjian Back in the Saddle?

The situation is a bit complicated. South Florida Presbytery has deposed Tullian from the ministry, and assigned him to Willow Creek Church (no relation to Bill Hybel’s megachurch). According to the church’s pastor, Tullian’s position is not one that requires a teaching elder status. This blog post is quite informative. The comments are also instructive.

Knowing a bit more about the situation as we now do, I have mixed feelings about this. It seems to me, on the one hand, that the South Florida Presbytery is doing its duty. They have deposed him and assigned him to a congregation. This is what they should do. It allows Tullian a chance to experience the fruits of repentance and healing. I pray this for him, as for a brother in Christ.

Tullian is on biblical grounds filing for a divorce, by the way. It seems clear that there is a biblical reason for it, even though divorce is not a necessity, even in cases where adultery has happened. I do not believe Tullian is sinning by getting a divorce. Where the blame lies in the marriage, however, is not for me to parse, nor for anyone else who is not in the know.

The question is whether he should have a position at a church so soon. Many are debating the wisdom of this, even given the fact that it is not a teaching elder position, or even a ruling elder position. The reason given in the letter is that it allows Tullian a way to provide for his family. It seems clear that Willow Creek Church and its pastor are being motivated by love and compassion for Tullian. This is a good thing. And it seems that they are discussing some of the important questions like the one raised in this paragraph. This is also good. The uneasiness that many people feel should drive us all to pray for the situation.

I agree with the blog linked above, though, that this position may not be a wise thing for Tullian to have. What is to prevent ministry situations from arising? Will Willow Creek Church guard Tullian from ministry situations? Tullian is not only in pain, but is going through the process of repentance. He will be very vulnerable to Satan’s attacks. He will be lonely, as well, being divorced. Some women will think to find a sympathetic ear in Tullian. Emotional attachment will be hard to prevent, and physical attraction will not be far behind. Does this mean that problems are inevitable? No, but the church must be very wise and discerning about the situation. Clear boundaries and communication with the congregation will be needed, and Tullian should definitely not do any counseling. I do not think it wise for Tullian to have a job like this at the moment. To me, it looks like putting oneself in the way of temptation, or, at the very least, it looks like a failure to deal with temptation as drastically as possible. If nothing bad comes from it because such warnings have been heeded, and clear boundaries set in place, then praise the Lord for that.

UPDATE: apparently some of the information in this post is not accurate. I have new information on the following points: South Florida Presbytery has not as of yet assigned Tullian to a church. They will be doing that at the November meeting. Ditto with their approving his position at Willow Church.