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.

Shaking Things Up: Hebrews 12:26-29

(Posted by Paige)

Here is another Hebrews puzzler for you! In our study we have finally made it to ch. 12, and I am contemplating possible readings of 12:26-29, where the author exposits Haggai 2:6 re. the “shaking” of the earth and the heavens. In his 2010 commentary Peter O’Brien sums up the general consensus on this passage when he writes in a footnote:

The shaking that God will do ‘once more’ is usually taken to mean that the whole universe will be shaken to pieces and the only things to survive will be those that are unshakeable. It is understood as the eschatological judgment to be visited upon the earth at the end of the age, when the material universe will pass away (1 Cor. 7:31; 2 Pet. 3:10, 12; Rev. 21:1). At that point only the kingdom of God will remain, the kingdoms of this world having been utterly destroyed (Guthrie, 422). (O’Brien, p.495n.262)

This eschatological reading seems largely to be based on the phrase “ὡς πεποιημένων,” usually translated “that is, created things.” But John Owen points out (in an appendix of Calvin’s commentary) that this could also be read as “things that are completed, accomplished, finished,” allowing us to read as the object of “shaking” the Old Covenant, or the Jewish religion, instead.

I am wondering whether there is any legitimacy to the suggestion that the author has in mind here NOT the final eschatological transformation to new heavens and new earth, still pending; but rather the completed, accomplished, finished “shaking” of heaven and earth that occurred when Christ entered the heavenly sanctuary and inaugurated the New Covenant, new kingdom, new world order by the sprinkling of His blood (cf. Heb. 12:22-24). This event would still have been future in relation to Haggai’s time, but (in contrast to the eschatological reading) would have already been accomplished by the time Hebrews was written.

Although I have not encountered it in my resources outside of Owen, I find this possible reading compelling in light of the stress in this epistle on the dramatic and decisive change from Old Covenant to New; and it is also in keeping with the author’s assertion in v.28 that “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” indicating that this unshakeable kingdom is already an accomplished state of affairs.

What do you think? Does this passage give us information about a future event involving the material universe, or is it conveying the earth-and-heaven-shattering nature of the already-accomplished work of Christ?

Thanks in advance for your perspective!

Don’t We All Worship the Same God?

This is a fairly common occurrence. The person you meet who has been in about 5 different denominations tells you that all those denominations worship the same God. The implication (stated or unstated) is that we should stop fighting anything, since we all worship the same God. To them, no other doctrines seem to matter except the doctrine of God. Now, there is a grain of truth to this plea. We should never ignore common ground that we have with people from other denominations, as that is usually a good place to start, and shows good will. However, the unity that is usually (and rightly!) desired by people who believe in the same God cannot be achieved by simply stifling debates and lowering other doctrinal matters to the status of insignificance. This unity cannot happen by simple fiat. It is in fact naive to think this way. In fact, the emphasis really ought to be in focusing on our differences, so that the Biblical record can be examined once again to see if these things be so. A book I read fairly recently by a Roman Catholic author quite convincingly argues that ecumenical endeavors that focus entirely on common ground will inevitably stall. Instead, our attention should rather focus on the areas of disagreement. People these days seem to be allergic to disagreement. Folks, disagreement does not equal hatred!

It is not true that the doctrine of God is the only doctrine of importance. It is quite obviously of central importance. However, we cannot reduce Christianity to our doctrine of God. What about our doctrines of Scripture, Christ, man, salvation, Holy Spirit, church, and sacraments? Are they now to be completely ignored in the interests of ecumenicity? Honestly, many of the early heretics of the church would have claimed to worship the same God we do. And some of them would have been correct. Just because one is correct in one’s doctrine of God (posit, for instance, that a person is orthodox in his doctrine of the Trinity) does not mean that one is orthodox in all other areas. One could have a correct view of God, but a heretical view of Christ’s natures, for instance.

Lastly, it is not always true that these denominations have the same view of God as the other denominations. We have said before that it is not enough to state the truth in a positive way. The wrong views must also be refuted and denied. Many mainline denominations may have correct statements about the doctrine of God. However, functionally speaking, they will not discipline a minister who holds to a heretical view of God. If a denomination states an orthodox view of God, but then does not discipline their ministers for heretical views of God, then that denomination is not holding to an orthodox view of God. The reasoning for this is simple: the denomination, by failing to discipline heretical views, is stating that a variety of views on God’s person is acceptable. That is their functional position. People have forgotten just how important the denial of errors is (especially in today’s theological climate!). Of course, this also underlines the importance of church discipline for the church. I would argue against those who exclude discipline from the definition of the true church. Without discipline, the church stands for nothing. Without discipline, the church is like parents who never spank their children: they are abusing their children! It is, in effect, not parenting at all.

We really need to think much more carefully about this ecumenical business. It does need to be done. However, we need to be wise in how we do it. We can never shove differences under the rug. Otherwise, a superficial unity will result that pleases no one, least of all God, who wants a church unity that is characterized by the truth.

Deaths and Resurrections

This post will be a sort of work in progress for me as I think through my position on Revelation 20 in relation to the two deaths and the two resurrections. My position might easily change, but this is what I currently think. I have found, through emailing Dr. Fowler White, that this is the Augustinian position. My understanding of it has definitely been shaped by Dr. White’s own work.

There are two deaths. The first death is the death of the body, and the second death is the death of the soul while both body and soul are in agony in Hell (this needs to be qualified by the fact that the unbeliever’s soul is always dead throughout life, death, and the resurrection of the body). There are two resurrections. The first resurrection is of the soul (this is identical to regeneration, which Paul describes in Ephesians 2 with resurrection language), the second resurrection is of the body, reuniting the body with the soul (though not automatically specifying which eternal destiny results).

The first death (of the body) that Adam and Eve brought upon themselves in the Garden of Eden established a link to the second death, in addition to securing the perpetual death of the unbelievers’ souls. For natural unsaved humanity, the first death leads to the second death. That link is what Christ came to break. Jesus simultaneously established a link between the first and second resurrection while breaking the link between the first and the second death. This new link is a guaranteed link, and it guarantees two things: it guarantees the second resurrection and, even more importantly, freedom from the second death (this is what Revelation 20:6 is talking about, according to Augustine). At the second resurrection, of course, believers are freed from the first death as well. So the first resurrection frees us directly from the second death and, through its guarantee of the second resurrection, frees us indirectly from the first death.

Lastly (and this is most directly influenced by Dr. White’s work), both resurrections have a certain irony to them. The first resurrection has this irony for the believer: it does not free him from experiencing the first death. It promises eventual emancipation, but not immediate freedom. The second resurrection has a mirror image irony: it does not free the unbeliever from the second death.

A Problem With Premillenialism

I have been reading Sam Storms’s outstanding book on Amillenialism. He poses a number of questions which I believe are insuperable problems to the premillenial view. The most significant has to do with death in the millenial age. The premillenial position requires that there be death during the millenial kingdom, since there will be great battles towards the end of it. The premil position also holds that the second coming of Christ comes at the beginning of that millenial reign. The problem is that the annihilation of death is not tied to the end of the millenial period in biblical revelation, but rather to the second coming of Christ. In Revelation 19, the wedding supper of the Lamb is followed by a description of the second coming of Christ, in which the beast and his followers are all cast into the lake of fire. The destruction is total and complete (see in particular verses 19-21). This makes chapter 20 a recapitulation of chapter 19, not a temporally subsequent chapter. The rest of the New Testament bears out this simple fact: it is when Christ comes back that the judgment happens, the annihilation of all the enemies, and the double resurrection (not first one group and then the next) occurs (see Storms’s book for an outstanding treatment not only of the passages involved, but also of the hermeneutical issues). This means that the millenial reign happens before Christ’s second coming, not after. Amillenialism and Post-Millenialism are the only viewpoints on the millenial kingdom that can account for these particular data.

Sixth Plenary Address: From Beginning to End- God’s Garden to God’s City (Derek Thomas)

Text is Revelation 21:9-22:5

These final chapters of Revelation are a bookend to the first chapters of Genesis.

G.K. chesterton once said, “Don’t believe in anything that can’t be told in colored pictures.” Fantasy literature provides a context in which people can, perhaps, understand Revelation better: fantasy literature works in highly colored, almost cartoon-like extravagance of color. This is what Revelation feels like (minus the fiction aspect, of course).

We exist in two different realms right now as believers. Jerusalem is a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. The imagery of the cube-shaped new Jerusalem comes from the Old Testament. The main occupation of God’s people in the new heavens and the new earth is worship. This is a test: does that idea thrill us? We can hardly expect to be thrilled in worshiping God in the new heavens and the new earth if we are not thrilled in worshiping God in this life. New temple, new heaven, new world. Things in the world never stay new. But the new heavens, new earth, new temple, new world, will always retain its youth and newness. This new existence cost Jesus an unimaginable price. Jesus experienced the very reverse of the Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6: The Lord curse you and turn away from you. The Lord turn His face away from you, and be just to you. The Lord lift up His wrath upon you and give you (literally!) Hell. Jesus experienced this so that we could experience the beauty of the blessing.

The Devil in his Redemptive-Historical Context

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a pair of theological questions related to the “fear of death” topic and deriving from the same pair of verses, Heb. 2:14-15. One of my curious laypeople asked about it in our Hebrews study:

In what sense did the devil ever hold “the power of death”?

How was this power altered by Christ’s defeat of the devil?

We are looking for a way to speak accurately about the “Before” and “After” of the devil in redemptive history. Any insights?

The Hebrews verses again are:

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”

Slavery to the Fear of Death (Heb. 2:15)

(Posted by Paige)

Here’s a theme that I would like to develop into a written piece sometime; I thought I’d toss it out to you here to gather some of your good thinking, and thus expand my own. See which of these questions sparks ideas in you…

1) In what ways have cultures (and individuals), from ancient times to the present, told stories and pursued actions that reflect slavery to the fear of death?

2) In what ways has this universal fear of death been exploited by the powerful?

3)Would fear of death have at all influenced the lives of OT saints (up to and including Jesus’ disciples, pre-resurrection)? In other words, was OT revelation sufficient to remove, or at least mitigate, this universal fear of death?

Here is the text from Hebrews 2:14-15 (ESV):

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”

Thanks in advance for your ideas!

Eastern Mysticism, Robert Jordan, and Eschatology

Eastern Mysticism (abbr. EM) is a catch-all term that would describe a number of differing beliefs. I would use it primarily to refer to Hinduism, Buddhism, and the various off-shoots of such religions. One element that is common among many of the EM religions is pantheism, the belief that God is everything. Some scholars hold that panentheism is a more appropriate term (the definition of which is that God is IN all things). From my perspective, though, it seems that pantheism is a more accurate description of EM’s general characteristic.

The hugely popular fantasy series (and one of my very favorites!) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, entitled The Wheel of Time™, bears many resemblances to EM. There is a sort of yin and yang aspect to the male and female elements of the source of power, not to mention the standardized beginning of each novel, that states categorically that there are no beginnings or endings to the wheel of time. There is certainly a cyclical understanding of time, rather than a linear model.

In comparing EM to Robert Jordan, the question that arises in my mind is that of eschatology and the problem of evil. Evil, by the way, is not just a difficulty for Christianity. In many ways, it is more of a problem for EM and pantheists. How so? Simply put, if everything is God, then evil also is God. If evil is God, then there is no real hope for ridding the world of it. There can be no true eschatology. This is why their systems of belief are circular. The best you can do with evil is contain it in the wheel of time. That is why I will be incredibly interested to see how eschatological the final volume of the series (due to come out in early January) will be. I want to see if the series will be ultimately more contradictory (though FAR more satisfying), by having the Dark One eliminated, or whether he will be sealed back up in his own (or perhaps a new) prison, like he was before. The former option would be borrowed capital from the Christian viewpoint. Of course, Robert Jordan has already borrowed aspects from Christianity by his terming the final battle Tarmon Gai’don, which sounds suspiciously like Armageddon.

In Christian eschatology, Jesus Christ gave the death blow to evil, which will be finalized at the Second Coming, when evil itself will be eliminated. So God is not simply letting things go (as the Deists hopelessly believe), nor is God equal to the world (as EM believes), but instead God is personally involved with the problem of evil, while being simultaneously transcendent, and is doing something about evil. He has done the ultimate thing at the cross, and will deliver the final blow at the end of time.

Pastorally speaking, our problem is that we are not patient enough. We want evil to be eliminated right now. There are many reasons why evil is not gone yet. God has made room in time for grace. God wants to glorify Himself through using us as His instruments against evil. He wants us to grow in grace and knowledge. He wants our faith tested by being attacked. He wants us to trust Him more and more. And there are many more reasons for God’s not eliminating evil on our time-table. But just because God is not conforming to our time-table does not mean that God is sitting by idly. We will do well to remember that.

Recent P&R Books I Have Received

I have received a number of books from P&R for review purposes, and I’d like to say a few words about them. The Bavinck biography deserves its own post, so I will wait on that one a tad.

Almost deserving of its own post also is the Festschrift for Al Groves. I loved him dearly. He was one of those people who gets his way into your heart and won’t let go. However, it was often almost unconsciously done. I was far more affected by his death than I thought I would be. I was very happy to see a volume come out in memory of him. His contributions to scholarship are also more on the hidden side. He was a wizard with computers, and was a clearing house for information on the new critical edition of the Hebrew Bible (the Biblia Hebraica Quinta). So, I commend this series of essays, written by colleagues and students who loved him.

Most of these sermons are available in other formats (although some are occasional sermons for Easter). However, it is very nice to have them all together in one place on one topic, especially if you are trying to find help on the resurrection for your sermons. Anything Boice writes is worth reading.

This book has a very intriguing message. By our beliefs and by our actions, we often treat Jesus as less than He is. The picture on the front is a dog-tag with the title of the book on it, a very clever idea. And the writing itself is also clever. Consider the title of the chapter “Yawning in the Presence of a Mighty God,” a chapter on complacency in worship. This is a book to give to Christians who have grown up in the Christian world, since they are the ones most susceptible to this kind of sin. Prepare to be shocked again by how big our God is.

The cross of Christ is always the most astounding thing about the Christian faith. Rather than sentimentalize it, we should revel in its sheer “foolishness.” For the “foolishness” of God is wiser than the wisdom of men. We should not marvel that God is just. We should instead marvel that God is merciful, even to worms like us.

There are several good books on parenting that have come out recently. This book re-orients our parenting back to the central truths of the Gospel. This book reminds us that, instead of being overwhelmed at the enormity of the task (which is very easy to do!), we should overwhelmed by the centrality of the Gospel. If we do that, we will have all the resources of God’s grace to combat the forces of evil that seek to undermine the family.

The focus of this book is different, in that it looks at all the different stages of growth, and analyzes how parents can address the heart issues of their children. This book is heavily dependent (healthily so, in my opinion!) on the book by Tedd Tripp. Highly recommended for those seeking help on a particular stage of childhood development. There is an especially good chapter on the situation of children who rebel in major ways “When Things Don’t Go As Planned.”

Picking up where the previous book left off, what about parents of adults? To date, I have rarely, if ever, seen a complete book devoted to the parents of adults, and how to handle adult offspring. That’s where this book comes in very handy, indeed. I would also strongly recommend it to pastors who don’t have adult children, but need to have some help in counseling parents of adults. I love the title: “You Never Stop Being a Parent.” All too often, parents of adults simply let go entirely. Obviously the relationship is different, but how can parents of adults help without interfering? This book helps us navigate these difficult waters.

A book sorely needed today is one that seeks to expose and counteract our modern age’s obsession with materialism and greed. It is worth clicking through to look at the cover, which is a not-so-subtle reference to the glass empty or glass full, a matter of Gospel perspective. Barcley relies heavily on the definitive Puritan treatment of the subject, as he should. In fact, you can think of this book as an update of Burroughs.

The entire series “Basics of the Faith” are good things to have on your church book table to hand out to people. The one I received was the little booklet on belief in God. In our day, where the new atheism is gaining quite a militant public hearing, we need all the help we can get on this, and not just for pastors, but also the people in the pew need to hear why these views are wrong.

Lastly, but not least, this book on eschatology does such a wonderful job of bringing the subject into the realm of the practical. The volume is solidly Amillenial, and argues for a present understanding of “these last days.” For pastors, I would particularly direct them to Richard Phillips’s essay on counseling those who are about to die, and the bereaved. But all the essays are important and needed, particularly since pastoral treatments of eschatology seem to be a bit rare. If there are any out there who do not believe that eschatology can be practical, then read this book. You will revise your opinion, I assure you.

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