Monthly Archives: September 2016

Is Social Justice Ministry A Substitute Gospel?

For the past two weeks I have been editing my blog posts of the past 13 months in preparation to publish the third book written in installments on this blog. The title will be A Course in Christianity for an Unchurched Church. As I worked through the chapters I paused at chapter 44 and thought about the state of the churches in the United States and, by extension, in other English-speaking countries. I see so many changes in process and on the horizon. In almost all cases, change is morally and theological ambiguous, that is, it includes some change for better and some for worse. The change this chapter considers is the change in evangelical and theologically conservative churches from emphasis on evangelism and soul saving to social justice works. The criticism of the soul saving model of outreach is that is treats people as disembodied souls rather than as whole persons. Of course, there is some truth to this criticism.

However, in my view, the shift to social justice as the church’s primary outreach to the world also distorts the mission of the church. I see three obvious ways this distortion takes place. (1) The social justice model possesses a strong tendency to play down the need for individual repentance, faith, and conversion. The evil it aims to address is socially systemic injustice rather than personal sin. It views the human problem as rooted in its racist, sexist, colonialist, homophobic, environmentally exploitative, plutocratic, etc., social structures rather than in each person’s idolatry, ignorance, and rebellion against God. Or, it engages in relieving poverty, homelessness, human trafficking, etc. without engaging in evangelism and establishing churches. (2) It tends to blur the line between the kingdom of God and the world. It allows the church to become an adjunct to the world, functioning as a social agency devoted to ameliorating the world’s ills. Christianity, originally understood as the present, supernatural manifestation of the future reign of God, is transformed into an ideology whose value is based on its usefulness in support of social activism. Christians working for social justice are tempted to root their identity more in a cause held in common with nonbelievers than with a cause exclusive to believers. (3) It tends to utopianism, that is, the naive view that we can bring about the kingdom of God on earth by dent of human effort. It seeks to cure human sin by reorganizing social structures or meeting bodily needs.

A Question for Social Justice Ministries

To what degree does the move from evangelism to social justice represent a loss of faith in power and truth of the gospel and abandonment of belief in the necessity of personal faith, repentance, and conversion? How far does it go to subordinate the body of Christ to the body politic of a nation? To what extent does it replace the cause of Christ with the cause of an interest group?

Hence today I want to re-post the edited version of an essay I posted some months ago. It will be published as chapter 44 in A Course in Christianity:

Is “Social Justice” a Christian Concept?

In a time of increasing emphasis on social justice in evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries, perhaps we ought to reflect on the difference between seeking justice and doing justice. On almost every occasion in which the Old Testament uses the expression “seek justice” it  refers to seeking justice for others, for “the fatherless,” “the widow,” and the “poor” (Isaiah 1:17 and Jeremiah 5:28). Quite often these instructions are given to people in authority or with social status enough to advocate for others. A king, for example, should “seek justice” for all the people (Isaiah 16:5). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Micah informs us of what the Lord requires: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). But neither the Old nor New Testament tells us to “seek justice” for ourselves. Advocating for the legitimate rights of others is counted a virtuous act. But seeking it for yourself is at best ambiguous; it is not condemned but neither is it praised.

Oversimplifying matters a bit, I see three different modes of enacting justice in the Bible: (1) seeking justice for the powerless against unjust powers; (2) seeking justice for yourself in matters where you believe you have been treated unfairly; and (3) acting justly in all your own relationships with others. Let’s discuss them one at a time.


Seeking Justice for Others

To engage in this mode of justice you must possess some qualities the oppressed do not possess. You cannot be powerless and oppressed yourself. You have to possess power or you cannot help those without it. And you cannot be a member of the oppressed group or you would not be seeking justice for others but for yourself. You cannot seek justice for the poor if you are poor or the vulnerable fatherless if you are vulnerable and fatherless. This distinction between those who have status to seek justice for others and those for whom they seek it makes the activity of seeking justice morally ambiguous. True, all good deeds are morally ambiguous because the moment we recognize the goodness of our actions we become proud of our goodness. And pride is wrong. But seeking justice for others adds another dimension. We must distinguish ourselves from those we aim to help. We have power, wealth, and status, and they don’t. Hence our compassion for the victim can easily transform into relief that we are not victims, not poor, not powerless. A root of disdain springs to life.

Additionally, it is easy to forget the people we are trying to help and get caught up in the noble, heroic cause of justice and the feelings of self-importance it engenders. It is often said these days that giving “charity” to the needy offends against their dignity but seeking justice for them affirms that dignity. But as you can see from the analysis above, seeking justice also distinguishes between those who have power, wealth, and status and those who do not. Seeking justice makes plenty of room for a condescending attitude on the part of the justice seeker. It would be ironic indeed if in seeking justice we grow to despise the very ones for whom we seek it.

One more irony: justice seekers often attempt to awaken and mobilize the oppressed to resent and hate their oppressors. We make seeking justice for oneself a holy task, a moral obligation, and a virtuous act. In so doing, justice seekers remake the oppressed in the image of their oppressors. It is an infallible rule that we become like what we hate.


Seeking Justice for Yourself

Seeking justice for yourself is not a noble or virtuous act. It’s normal and spontaneous for sure, but we have no duty to make sure other people treat us fairly. We enjoy a highly developed and finely nuanced power for detecting injustice when it is done to us. But we are notoriously bad at judging our own cause. Who feels that life treats them with perfect fairness? Does anyone feel like they get enough recognition or are paid enough for their work? Who is happy with a B+ when you know you deserve an A? Every 6-year old child says, “No fair” at least 5 times a day. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to discourage or even condemn seeking justice for yourself. It’s too easy to clothe envy and selfishness in the purple cloak of justice. No one is qualified to be their own judge. We need an objective standard and an impartial judge.


Doing Justice

Doing justice is at the heart of the issue. Seeming to seek justice for others does not require that you give up your supposed rights and privileges. You can seek justice for others for less than noble reasons and you can remain deeply self-centered while doing it. But doing justice is an altogether different matter. I do justice when I submit all my actions in relation to God and others to the test of the right. Doing justice requires that I renounce all self-judgment and reject all actions that privilege my desires, my supposed rights, over others. We do justice when we do the right thing whether it is in harmony with our interests or not. The foundation for doing justice is loving justice more than you love yourself; and the foundation for loving justice more than yourself is loving your neighbor as you love yourself. How can we claim to seek justice for others when we don’t act justly in all our relationships? And how can we seek true justice for ourselves when we turn a blind eye to the injustice we do to others? Perhaps, if we will concentrate our hearts on doing justice in all our acts, we will be better able to seek justice for others. And if we focus on doing justice we might not be so insistent on seeking justice for ourselves.

Hell, Part two: Is There a Way Out?

In the previous post I introduced four views of hell. Today I will examine each one critically, pointing to some strengths and weaknesses of each. My view of hell will come into view as I evaluate these alternatives. Again, I ask for the indulgence of those who have spent decades studying all the nuances and alternative answers to the question of final punishment. In a short essay like this one I cannot touch all the bases. And of course I welcome corrections of any misrepresentations of the views I examine or suggestions for improving my own proposal.

Views of Hell Critically Examined


Liberal theology’s contention that the NT authors simply accepted without question the apocalyptic speculations of late Judaism, though questionable, deserves more consideration than conservative theologians usually accord it. Undoubtedly the NT authors use the language of apocalyptic speculation. But the crucial question is how they use it. Did they intend to present these images as revealed divine truths about the eschatological transition events and the nature of divine judgment? Did they present them as metaphorical images embodying truth or as literal descriptions of post-mortem realities? Can their use of them be justified?


Advocates of the traditional doctrine of hell attempt to take seriously God’s utter rejection of sin and evil and the seriousness of our situation in relation to the holy and just God. Nevertheless, despite this laudable motive I find its biblical grounding less than secure. For example, in interpreting texts that speak of death as the final punishment for sin (e.g., Romans 6:23), traditionalism interprets “death” or “eternal death” to mean eternal suffering without actually dying. Why would anyone say that? Perhaps it is because most traditionalists are committed to the idea that the human soul, once God creates it, cannot die. If the soul cannot die and some people are irrevocably excluded from salvation, the conclusion seems unavoidable: hell is a place of never-ending suffering in punishment for unrepentant sin. But as a matter of fact the Bible does not teach the doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul. It teaches that God alone has immortality and that human beings can hope for immortality only as a gracious gift of God.


In my view, conditionalism is far superior to traditionalism in accounting for the biblical data about hell. That is to say, if you are looking for a summary statement of how the Bible pictures the fate of unrepentant sinners, conditionalism is the best candidate available. Conditionalism’s critique of traditionalism is devastating. My problem with conditionalism is its assumption that once we reconstruct the biblical picture of hell and the fate of sinners, the argument is essentially over. It assumes that those biblical statements were made with the intent of giving us specific information about eschatological events. I have serious doubts about this assumption.

First, the language of NT eschatology is indeed, as liberal theology points out, derived from pre-Christian Jewish apocalyptic speculation, and we have no warrant for thinking of this Jewish speculation as authoritative. But unlike liberal theology I do not think we should reject it for this reason alone. We need to ask how it was used by the apostolic writers in view of the resurrection of Christ. Second, the New Testament message is centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The event of the resurrection of Christ is the only eschatological event that has actually happened.

You can see from Paul’s teaching on the resurrection how pre-Christian Jewish speculation about the resurrection was reinterpreted in view of the actual event of Christ’s resurrection. Apart from the event of a real resurrection, the hope of resurrection is mere speculation derived perhaps from belief in God’s goodness or some other theological doctrine. But the event of the real thing forced Paul to modify his preconceived notions of resurrection (See 1 Corinthians 15).

This process of reinterpretation is also at work in way the NT uses pre-Christian Jewish notions of the messiah. Many people expected a messiah but no one expected a messiah like Jesus! The actual event of Jesus’s death and resurrection revolutionized how messianic and other eschatological texts in the Old Testament and intertestamental literature were understood. We get a little window into this process when the resurrected Jesus chastised the two Emmaus-road disciples:

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:25-27).

These examples of apostolic reinterpretation call for the following principle:

The precise meaning of prophesies, anticipations, and speculations about future events can be definitively understood only after the actual event happens. The event is the meaning.

Let’s apply this principle to the language of hell and other eschatological images. Paul and the other NT writers did not experience the other eschatological transition events about which apocalyptic speculation speaks as they experienced the appearances of the resurrected Jesus. (Okay, they experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.) Hence we do not yet know how the apocalyptic language would need to be transformed in light of the actual events. Nevertheless the apostles’ experience of the actual eschatological event of the resurrection of Christ legitimated their use of other apocalyptic images in a loose sense, that is, with the expectation that it points in the right direction but would need to be modified in view of the actual events when the occur. My skepticism about conditionalism concerns its too close identification of the not-yet-modified apocalyptic language in which the NT eschatology is articulated with events that have not yet occurred.

Evangelical Universalism

Evangelical Universalism also has strengths. And in Parry’s book at least, it does not offer “cheap grace.” Sin is serious, and repentance is necessary. Salvation may require painful purgation for great lengths of time. Universalism is very attractive for someone who, like me, believes deeply in the love and grace of God and who does not think God can fail to achieve his objectives. I am not ashamed to admit that I hope that somehow beyond all expectation everyone finally comes to faith and repentance. But despite many good theological and philosophical arguments for it, I do not think the contention that universalism is the biblical view can be sustained. And the notion of hell as a temporary place of purgation has even less support from the Bible. Evangelical universalism suffers from the same questionable assumption that plagues conditionalism, that is, that the biblical language of eschatology gives us specific information about the eschatological course of events and final states.


What can we learn from this little survey? Obviously sincere believers in Jesus Christ, the risen Lord and Savior, differ in their views of hell. I do not think the Bible teaches the traditional view. I find that picture horrifying and a sharp challenge to John’s assertion that God is love, but I respect the faith of those who think they must believe it because they think the Bible teaches it. But I suspect that many Christians would be happy to discover that the Bible doesn’t really teach it and, consequently, that they are not obligated to believe it or try to defend it to their non-Christian friends.

Conditionalism gives Bible believers solid biblical justification for rejecting the traditional view. No one will spend eternity in horrible agony. Nevertheless, the conditionalist view does hold that God will punish people in hell for some length of time and that, once there, there is no way out but death. This, too, seems horrible, though much less so than the traditional view. Many people would be happy to discover that there are sincere conservative Christian theologians who can articulate good biblical grounds for believing in universal salvation. Even if some people must suffer painful purification for a time, we know that in the end “all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well” (Julian of Norwich).

For me, I am content to take the New Testament language about transitional eschatological events and hell as general affirmations of faith, grounded in the resurrection of Christ, that God will redeem his people and pronounce a “great divorce” (C.S. Lewis) between good and evil. Whether hell contains many or few or none, whether it lasts for a day or a million years or forever, whether it is a symbol or a real place, it represents God’s complete victory over everything that sets itself against him or that detracts from his glory. It epitomizes the complete liberation of his people from even the possibility of sin and suffering. And in that sense the biblical doctrine of hell is part of the gospel.

Hell, Part One: The Controversy

Where can I begin? Could there be a more controversial topic than hell, that is, the question of final punishment? I hope those of you who have read extensively on this subject will forgive me for oversimplifying the range of options for interpreting the nature of hell. But I don’t have the space in one essay to provide nuance.

Four Views of Hell

The Liberal View

Liberal theology long ago rejected the biblical doctrine of hell as an element alien to Jesus’ message of divine love and God’s universal fatherhood. The NT writers unthinkingly took this doctrine over from the fantastic apocalyptic speculations of contemporary Judaism. According to liberal theology, everyone will be saved. No need for hell.

Hell in Traditionalist Theology

At the other end of the spectrum are “traditionalists”, who hold that the Bible teaches that hell is a place where unrepentant sinners are tormented endlessly. Once in hell no one leaves; you can’t die and you will not be pardoned. Many traditionalists believe that the human soul was created by God immortal so that it cannot die or that it is irrevocably sustained in being by God forever to endure just punishment.

The Conditionalist View of Hell

Those who call themselves “conditionalists,” despite some variation, hold that hell is a place where unrepentant sinners experience death, that is, capital punishment. They cease to exist, body and soul. The term conditionalism refers to the mode in which human beings can be made immortal. Eternal life is not a natural or created quality of the human soul but a gift of divine grace given at the resurrection of the dead to those who place their hope wholly in Jesus Christ. For conditionalists, Romans 6:23 states this teaching unequivocally:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Conditionalists argue that “death” in this text means literal death, that is, ceasing to exist, and not never-ending existence in agony, as traditionalists would have it. How long one spends in hell—on an infernal death row as it were—is a matter of debate among conditionalists. The point of agreement is that no one remains in hell forever and no one leaves except by dying. For a classic statement of conditionalism, see Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, 3rd ed. (1982, 2011). See also Date and Highfield, A Consuming Passion: Essays on Hell and Immortality in Honor of Edward Fudge (2015).

The Evangelical Universalist View of Hell

In a fourth option, evangelical universalism, unlike liberal universalism, argues that the scriptures teach universal salvation. Robin Perry, aka Gregory MacDonald, articulates a particularly cogent case for universalism that includes an interesting doctrine of hell [The Evangelical Universalist, 2nd ed (2012)]. Parry attempts to account for all biblical data, some of which points in a universalist direction and some of which envisions a number of people serving some time in hell. Everyone will be saved eventually, but some will suffer in hell until they are ready for eternal life. Hell becomes a sort of purgatory, a place of purification for the sake of salvation rather than of punishment for the sake of damnation.

Next Time: Very soon I will post the second essay on hell, “Hell—Is There a Way Out?”

Resurrection of the Body or Survival of the Soul?

Last week in dealing with eschatology I urged us to keep our focus on the definitive state of salvation rather than getting bogged down in discussions of transitional end time events. Whatever the transitional events turn out to be, the definitive state of salvation is eternal life in the presence of God. However there is one transitional event that the New Testament so connects to the definitive state that I need to deal with it, that is, the resurrection of the body. Though I won’t take the space in this essay to discuss it, my thinking on the resurrection has been definitively shaped by repeated reading and reflection on Paul’s great treatise on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

Everyone dies, and everyone knows it. But death means different things in different religions. For some religions and philosophies, death is merely a transition from this order to another. The higher part of the soul is freed from the body to return to the divine realm from which it came. Life in the cyclical of nature is bondage from which we need liberating and death is the way out. But for Christianity, death is not a transition to another mode of life; it is the end. Death is not the promise of liberation but the threat of annihilation. In the Christian understanding of salvation, the resurrection of the body is the central event of transition from this order to eternal life with God. Pinpointing death instead of the resurrection of the body as the transitional event, as popular religion often does, distorts and disrupts the entire Christian way of understanding the world. Let’s examine two reasons why the resurrection instead of death makes sense as the transition to eternal life.

First, God created this world, matter and nature, body and soul, and pronounced it very good. The body is not a prison, and life in this world is not a place of purgatory to which we were consigned because of our pre-incarnate sins. So, resurrection makes perfect sense as the transition from the present order in which creation is wounded and imperfect—though still good—to the healed and perfected order that God is preparing. Resurrection saves and perfects creation and affirms its created goodness. Or, to say it another way, God’s act of saving creation from death and decay and bringing it to its intended goal is called resurrection.

The promise of resurrection affirms continuity between the creation as it now exists and the new creation God will make. The new creation is not a replacement for the old one but the present creation saved and perfected. As for individual people, resurrection promises continuity between our present identity and our future selves. What good would it do for me to survive death if the part of my soul that survives has no memory of me and if my life in the body makes no ultimate difference? I have no more reason to look forward to this mode of survival than to survival of the atoms in my body after its dissolution! Who would find comfort in that? I can hope that my resurrected self (body and soul) will be expanded and illuminated and intimately united with Christ and filled with God’s Spirit. But unless there is continuity with the “I” that I am now, it makes no sense to call this transition resurrection or salvation.

Second, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central revealing and saving event of the Christian faith. Why would God raise Jesus, body and soul, from the dead if death itself were the transition to eternal life? If Jesus had merely survived death as a spirit, he could have appeared as a ghost to his disciples to declare his innocence and to assure them of the possibility of surviving death. But God raised him from the dead! Jesus’ resurrection declared not only his innocence of the Jewish’s accusation of blasphemy and Roman charge of sedition but it also declared his victory over death. Jesus’ resurrection made God’s intention to save and perfect his creation more than a hypothesis consistent with God’s act of creation. It made it a fact in history. And this fact calls for a revolution in the way we live:

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:55).

It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself…Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:13-18).

Next Time: What shall we make of the doctrine of Hell? Is it part of the gospel or an especially difficult part of the problem of evil? Should we take the language about Hell as literal or metaphorical?

The Christian Hope Or End-Times Fancies?

Christianity presents itself as more than an ideal of human life in this world, a vision of a harmonious and just human community. It offers more than inspired knowledge of the secrets of the divine world. And it is more than a way of dealing with guilt. These benefits may enhance wellbeing and happiness in this life, but they do not address ultimate human longings. We long for a quality of life, being, community, knowledge, joy, freedom, and love that we cannot attain in this world. Our longings reach further than our minds can conceptualize or our imaginations can picture.

What is the Christian hope, the final form of the salvation Christianity offers? What should we seek and expect? And what is the ground and assurance of this hope? In this and the upcoming essays I want to address these questions.

In my view, many discussions of the Christian hope are obscured by an unhealthy fascination with the apocalyptic imagery and eschatological timetables associated with the transition from the present order to the new order. People lose sight of the hope of eternal life in intimate closeness to the eternal God. Instead, they become engrossed in current events, looking for signs of the approaching end. They stockpile food and construct safe houses for the coming collapse of society. They treat the Book of Revelation like some people treat the works of Nostradamus, as obscure texts on which to impose their own fancies, good for entertainment but not for edification. Or, they make their views of eschatology into an orthodoxy that becomes a test of one’s Christian faith. The nature of the millennium becomes as important as the fact of Christ’s resurrection!

A sober treatment of the Christian hope must remain focused on its ultimate fulfillment and not let itself be distracted by the imagery of transitions. What then is that hope? As I indicated above, it is eternal life in intimate union with the eternal God. But what does this mean? Popular religion speaks vaguely of an “afterlife” or of survival beyond death. Some people want another life like they want another house or another car. But why think another life would make you any happier than this life does? Does eternal life mean simply living forever? But why would living unendingly be a good thing? One can imagine conditions under which immortality would be a curse that would make us long for death.

Paul sometimes uses apocalyptic imagery when speaking of the transition from this life to eternal life. But when he speaks of the ultimate state of salvation he speaks of eternal life and immortality. His favorite expression seems to be “being with the Lord.”

I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Phil 1:23-24)

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10-11).

We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Cor 5:8)

After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thess 4:17)

John speaks with cautious confidence when he says this

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure (1 John 3:1-3).

John keeps the focus on the hope of being like Christ and seeing him “as he is.” This hope does not encourage us to look for signs of the end or bury our end-time bunkers deep. Instead it motivates us to “purify” ourselves and live as Christ lived in the world. Nor does Paul connect apocalyptic imagery of transitions to speculation about times or seasons but to becoming like Christ in his sufferings and death.

The end of the story is being “with the Lord” and “like Christ.” And so is the beginning and middle of the story! At each stage our task is the same. Let God handle the times, seasons, and transitions.