Gary Swisher

Posts Tagged ‘Theology’

Earthquakes! How Long Do We Have?

In Chrisitan Right, Christianity, Dispensationalism, Eschatology, evangelical, Prophecy, Theology on August 25, 2011 at 3:44 pm

How long, that is, until the prophetic date-setters and doomsayers begin heralding the end of time? The U.S. has seen two notable quakes in one day. What’s worse, one of them rocked the U.S. capitol, and now Hurricane Irene may up the ante. Some will say this is an alarming sign. Forget the fact that devastating quakes hit third world countries and kill thousands almost every year. If it happens in the U.S., then it’s a sign. People in California are having a good laugh at all the fuss on the news–not unlike Northerners who scoff when a southern state becomes crippled by an inch of snow!

Some in the dispensational vein say that the frequency of earthquakes means the end is near. If you search the internet you can find seismic evidence supporting the idea that earthquakes are increasing in our time. This seems to ignore the fact that in modern times, seismic measurements have also increased, dramatically. The data from centuries past would obviously pale in comparison. Alarmists on the right say earthquakes signal the end. Alarmists on the left say it’s the global warming. Was Katrina caused by carbon emissions, immorality, or both?

It really doesn’t matter whether earthquakes or hurricanes are increasing—as eschatology goes (the study of end-time prophecy)–since those who point to these trends are misapplying Matthew 24 and its companion passages.

Jesus said in Matthew 24:16…
Then let those in Judea flee into the mountains.

If this were an end-of-the-world prophecy, why did Christ refer to those in Judea and the need of its inhabitants to flee to the mountains? He spoke of destruction that only involved those in Judea—not the U.S. or the rest of the world. But what of the time frame?

But pray that your flight is not in the winter, nor on the Sabbath day. (v.20)

How is it that he refers to the Sabbath day which (for the most part) is not observed in the Christianized world? These statements indicate his application is to ancient Judea. However, the following verse can hardly be ignored.

Truly I say to you, In no way will this generation pass away until all these things have occurred. (v. 34) 

Christians at the time of Christ witnessed the end of the age—the Mosaic age. If your translation says this was the end of the world, it makes a poor translation of the Greek aeon. The Romans came and destroyed the temple and put an end to its sacrifices and rituals.That was an ending unlike any they had seen before.  The Christians saw the warning signs and fled to the mountains of Pella. They saw the moon turn to blood, in symbolic form, as Peter affirmed in Acts 2.

Earthquakes, wars and famines have been common occurrences throughout history and in numerous parts of the world. This should help us realize that Christ was speaking about a very narrow time frame and a very localized situation. There are clues all over Matthew 24 that indicate the context Jesus spoke of, and its nearness.

Many Christians are inclined to a hope in a religion of escapism. Not unlike the Jews of Jesus’ time, they are looking for God to overthrow worldly powers and establish a government system on earth. But the means of escape have been provided. As Christ said, his kingdom does not come by observation.

Image source: http://www.google.com/imgres?q=washington+dc+ruins&num=10&hl=en&client=firefox-a&hs=gY1&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&biw=1024&bih=547&tbm=isch&tbnid=86_rPQeiPDEiAM:&imgrefurl=http://www.anunews.net/blog/%3Fcat%3D85&docid=0cXWMtL_hepR4M&w=314&h=191&ei=IadWTs-GLcylsQKY59ykDA&zoom=1&iact=rc&dur=291&sqi=2&page=1&tbnh=124&tbnw=187&start=0&ndsp=12&ved=1t:429,r:2,s:0&tx=24&ty=47

Hell Bent, Part 2

In Christianity, Hell, Theology on April 7, 2011 at 11:23 pm

In his most famous sermon, Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan preacher who shares credit for the Great Awakening, had this to say of God’s nature:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire.

And this he said not to heathen but to his own congregation!

So often we hear the call to let the Bible interpret the Bible. And this should well be applied to an inquiry of hell. Jesus’ description of hell is comparatively subdued in light of such traumatizing fabrications. Christ said there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The phrase, “gnashing of teeth” is used several times in the Old Testament and simply communicates the idea of contempt or disdain. Let the Bible explain:

All your enemies have opened their mouth against you; they hiss and gnash the teeth; they say, We have swallowed her up. (Lam 2:16)

His anger has torn and hated me; He gnashes on me with His teeth; my enemy sharpens his eyes at me. (Job 16:9)

How is it that we have always been led to believe that such gnashing of teeth is the result of unspeakable torture, when scriptural precedent shows it is a sign of mere contempt? And what about weeping, or wailing as some translations say? Does this fit a tortured existence? Would your response to excruciating pain be to begin weeping? If I slam a hammer on my finger, weeping is not my response. I am more apt to scream at the shock of such consuming pain, yet this is nothing compared to the horrors of the popular view of hell, where we should expect nothing short of mind-piercing screams and blood-curdling shrieks! Weeping is a response to grief and great loss, not unfathomable torture.

I grew up thinking hell was an infernal region below ground. I was afraid if one dug a hole too deep he might be captured by Satan himself. Of course, I  failed to realize that hell was not Satan’s headquarters where he amused himself by torturing people. It was the pagans who created such false ideas that we associate with hell. The word hell, itself, is a mistranslation and a misnomer. While the original word “hell” means to conceal, cover over, the Greek word at its source has no such meaning. So many popular translations also confuse hell with hades—or the grave. Jesus descended into lower regions but never once did he set foot in hell. If your translation disagrees, it needs reformed.

The word in the Bible that is most often translated “hell” is Gehenna. But contrary to the meaning of the word hell, Gehenna was not a concealed, covered-over place. It was a wide-open, burning, garbage dump, spread out for all to see. This was a picture reserved for the Jews. The word Gehenna is never used with non-Jewish audiences. Paul never mentions it once, nor does the “gospel for gentiles” (John).

And what of the fire? Fire creates unbearable pain, of course. But is the fire of judgment literal, or could it be figurative? Surely Jesus was painting a picture of sheer, unspeakable agony. If you grew up believing in the age-old view of hell, it has to be literal. And surely the branches in Christ which bear no fruit will be burned with literal fire (even though they are not literal branches). By the same token, when Jesus says his Father prunes the fruitful branches, do we take this literally, as if pruning shears are used to cut off the limbs of Christians? Consider other occurrences of “fire” in the New Testament. Jesus said everyone would be salted with fire (not just the lost) and that the Holy Spirit would baptize with fire. Is the Holy Spirit to engulf us with burning flames? Is this literal or figurative?

I hope it is clear to all that the fire spoken of in Isaiah 42 is a figure of judgment and not literal fire, as it speaks of God’s chosen people being subject to flaming wrath, surrounded by fire and even burned. Not a word of it is literal.

Who gave up Jacob to those who took away his goods, and Israel to his attackers? Did not the Lord? he against whom they did wrong, and in whose ways they would not go, turning away from his teaching. For this reason he let loose on him the heat of his wrath, and his strength was like a flame; and it put fire round about him, but he did not see it; he was burned, but did not take it to heart. (Isa 42:24-25)

If someone mistreats us, are we to heap burning coals of fire upon him? Yes we are, but this is figurative speech as it relates to overcoming evil with good. This fire produces a good result. Yet I am sure many Christians throughout history saw this verse as a license to make hell hotter for their adversaries. Even so, the discomfort in the conscience caused by receiving good for evil can hardly compare to the pain of burning your enemy’s flesh. Perhaps this is the fire into which God’s enemies will be cast. God, himself is a consuming fire. He makes his ministers a flame of fire. Are they literal fires? Are his ministers in flaming agony? How should we go about deciding when fire is to be taken literally and when it is a figure of speech? Can death be a thing thrown into a burning lake?

Does scripture alone form our concept of God’s judgment, or do our ancestral preconceptions skew our interpretation of scripture? I would suggest the scriptures are not nearly as articulate, detailed or cruel as the pervading picture of hell we have, even today. I am also suggesting that hell has been embellished when it was most effective in scaring and controlling the masses. Scripture clearly shows God’s wrath. But God is not defined as wrath. God is (is equated to) love. Since love defines God, love must be the basis for all he does. Love includes judgment and wrath, but wrath does not define God.

Over the centuries the people whose foremost image of God was that of  a wrathful and vengeful tyrant, were the quickest to turn up the heat on those outside their fold. Their hardened hearts devised the most graphic embellishments of  the coming judgment, amplifying the pain and torment exponentially. If our judgments toward others will be used as a standard for us, we should be very careful. If we continue to see God’s highest passion as being a torturer of souls (especially those we dislike), our hearts will be likewise affected and our actions will follow suit. Fixating on wrath will condemn the believer and those in his world to an unmerciful, legalistic and vengeful kind of existence. Just check the past.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved

Hell Bent

In Christianity, church, Hell, Theology on April 7, 2011 at 11:11 pm

As with many things in Christendom, the understanding of hell is layered with corruptions stemming from church politics, vain imaginations and even paganism. The view of eternal punishment has been embellished over the ages, and oftentimes has seemed much more hellish than the picture scripture seems to paint.

When I grew up, hell-fire and brimstone sermons were more common. If I had been born a few years earlier, I’m sure they would have been a steady diet. The church movement of my formative years was once extremely legalistic. As time progressed, so did the emphasis on God’s grace. In many veins of Christianity, legalism has seemed to wane (not that it’s gone by any means) since the 1960s, and so has the prevalence of fear and judgment as a motivation for moral conduct. Is it possible that one’s particular bent on hell, or the amount of emphasis hell receives, is connected to the degree of legalism and judgmentalism one demonstrates?

The fire insurance view of the gospel has been a sad reflection on Christian theology, showing an impoverished understanding of the true riches found in Christ. Perhaps the reason a book like Love Wins, by Rob Bell, is getting so much attention is because it has become less palatable to focus on eternal torment. Fiery-judgment sermons are surely less prevalent now than in the past. I would argue that the times when church history was most characterized by condemnation and persecution of both believers and non-believers, it was due to significantly greater emphasis on what heretics and sinners deserved in the eyes of an angry God. In medieval times the church raised funds through fear by convincing Christians that they would go to hell for not tithing. So-called “heretics” were burned alive at the stake and unbelievers were tortured in a variety of inventive and sadistic ways, especially during the inquisition.

One such heretic, named Michael Servetus, was helped to his execution by the famous theologian, John Calvin. The quote below shows the degree to which Christian leaders of the time acted as divine judge and jury.

It is true that Calvin and his fellow pastors in Geneva were involved in the death of Servetus [to put it lightly]. However, it would be difficult to find any church leader in the 16th century who advocated a more gentle approach. Luther called for attacks on German peasants and wrote an angry tract against the Jews, called ‘On the Jews and their Lies’. Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich, supported the execution by drowning of the Anabaptist leader, Felix Manz. Sir Thomas More, England ‘s Catholic Lord Chancellor, presided over the execution of those he viewed as “heretics” in England during the reign of Henry the VIII.
Source: www.calvin.edu/meeter/resources/servetus.htm

As I expressed in my previous series of posts, the parts of the Bible that lack detailed explanations are often the points where humans endeavor to explain the most. Hell is no different. Where Jesus tells of the weeping and gnashing of teeth, humans chime in with the most grotesque depictions of sadistic torture they can fathom. Thomas Aquinas is credited with saying, “That the saints may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly, and give more abundant thanks to God for it, a perfect sight of [the] punishment of the damned is granted them.”  The Assemblies of God hold in their doctrinal statement that, “It is impossible to describe the … terror and torment of hell.” Why so? Did Jesus lack the words to do it justice?

A Catholic priest named John Furniss (sounds like furnace?) wrote a children’s book in the 19th century called The Sight of Hell. Below are some quotes.

Night came upon them from the lowest and deepest hell. She saw that in the upper hell, the torments were very grevious. In the middle hell they were still more terrible. In the lowest hell the torments were above all understanding.

There is in hell a sound like that of many waters…It is the sound of oceans of tears running from the countless millions of eyes. They cry night and day.

…if one single body was taken out of hell and laid on the earth, in that same moment every living creature on the earth would sicken and die.

The [devil’s] first stroke will make your body as bad as the body of Job, covered from head to foot with sores and ulcers. The second stroke will make your body twice as bad as the body of Job…How then will your body be after the devil has been striking it every moment for a hundred million of years without stopping?

The sinner lies chained down on a bed of red-hot blazing fire!

How will you feel in hell, when millions of [biting worms] make their dwelling-place in your mouth, and ears, and eyes, and creep all over you, and sting you with their deadly stings through all eternity.

With so many things being reformed in the history of Christendom there has never been a reformation of this distorted perception of God’s punishment of the lost. The same darkened mindset that developed such extreme and detailed descriptions of their torments has guided and influenced our Bible translations, scripture interpretations and sermons down to this very day. What mind is it that we bring to scriptures to inquire of God’s final judgment? We come with the foregone conclusion that no imagination of man can grasp what a hideous torture awaits the lost.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved