Hell just won’t go away

Once again, Australians are talking about hell. It was only last week that I wrote an article suggesting that the Israel Folau case might set a course for the future. Little did I realise that it would only take a few days before Australia would be hit with another example, and this time it’s one that might influence the outcome of a Federal election.

The week started with a schoolyard journalist believing they’d discovered the great gotcha moment. They asked Prime Minister Scott Morrison, “Do you believe gay people are going to hell?”

Mr Morrison gave a roundabout answer, which sounded like, “I do believe that, but my personal beliefs about hell don’t have anything to do with public policy and governing the country.”

There is some truth in this kind of response. Even a non-response would have been okay—after all, don’t answer a fool according to their folly is proverbial wisdom (Prov 26:4). But of course, as soon as the Prime Minister flustered his answer, everyone from Broome to Ballarat everyone knew that hell had now become an election issue.

Mr Shorten jumped on the Prime Minister’s response saying,

“I cannot believe in this election that there is a discussion even under way that gay people will go to hell,”

“I cannot believe that the Prime Minister has not immediately said that gay people will not go to hell.”

“No, I don’t believe gay people, because they’re gay, will go to hell. I don’t need a law to tell me that. I don’t believe it.”

“I think if you want to be prime minister of Australia you are going to be prime minister for all people. And I just don’t believe it. The nation’s got to stop eating itself in this sort of madness of division and toxicity”.

Finally, Mr Morrison issued a statement saying that he didn’t believe gays would go to hell.

In one sense, it’s not the answers that are the issue here (I’ll qualify this remark later on), but the fact that the question is being asked at all of our political leaders.

 

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I am fascinated by, and glad to see, Australians discussing eternal matters. These questions are of great significance. They bring God onto the nation’s radar and help us to ask existential questions about what we believe and how we live our lives. I am less encouraged, however, by some of the assertions being made by journalists and politicians alike. As a Christian, while I firmly believe that what we think of heaven and hell matters enormously, these things should not become tests for public office. Indeed, the Australian Constitution S116 offers protection and states that there is to be no religious test for office.

I understand why religious institutions, churches, and organisations would require agreement on the doctrine of hell. For example, how can someone teach the Bible at a theological college if they do not subscribe to the basic doctrinal position of the said institution? It’s not that hell is extraneous and inconsequential to the wider societal discourse, but have we entered the place where outside the church, a person’s theological convictions are to be judged?  Are we to define a person’ suitability for public office based on their personal views about eternal matters? Is the public square to be a place fitted with theological gates to keep out bits of the Bible that don’t applaud current cultural obsessions and attitudes? The answer seems to be, yes.

Once upon a time, if an employer asked you what you thought about hell, it wasn’t in order to find grounds to have you sacked. How quickly has our culture shifted!

I don’t think we should be getting our doctrine of hell from any given political party, and I don’t think we should be voting for or against candidates because of their particular understanding of hell. I can honestly say that as a Christian this issue has never been one of the top 50 questions that I’ve ever thought of asking candidates.

But truly secular society can never be a religion-free zone. That is a fictitious position that can only exist in the theoretical world and is posited by persons who are themselves reacting against set religious thinking (usually Christian theism).  Classic secularism (of which Australia is an example) is designed to provide a civil public life which encourages the discussion of life’s big questions without control by any single ideologue. Secularism, in contrast to the ravings of some, is not meant to establish atheism or soft and bland religion as the official state religion. Secularism is meant to be pluralistic; to make our society an Areopagus where people bring ideas to the table and where people argue and seek to persuade each other. No one is excluded because they are Christian or Jewish or Hindu or atheist.

Unfortunately, many of today’s secularists have shifted the goalposts. They don’t want secularism in the classic sense, they want to pit people against each other. They trade in outrage and scare campaigns—the intention of which are to punish and banish any heresy that doesn’t fit with their dogma. Hence, Rugby is no longer about playing football but is about subscribing to the narrow sexuality agenda being forced by corporate sponsors. University learning is less about the free exchange of ideas and discovery, but about forcing progressive theory into young minds. And now, Christian politicians are apparently required to affirm that they are theological liberals when it comes sexual matters.

My point is this, Christians who think they can hold onto their beliefs in private and keep them tucked away from public gaze, probably need to wake up and think again. While a generation of educators and public narrators told us that religion is a private affair and that our views about God are not welcome out loud, the very same parrots are now demanding that we open our mouths. Of course, they are not interested in listening and engaging with ideas. Far from it, they want us to speak because they are convinced that Christianity, like two atoms hurtling toward each other at extraordinary speed, will implode. Many of our cultural scriptwriters are keen to write out Biblical Christianity from the Australian storyline altogether, either by forcing Christians to admit that they believe the Bible or by denying it publicly.

It is time for Christians to think about what they really believe and why, and to formulate answers to these hot topics, explanations that are grace seasoned with salt. If colleagues at work or fellow students uni are aware that we follow Jesus, are they not already asking us these kinds of questions? Surely it is prudent for us to be thinking biblically, lovingly, clearly, and winsomely. As Peter writes,

“be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

I would also suggest that  Christians reopen Augustine and Calvin, as aids to helps us think through the complexities of religion and public life. Jonathan Leeman’s, How the Nations Rage, is a new volume that deserves careful treatment (while written for an American context, there is a wealth of theological insight to gain from this book).

As it happens, I don’t believe anyone goes to hell because of their sexual orientation. I also don’t believe anyone goes to heaven because of their sexual orientation. Will gays go to hell? Will heterosexuals go to hell? The answer to both questions is yes, but not because of sexual orientation but because in a thousand expressions we all dismiss and denude God’s ways. Both self-realisation and self-righteousness are a sure path to hell, because both deny that there is God and that he is altogether good and holy and love. There will be plenty of happily married couples who never enter heaven and many same-sex attracted men and women who are welcomed by God. This isn’t because sex is malleable and or because the Bible’s teaching on marriage isn’t clear and good. Jesus insisted that any sexual activity outside the marriage between a man and a woman is to be considered immoral. And yet we also see his compassion on those who had digressed and lived in ways contrary to God’s design.

Heaven and hell isn’t a left or right issue, it is a human issue. The self-righteousness that is condemned in the Bible isn’t owned by any single political party, but it must not be a characteristic of those who profess to follow Jesus Christ as Lord. Rather, Christians can remind each other that we’ve come to understand the rightness of God who judges; the wonder of God who shows mercy; and that we desire nothing more than to see straight Australians, gay, lesbian and transgender Australians also finding this God who loves.

So to the question that is making headlines across the nation this week, when we are next asked, “do you believe gays will go to hell”, how will you answer?

Planting Churches or Gardens?

“For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23)

I have noticed there has been a growth in the gardening industry of late. Christians are planting roots into local communities by beginning community gardens and teaching horticultural skills. Churches and Christian organisations are making substantial financial commitments into establishing these beds of vegetation. In fact, no fewer than 3 Pastors have asked me about this phenomenon over the past month.

Such ventures sound like a great idea. They can encourage people to think creatively about sustainable food, they may foster relationships among local people, and impart practical skills. But should we call these activities mission? Should we understand these program as growing God’s Kingdom?

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Starting a community garden could well be an expression of Christlike love and may exhibit some of the qualities of God’s Kingdom to our neighbourhood. These activities may articulate an interest in our neighbours and an intent to serve our communities. They may create relationships from which we will share the Gospel and see local churches growing. However, at least in some instances, the soil isn’t producing a harvest for God’s Kingdom because Christians are planting with stones, not seeds. The problem lies when these activities are pursued in the place of evangelism and when we develop these ministries instead of cultivating the local church.

We mustn’t neglect peoples’ material needs. God’s love for us in Christ Jesus should be displayed in every aspect of our lives, and yet the Bible gives a clear vision for what God’s mission is about and the Bible gives the Church clear mandates for how this mission is to be fulfilled.

There is a substantial theological argument supporting the thesis that mission should be understood as evangelism: speaking, explaining, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether we understand the biblical categories of mission to be speaking exclusively or primarily about evangelism, the imperative to preach Christ crucified, to call for repentance and faith in Christ, and seeing (new) Christians joining a local church is at the core of God’s purposes in the world.

If Jesus promised, “I will build my church”, why would Christians decline from joining in this task, or suggest that it is optional?

If Jesus calls on people to repent and believe the good news, how can we conclude that this is no longer central to our task?

The Great Commission places intentional Gospel telling front and center,

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The book of Acts is a record of the Gospel being preached, men and women being saved, and Churches being planted.

As the Apostle Paul explains to the Romans,

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”” (Romans 10:9-15)

We repeatedly discover that the Church is God’s given means through which he will display his purposes to the world,

“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Eph 3:11-13)

I suspect the shift that we are seeing from evangelism to community work and from church to community results from several factors. For example:

  1. Planting a garden is more socially accepted than planting a church. The former is easier when it comes to gaining council approval, local funding, and people warm to the idea.
  2.  We look for immediate results. Church planting is a long term, patient work with no guarantees of immediate fruit whereas a garden bed or community program is tangible.
  3. Poor teaching on ecclesiology has resulted in breeding unhealthy churches and therefore a lack of confidence in churches.
  4. Cultural pressures have diminished our view of God and removed the Bible’s portrait of sinful humanity.  Another problem is how too many Christian no longer believe in sin and in a God who judges nor believe that personal repentance and faith in Jesus Christ is necessary.
  5. Confidence in God’s word has taken a beating through the exegetical and hermeneutical minefields laid down by Christian liberalism, who keep telling us that the Bible can’t surely mean what it says.

I attended a denominational workshop several years ago where the speaker was encouraging attendees to think about mission. It soon became apparent that his shtick was, “mission today depends on finding ‘new and innovative methods’”, and that verbal proclamation wasn’t one of them. When I asked a question about evangelism, the response given was, “I guess one might think about that as an option”. In other words, evangelism was not a necessary component for participating in God’s mission. At the very least this demonstrates a deficient theology of the Gospel.

If the biblical pattern is to preach the Gospel and plant Churches, why push these tasks to the periphery and instead focus on gardening or cafes or teaching life skills to kids? Again, I’m not dismissing these activities; I think they can wonderful ways to serve others and to show people God’s love. They may well serve as part of what we do as Christians, but let’s not pretend it is mission, unless we are also using these ministries to create conversations about Christ or as a jumping off point to begin a Christianity Explored course or reading the Bible 1-1.

As Ed Stetzer famously quipped, “feed the poor and if necessary use food!” Of course, he was responding the famous saying that is falsely attributed to Francis of Assisi, “preaching the Gospel, and if necessary use words”.

I suspect mission has joined the growing list of words that are becoming meaningless due to the loose ways Christians have been applying it. A 1000 people might sit in a room and mention mission and everyone will shout, ‘Amen’. The problem is, we’ve either defined mission so broadly as to make the term redundant or because of reluctance to deem any activity as not conforming to God’s mission, we avoid defining it all together.

My contention is this: if we view mission without Gospel proclamation and without view to building Christ’s Church, we have strayed a long way from the vision God has revealed in his word. Even worse, these ministries cease to be good works and become stumbling blocks to the Gospel.

For the third time, I am not saying that it’s a mistake for Churches or Christians to create ministries in their communities that provide services or helps. I say if it’s a constructive way to love neighbours in your area, go for it. May we not give up on doing good works and loving our neighbours in all manner of ways, but let us not blur our vision of what God’s Kingdom is about by taking our eyes off God’s word and believing what God has spoken about his mission in the world.

In the parable of the sower, the Lord Jesus tells us the secret of the Kingdom,

“The farmer sows the word… Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”

Surely we can trust God to produce a great harvest, even in this age of skepticism in which we find ourselves today. Our role in mission is to obediently plant His seed (the Gospel) and to keep asking the Lord of the harvest to make it grow, for the good and salvation of people and for glory of Christ.

By all means, plant potatoes, peas, carrots, and pumpkin seed but please don’t neglect the seed that is the word of God, the only word that gives life to sinners.

Israel Folau decision may set a course for the future

Christians across Australia have been given a message, “don’t commit social blasphemy” and “be careful if you choose to use the Bible”.

After three days of deliberations, a three person panel has found Israel Folau guilty of a “high level breach” of Rugby Australia’s player code of conduct.  Not that the outcome was much in doubt, given that Rugby Australia and the Waratah’s had bypassed due process and instead announced to the nation that Folau’s contract was terminated and that he would never be selected again to play for his country or club. Last night’s verdict was little more than a formality.

 

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Whatever Izzy’s motives may have been for posting on social media, he has forced onto the national stage an issue that has been pulled and tugged and tested in quieter situations from the East Coast to the West; can a pure form of Christian beliefs be permitted in the public space?

What was his offence? It is believed that Israel Folau declined to sign a document in addition to the standard players’ contract, which would have placed greater restrictions on his use of social media. He did, however, sign his contract, which presumably includes a clause about adhering to the players Code of Conduct. He has been found guilty of a “high level breach” of the Rugby Code of Conduct. This breach hangs on a subjective interpretation of Part 2 Article 1.3, “Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability. Any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination has no place in Rugby.”  Interpretation of this clause depends on one’s a priori beliefs and moral framework, and in this case the panel have deemed that summarising 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is a “high” form or harassment, even though the point of that passage is quite the opposite, and so too the meaning of Folau’s post.

Legal experts are expressing concerns over the handling of the issue. Professor Nicholas Aroney has interpreted the allegations against Folau with reference to International law. He explains that

“ [What] Folau has said is not an example of hate speech, and he should not lose his rugby career as a result.” Indeed, he reminds us of the broader framework in which Folau has posted comments, “In addition to repeatedly expressing his love and acceptance of all people, Folau has confessed to having committed many of the sins about which he now warns his readers. This makes it difficult to attribute any intention on his part to advocate hatred against these classes of people, for he numbers himself amongst them”

Setting aside legal questions (which I will certainly leave to those who legal expertise) what is clear is that Rugby Australia and the social commentators who’ve joined the scrum have defined ‘orthodox’ religion. Whether Rugby Australia realise it or not, they have taken a theological stand on Israel Folau and have determined to define what is and isn’t acceptable religious belief and speech. Remember, Folau was quoting the Bible and summarising basic Christian teaching.

Yes, as I and others have said a thousand times, Folau’s comments were not seasoned with grace and kindness. They appeared blunt and insensitive, much like a Rugby footballer. Was his manner lacking? Probably, yes. Were his words untrue to 2000 years of Christian belief? No.

Footballers have been forgiven for all manner of social and even criminal offences over the last few years; have we forgotten what some NRL and AFL players have been embroiled in the last few years. But Israel Folau isn’t to be forgiven.

And what of the teammates who have spoken out in support of Folau and have even agreed with his post? Surely Rugby Australia can’t afford to lose any more players before the World Cup? Is Folau to be a sacrificial lamb, served up to warn others of what might happen should they transgress again?

Let’s not be fools, Christians and non-Christians alike are praised for quoting the Bible when they squeeze it to fit with progressive social agendas. Kristina Keneally wasn’t removed from the Labor Party after quoting the Bible against Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Peter FitzSimons hasn’t been sacked by Fairfax for repeatedly speaking of Jesus Christ? Why not? Because their speech falls into the rut of the cultural narrative, no matter how poor their handling of Christian texts may be.

Lest we conclude that this story will soon be forgotten as a blip on the cultural radar, Rugby Australia’s stance may well soon find legislative legs. The Australian Labor Party (as the Greens have already done) have announced that they are considering expanding “anti-discrimination legislation to shield gay and transgender ­people from harmful speech if elected, in a move that has alarmed lawyers and free-speech advocates.”

“When prejudice against LGBTIQ people contributes to harassment by the written or ­spoken word, such harassment causes actual harm, not simply mere offence, to people who have suffered discrimination and prejudice, and causes particular harm to young same-sex-attracted, gender-questioning or intersex people.

“Labor considers such harmful harassment is an unacceptable abuse of the responsibilities that come with freedom of speech and must be subject to effective sanctions. Labor will ensure that anti-discrimination law provides such effective sanction.”

Depending on how the language of ‘harm’ is understood, all manner of reasonable speech may be found on the wrong side of the law. For example, former rugby league player, Ian Roberts, last week alleged that comments like those of Israel Folau play a role in teenage kids committing suicide as they come to terms with their sexuality

“There are literally kids in the suburbs killing themselves — and I say that with the greatest sense of respect — I’m not implying that Israel’s responsible solely for that, please don’t take it that way.

“But it’s these types of comments and these off the cuff remarks, when you have young people and vulnerable people, kids in the suburbs who are dealing with their sexuality, confused, not knowing how to deal with it, these types of remarks can and do push people over the edge.”

If explaining the Christian view of sexuality is deemed to be a trigger for teenage suicide, we can anticipate further public outrage and potential legislation that will restrict and prohibit words that conform to and explain the Christian message. One might respond by pointing out that thousands of Christians are killed every year simply because they are Christian, therefore we must not limit or silence Christians freedom to speak their beliefs. If we are to be morally and logically consistent, Robert’s argument works in different directions. Leaving that aside, Roberts’ comments could be taken offensively by some Christians because we too are concerned for the wellbeing of teenagers. It is good to be reminded that these conversations are not merely academic or theoretical but they relate to real people who matte. We can thank Ian Roberts for this reminder.  No one wants teenagers despairing of their worth and believing they are unloved. I am reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, a woman who’s sexual past was complicated, to say the least. Jesus didn’t affirm or applaud her but he did love her and speak a powerful word of compassion and hope to her.

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life….The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”… Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:13-14, 25-26)

In the midst of all the myriad of questions and issues relating to the Folau case, it is important to repeat an observation that was made last month: while Folau’s offending posts are in line with orthodox Christian teaching, he has on other occasions suggested a troubling view of the Trinity. He appears to advocate Oneness theology, which contradicts the Creeds and the very Scriptures themselves. This matters because it would be unwise to use Folau as a poster for Australian Christianity should he not subscribe to one of the most basic of Christian doctrines. It would be unwise and unChristian for Christians to pedestal Israel Folau while knowing he may well reject an even more foundational belief. As I suggested at the time, it may well be the case that Folau is like many Christians who are confused about and fuzzy on the Trinity. At the very least, this is a reminder as to why it is incumbent upon Pastors to teach the Bible clearly and faithfully in order to aid their congregations to understand such crucial doctrines.

The controversy over Israel Folau was not the first case and it is far from being the last. School children in Victoria are force-fed gender theories which are often unsupported by science and best medical practice, and many families have already felt pressured to leaving the public system and forced to pay the expense of independent schooling because of this Governmental pressure in Victoria. We can expect more corporations and organisations falling for the kinds of pressures that have been exposed by the Folau situation. Australia is moving toward introducing limitations on religious freedom that we see in parts of Europe and in Canada. We are heading closer toward the situation found in China, whereby Christians cannot join a political party and they cannot speak openly about Christianity and churches must be approved of by the State. This isn’t hyperbole, this is the natural progression of authoritarian secularism who will use the sexual revolution and identity politics to push all but their sanitised version of religion out of the public square.

A culturally palatable Christianity will entail deleting most Bible verses, any references to hell and to judgment, removing the core of the faith which is the atonement, and of course, we must let go of any teaching about marriage and sex and the roles of women and men. We will be left with a very tiny Bible and one that makes little sense, and one that has no power to give life and hope to this world.

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That saying of Jesus will need to go. So too will Jesus’ introductory summary of his ministry, ““The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Anything that challenges personal autonomy and freedom to define self realisation cannot be tolerated.

I have said it before, Christians need to start taking Jesus’ words seriously, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” We cannot afford to give up gentleness and compassion, grace and kindness, for these are indispensable attributes of the Gospel we claim to believe. We cannot respond to cultural shifts with hate but with enduring love because God has loved us. However, we have to accept the fact that loving others will not always be read as love because today’s secularist police will not permit views that transgress their narrow understanding of righteousness. Don’t give up on love, and don’t sacrifice truth and goodness for doing so means that we have also evacuated love from the picture.

If Christianity’s demise in Australia has been party due to Christianity’s seducement by the culture, then perhaps the clarifying disjunction between Church and culture will aid believers to regain Gospel convictions, compassion, and expectations. After all, it was communist China that created a moral and epistemic environment which catalyzed the explosion of Christianity and the conversion of 10s of millions of Chinese.  We may be disappointed by indicative direction Australian public life may be taking and the ramification this may have for our job security, education, and financial stability, but we are hopeful and joyful because Jesus Christ remains true and good today as ever. And by the grace of God, over time some our Aussie neighbours may come to realise that we are not against them but for them and have a message of hope that we alter their lives in the most satisfying and liberating fashion.

Do Christians still believe in hell today? A response to Robyn Whitaker

“If you don’t believe in hell, you’ll never heard the love of God.” (Tim Keller)

 

As part of commemorating Easter, the Conversation published two articles by Uniting Church minister and theological college lecturer, Robyn Whitaker. 

Whitaker is (as I suspect many pastors have done in the past few weeks)  offering a contribution to the public debate on hell, which has followed Israel Folau’s recent Instagram comments.

Whitaker provides an interesting and at times informative account of the biblical notions of heaven and hell, but readers are left wondering whether we are meant to believe that these destinations are believable today.

It is difficult to know what Whitaker personally believes about heaven and hell. Her excurses take us through some biblical material and references to ANE religions, but there appears to be a reluctance to share what she herself believes. More problematic is the direction she is leaving for her readers.  It feels like an ethereal rendition of John Lennon’s,

‘Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky’

 

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First of all, where does heaven and hell come from?

Readers are given the impression that heaven and hell don’t originate with God of the Bible, but rather they are evolving compilation of many different faith traditions. Whitaker notes the possible influence of cultures surrounding ancient Israel and Judea. While the Bible at times utilises words and images from surrounding cultures, that does not mean that the biblical concepts depend on or are derived from these religious settings.

The Bible describes heaven and hell as places created by and belonging to God, as much as this universe is made by the same God. Biblical authors may at times borrow language from other places to help readers understand what heaven and hell are about (of much greater influence on the New Testament is a heavy dependence on the Old Testament), but to imply that the Biblical teaching should be traced to another religious milieu is both unnecessary and counters the Scriptures themselves (i.e. Acts 17:16-31).

Whitaker not only suggests the Bible’s teaching about heaven and hell are sourced from other ancient religions, rather than originating with God himself, dotted throughout her presentation are misleading phrases like, “mythic stories”,  which reinforce the view that the Bible is either unreliable or is little more than a superb piece of fiction. The quote by Paula Gooder is telling in this regard,

“it is impossible to state categorically what the Bible as a whole says about heaven… Biblical beliefs about heaven are varied, complex and fluid.”

Two millennia of  Creeds, Catechesis, and doctrinal statements have achieved the very thing that Gooder says is impossible! That does not mean that every aspect of the Bible’s teaching on heaven and hell are captured in any of these statements, but the essence of and a faithful representation of these teachings can be accomplished.

Second, is hell a real place?

Whitaker’s argument leaves readers believing that the answer is a likely, no. While Whitaker is more than willing to accept heaven as an ultimate place (by which she understands heaven to be the healing and transformation of this world), her confidence in a literal hell is lacking, to say the least.

For example, Whitaker makes a big deal of the Bible’s use of metaphors and imagery and does so in a way that explains away any imperative to believe these things are representative of real and concrete places.

Jesus frequently used allegories and analogies in his teaching to convey concrete realities. For example, the mustard seed describing the kingdom of heaven, or the farmer’s seed which represents the word of God. The illustrations are vivid descriptions describing very real things. Similarly, fire and smoke and gnashing of teeth may be rhetorical and symbolic but they are not describing a fiction destination but an eternal place.

Speaking of the book of Revelation Whitaker says,

“It should be noted that these are poetic and highly symbolic apocalyptic texts whose purpose is primarily to persuade people to stay faithful to their God, not to set out a precise agenda for the afterlife.”

Why create the dichotomy? Can’t such texts achieve both? The opening verses of Revelation certainly suggest that the book is presenting an agenda for life both this side of death and on the other side.

“The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” (Revelation 1:1-4)

In addition, there are plenty of non-poetic and non-apocalyptic texts within Scripture that explain future resurrection to either eternal life or to judgment.

“Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27)

“ If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (Hebrews 10:26-27)

Whitaker then suggests that the Bible itself implies that hell may not be a literal place. She contends,

“One challenge to the idea of hell as a literal place comes from the Bible itself. Parts of the New Testament record that when Jesus died on the cross he descended into the realm of the dead.”

“These fleeting references were preserved in ancient Christian creeds. Medieval Christians called Jesus’ descent to the dead the “harrowing of hell”. The theology behind it is that even the realm of the dead (hell) and death itself have been transformed by God.”

If I have accurately joined her dots together, Whitaker appears to be making the same error that some Reformed and Medieval theologians made, and that is to conflate the realm of the dead with hell. Death and hell are not the same. As Michael Bird explains in Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction,

“The New Testament distinguishes hadēs (waiting place of the dead) from geenna (judgment place for the dead).”

Part of the confusion with Jesus’ descending to the dead (or to hell) lays with a mistranslation of the creed. As Bird explains,

“the Latin creed does not say that Christ descended into hell. This wrong “tradition” is based on a mistranslation of the Latin. The Latin ad inferos found in the creed means “to the grave, the place of the dead” (i.e., hadēs). It does not say ad infernum, meaning “to hell,” the place of punishment after death…A better English translation of the creed, which is used in the Church of England, is this: “He descended to the dead.” In other words, the wrong “tradition” about a descent into hell is really a wrong translation of the Latin perpetuated by the Reformers, who did not differentiate “hell” from “Hades.”

Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection did not close the door on hell or bring about its demolition, rather his atoning sacrifice saved from entering hell those who repent of their sin and put their faith in Him.

And what about this unnecessary yet loaded phrase, “fleeting references”? Again, Whitaker is carefully laying down rhetorical mines to undermine confidence in the Bible. It’s as though she is saying, because the number of references are few, the teaching can’t be all that important or all that reliable.  How many Bible verses are required before we ditch ‘fleeting’ and treat the subject with due seriousness? As it happens, the topic of hell and of a final judgment is pretty commonplace in the New Testament, with it being spoken of in passing commentary and in extended didactic argument and portrayed in lengthy apocalyptic teaching. Lest we forget, Jesus taught about hell more often than any other person in the New Testament.

“If Jesus, the Lord of Love and Author of Grace spoke about hell more often, and in a more vivid, blood-curdling manner than anyone else, it must be a crucial truth.” (Tim Keller)

Third, motivation for talking about hell.

Robyn Whitaker (perhaps as a swipe at Israel Folau), mocks Christians who talk about hell.

“Similarly, some Christians invoke hell to persuade individuals to repent of their sins. Such rhetoric is from a different time and place, when scaring people into faith seemed like a good idea.”

There is some wisdom here, at least in terms of emphases. Becoming a Christian is not primarily about avoiding hell. Preachers who fixate on hell and not on Jesus Christ are in danger of skewing the good news message of Christianity. The Gospel is wonderful and amazing news of reconciliation with the living God through Christ, but it not less than salvation from hell, but more. Keep in mind, it is Jesus who invoked hell as a means of warning people from ungodly living,

“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”(Matthew 5:29)

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. (Matthew 10:28)

Fourth. What God do we believe in?

In her conclusion, Robyn Whitaker reveals what the conversation is really about. Our views about heaven and hell reveal underlying suppositions about what we believe God is like.

“It begs the question – does hell continue to exist? Many Christians today would say no. Others claim an ongoing belief in a literal place of eternal punishment, which raises a different theological question: what kind of God do you believe in to think God consigns people to eternal torment?”

What we say about heaven and hell reflects what we believe about the Bible and ultimately about God.

What God do we believe in? Do we believe in a God who is telling us the truth in his word or in a God who fibbing or who has changed his mind or is unable to keep his word?

The Bible speaks of God who is love and who is holy. It is because of this love and holiness that hell exists. It is because of this love and holiness, God sent his only Son as a propitiation for our sins, and thus offering forgiveness and eternal wonder instead of his just judgment.

Part of the biblical teaching on hell is to remind and even encourage people that God is just and will bring about righteous judgment. If there is no final judgment, then what are we to suppose to conclude about justice and about God’s character and about hope for those who have suffered injustice?

Is the Bible warning humanity about a judgment that will not come? Is God’s promise of eternal life not eternal? When Jesus promised to return at the eschaton was he telling a whopper? And where is Jesus right now, following his resurrection and ascension? Major aspects of the atonement lose their power and significance, and so does Christ’s resurrection. If we follow Whitaker’s line of thinking we are left with a very different Christianity and a very different God.

What impression do her two articles leave with the reader? We conclude that hell is a minor theme mentioned by a few bible writers who were depending on other ancient religions for the concept, but isn’t something Christians really believe today, except for those few left behind angry medieval preaching type Christians. We are left sensing that both hell and heaven are difficult to pin down, and among Christians, there are diverging views and it is not necessary to that there is such a place known as hell. Is this a helpful conclusion to leave both Christians and unbelievers alike? Is this a recognisable Christian message?

If our speech about heaven and hell leaves people in doubt as to their existence, we have failed to be clear and faithful. If the Lord Jesus taught these topics with clarity and concern, should we not also?

If our speech muddies the Divine promise of a new heavens and new earth and of eternal judgment for the unrepentant, we are misrepresenting God and we are stripping people of hope. 

If our speech denies either the existence of heaven or of hell, then we have failed to be Christian. Christians may wrestle with the biblical material and be confused at times, but to explain away either heaven or hell is to ultimately set ourselves against the teaching of Jesus Christ and against God-given reasons for which he died on the cross and was raised to life.

“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:11-15)

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)

 

 

 

 


April 30th – A friend of mine who is familiar with Paula Goode’s writings has sent me a helpful email where she points out that Robyn Whitaker seems to have quoted Goode out of context. Far from undermining the ontological reality of heaven, Goode is simply noting the difficulty facing biblical writers in finding vocabulary and imagery to fully explain the wonder that is heaven.

God is not embarrassed by Christians

It shouldn’t be difficult to say the word, after all, people can’t wait to use it when there’s an opportunity to deride those who adhere to this worldview. And when representatives of their ranks are caught in a scandal or in an evil and immoral act, the social outrage queue is long and eager.  Sometimes though, in fact, more often than not, the unnameable populace doesn’t fit with the subscribed narrative that Western playwrights are busily writing on their twitter feeds, political speeches, and op-ed pieces. On these occasions, which again is the normal state of affairs, our progressive friends are left rhetorically naked and yet bound by their own scripts.

 

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Among the cast of notables who struggled to articulate what happened in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday were Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama.

President Obama tweeted,

“The attacks on tourists and Easter worshippers in Sri Lanka are an attack on humanity. On a day devoted to love, redemption, and renewal, we pray for the victims and stand with the people of Sri Lanka.”

Clinton released this statement,

“On this holy weekend for many faiths, we must stand united against hatred and violence. I’m praying for everyone affected by today’s horrific attacks on Easter worshippers and travelers in Sri Lanka.”

 

The death toll currently sits at 359 people, with 500 injured. This is one of worse human-made atrocities committed anywhere in the world in the past decade, and possibly the largest terrorist attack since 9/11, and yet world leaders are stumbling over their words in order to avoid noting important facts

Who or what is an “Easter worshipper”? And since when have many faiths celebrated Easter? Our Jewish friends celebrate Passover during the same period, but who other than Christians worship Jesus Christ as God and accept his death and resurrection as the payment for sins and hope for eternal life?

I realise that the West is super keen to attach ‘Christian’ with everything that is wrong with the identity of the 21st Century world. Australians have been watching our own latest melodrama with Rugby and AFL players losing the socially mandated script and instead of inserting a few Bible verses here and there. We have since been reminded that such things are outdated and unacceptable, so much so that Israel Folau may lose his contract to play Rugby for Australia.

The media don’t seem to have an issue in ascribing ‘Christian’ to moral apostates (whether real or perceived) and they are quick to Christianise heretics like Father Rod Bower. Why? Because his own version of Christianity is a perfect fit with the sexualised authoritarian secularism that is published from our universities to our schools, from our television shows to our halls of Parliament. And most genuine Christians don’t shirk at the fact that sometimes other Christians behave in ways that are wicked or unwise or insensitive; we call it out. But when Christians are believing and behaving like Christians, as in, trusting Jesus Christ and growing in obedience to God of the Bible, watch the public edifice of our culture either move toward caricature, slander, or silence.

We could respond by being a little angry or disappointed, disillusioned even; I think it’s sad.

It is ok to use the word ‘Christian’. It is not a sin to mention by name the religion of the victims in Sri Lanka, nor is it immoral to mention the religious motivations of those who perpetrated this great evil.

Christians ought to grieve with those who grieve, whether they are Christian or atheist or Muslim or Hindu. Every human being is an image bearer of God and their life is precious and their dignity, great. The world is lessened when a life is taken, and we weep. Christchurch remains fresh on our minds. Christians mourned for Christchurch, and we prayed for the many Muslims people who were injured and for the families affected by that evil attack on their Mosques. 

We may long for justice in this world, and we are not amiss for expecting such, and yet we also understand that the world is fighting against the very notions of righteousness and goodness, because of a persistent antipathy toward God.

It is sad to hear that as hundreds of funerals take place throughout Sri Lanka today and this week, national leaders and notable commentators are unable to utter basic truths about what took place. This is not uncommon either, but a surge of whitewashing facts that don’t fit with preset views about the world.

We will not serve the honour of those who died by denying who they are, and neither can society confront and address the issues facing us while our leaders play the dangerous game of avoidance. Regardless of how Governments and societies respond to those who are the most persecuted group in the world today, namely Christians, we have a higher and truer authority who is perfect in love and justice, in mercy and righteousness, and it is to him whom we ultimately place our hope and find our comfort,

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  Therefore,

“they are before the throne of God
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.

‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.

For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes

(Revelation 7:13-17)

When talking about hell…

When I went to sleep last Thursday I didn’t expect to wake and find that the topic of hell had become a national conversation piece. While we cannot control the public conversation with all its warts, snidery, and well-meaning contributions, we can take responsibility for how we speak about what is a grave issue; the eternal state of people.

With a sense of humour reminiscent of Nero plucking his harp while Rome burned, columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald, Greg Growden, wrote,

“Folau’s version of hell, surrounded by drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters, actually sounds like good fun – especially if it excludes narrow-minded sporting identities.”

I don’t know anyone who enjoys talking about hell. It is a truly horrific subject. This doesn’t mean that we avoid or downplay what the Bible teaches, it does, however, necessitate that approach the topic of hell with great care and earnestness.

Unbelievers are poking fun at Israel Folau’s comments on hell with hackneyed jokes and Memes. There are Christians squirming uncomfortably as though a cactus needle were stuck erect in their chair. Hell makes people angry and dismissive, generating a range of negative reactions. So, how should Christians approach the subject of hell?

 

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Here are 4 words of advice for talking about hell

1. Be biblical

Hell is a Christian doctrine. Hell (or Gehenna) is taught and affirmed in the Bible as a real place of eternal judgment. This notion of a final judgment is included in the historical Christian Creeds and Catechisms, as well as in doctrinal statements for Christian churches throughout the ages. Such as …

He will come to judge the living and the dead. (Apostles Creed)

What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell? A. All mankind by their fall lost communion with God are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 19)

The resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment of all people by the Lord Jesus Christ. (article 8, Baptist Union of Victoria Doctrinal Basis)

Jesus taught about hell frequently, and as others have observed, the topic was on Jesus’ lips more than anyone else in the Bible. In his own words …

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10:38)

“But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 8:12)

 “‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…  “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41,46)

While Bible writers, Jesus in particular, use various metaphors and analogies to convey the awfulness of hell, they do so, not to obscure its reality, but to communicate the finality and dreadful realism of what hell signifies. There is no benefit in Christians downplaying the Bible’s teaching on hell or concentrating on speculations and theories of what hell may or may not be: the Christian’s responsibility is to be biblical. By that I mean, read, understand, and communicate what the Bible teaches about hell. In talking about hell, use the range of words and reasoning that is offered to us in the Scriptures—not ignoring the contexts and arguments in which the concept appears. Such diligence will aid us in speaking of hell accurately and helpfully.

Indeed, it is difficult to explain the Christian Gospel without reference to judgment, given that the Gospel is about redemption from Divine judgment. Whereas we tend to view the Gospel through the lens on anthropological needs and problems, the Bible also views salvation in light of Divine categories (justice and the right satisfaction of God’s righteousness). We obscure God’s glory and we diminish the human condition when we ignore or downplay this doctrine, like a Doctor talking of a patient’s terminal cancer as though it was a bruised knee.

2. Be loving and earnest

Speak about hell with soberness and with tears. Talking about hell isn’t judgmental; it is an act of love. Of course, people can speak about hell in a judgmental and unhelpful way, but people can also explain the Bible’s teaching on hell with sincerity and clarity because they love their friends and neighbours.

 

3. Appeal to notions of ultimate justice

The Bible doesn’t present hell as a Russian gulag; unjust, mean, cruel, and unnecessary. It is, rather, a just outcome and the place where people prefer to be. The natural consequence of life lived for self. While Greg Growden and others might joke about Folau’s list of transgressions and how many they have broken, the reality of such things is far from funny. Marital unfaithfulness destroys lives and families. Lying breaks the bond of friendship. Theft is a betrayal of trust and leaves victims frightened, and at times, financially destitute.

Our nation, for all its blessings, is filled with extraordinary pain and sorrow caused by the greed and hate of its citizens. We are governed by thousands of laws because we don’t trust one another and because we feel the necessity to guard ourselves against each other. Our judicial system, for which we should be thankful, is not beyond making mistakes and many who perpetrate crimes escape justice, and many of the deepest wounds are not the result of criminal activity but moral and personal assault. Where is the justice for such?

Our nation, for all its blessings, is filled with extraordinary pain and sorrow caused by the greed and hate of its citizens. We are governed by thousands of laws because we don’t trust one another and because we feel the necessity to guard ourselves against each other

Do we not long for a justice that is altogether right and comprehensive? Do Australians not hope that no evil will escape the attention of justice? I suspect that there are very few Australians (no matter what their religious beliefs) who do not (at least on some scale) believe or wish they could believe that hell exists for some people. One of the things the Bible does is to show us that the problem is not only external and persistent in society, but it derives from hearts that seek to define life without God: the problem lies within each of us. In other words, we may desire justice when others are guilty, but we long for mercy we realise our own guilt.

The point is, God offers justice, the kind of justice the world is ultimately looking for, and yet paradoxically does not wish to be true.

4. Don’t forget the gospel

Our message isn’t merely hell, our message is the good news of Jesus Christ, which includes salvation from hell, and the forgiveness of sins and the gift of justification, regeneration, adoption, and eternal life. The Gospel is good news because what is deserved is taken from us and what is undeserved is given to us by God as his gracious and loving gift

We will never turn to God and seek his mercy unless we first appreciate our personal culpability and accountability before a holy God. There is no genuine turning to Christ without a manifest awareness of guilt. The gospel tells us both the bad news of our sin and judgment; and the glorious antidote to that judgment in Christ. As the writer of Hebrews summarises things:

Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:27-28)

Or, as Luther puts it in his earthy and practical way:

When the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!” (Martin Luther)

Was Israel Folau guilt of hate speech, as many are arguing? He may be guilty of breaking his word by continuing to post such comments. But are his comments bigoted? If connecting a list of sins with hell is akin to hate speech, it doesn’t take much imagination to work out how our society would view Jesus Christ. Connecting sex outside of heterosexual marriage with the language of sin and hell is not inherently anti-social and anti-people; it comes from the conviction that not every action and not every attitude is good or right. Australia’s problem is that we’re suffering from Judges syndrome, everyone wants to “do what’s right in their own eyes.” Such attitudes have become mainstream platitudes. And now we want to send Izzy into the eternal Rugby exclusion zone for daring to suggest that it might lead to disaster.

The danger for most Christians today isn’t that we make too much of hell, but that we think too little of the Bible’s teaching on hell. We may not have a conversation about hell every week, but if we never talk about it, our friends would be right to wonder, do these Christians even believe what Jesus says?

Israel Folau Charged with Social Blasphemy

Israel Folau is in trouble once again for espousing views that are in line with 2,000 years of orthodox Christianity. This is not the first time that he garnered the fury of the cultural watchdogs and has found himself reported to the governing authorities of Rugby Australia.

Yesterday, Folau posted 2 comments on Instagram which garnered immediate anger and disappointment, such that it is the subject of newspaper articles and television reporting today.

 

Israel Folau is one of the great rugby players that Australia has produced in the past 20 years. His reputation on the field has excited spectators, and off the field, he has defied cultural messaging and created national consternation: what to do with a national sporting star when he won’t conform to the moral narrative of today’s Australia?

Here are 5 thoughts:

1. Social media is a problematic medium.

I am increasingly convinced that social media is not a particularly constructive medium for conveying important messages. Pithy statements are too often misunderstood and taken out of context. On this occasion, the issue isn’t that people are misreading Folau, but that he hasn’t said enough. A photo on Instagram or a 240 character tweet often doesn’t suffice. I don’t offer an answer for resolving this perpetual problem with social media, but I am observing that it does exist, and it is a problem not only for people we agree with but also among those with whom we disagree.

Perhaps one forward step would be to ask for clarification; what do you mean by that tweet? Can you elaborate and tell me more so that I can understand where you are coming from?

2. Both content and manner matter

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone”. (Colossians 4:6)

“in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (1 Peter 3:15)

I am not about to lambast Israel Folau for not being as irenic as perhaps we might prefer. He certainly has more courage to speak Bible truths than do many of our Bishops and Christian leaders across the country.

What we say matters enormously. The content of our speech either reflects our deeply held beliefs or it betrays them. How we speak also communicates volumes to those who are listening. I don’t know Israel Folau nor his heart and motivation. I appreciate why some people might read his comments as coming from a frustrated or even angry man. Of course, he may well be expressing heartfelt concern and earnestness for his fellow Australians. If Israel reads this blog post, I would gently suggest that his comments could be improved if they reminded his followers of his own need and thankfulness for God’s mercy to him; Christians don’t want to give the impression that we are somehow morally or intellectually superior to anyone else. While quoting Galatians 5:19-21 Folau could also have mentioned some of the wonders and goodness that comes from knowing the transformative power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as Paul describes in Galatians 5. For example,

13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The good news of Jesus Christ is salvation from hell and it is salvation to a new and better life. The Gospel is the greatest story ever told and it is one that can become my own as I accept God’s assessment of me and trust God’s answer for me.

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3. Don’t expect the culture to endorse the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This shouldn’t surprise because it is, after all, the Bible’s own presentation of humanity. People don’t accept God on God’s terms. Instead, humanity has a very long history of showing intent to redefine and deconstruct God’s righteousness in order to justify their own moral proclivities. The Apostle Paul’s words remain true today,

“To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Corinthians 2:16)

The Christian message is both compelling and repellent, attractive and offensive. We should present the good news of Jesus Christ with clarity and kindness and with unction, and still, there will be people who object and are even angered. Remember the greatest Christian preacher and apologist of all time, Jesus Christ. No one spoke a more compelling story than Jesus and yet the social elite could not tolerate him, not least because he would not abide by the sexual ethics of the day.

The media are particularly upset by Folau including homosexuality in his list of sins. Had he limited his list to adultery, lying, and stealing, people might have laughed but we wouldn’t see the kind of reaction that we’re observing today. Folau’s heresy is that he doesn’t fully and without qualification, affirm LGBTIQ lifestyles. He contravened the moral law of the land and no one, not even a sporting great, is allowed to get away with such blasphemy.

The response in the media and by Rugby Australia’s need to have the matter investigated once again highlights our society’s view of Christianity. Effectively what Israel Folau has done is quote the Bible and summarise part of the Gospel message. Are we really at the stage in Australian society where Australians are to be publicly castigated for quoting the Bible? Are we prepared to enter that ominous space where nations like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and China, already belong, namely to prohibit Bible verses and Christian messaging? Are beliefs consistent with 2000 years of Christian faith now to be defined as hate speech?

The reality is, the only version of Christianity our society is willing to accept is a Christianity that has all its edges cut and its heart and skeleton removed. The only acceptable Christianity is a dead Christianity, where Jesus is no longer Lord and where he doesn’t need to save because we are without sin. Jesus is nothing more than the candyman, handing out spiritual tips to people who haven’t yet grown up and realised that the world is without ultimate meaning and design.

 

4. Society wants to control religious speech

The word on the street today is less about Israel Folau holding his beliefs or not everyone is saying that he shouldn’t have freedom to speak his views. The message being proclaimed by commentators including Peter FitzSimons is  that Folau’s contract must be terminated,

“His contract will be suspended or terminated on the grounds of having breached either rugby’s social media policy or his contract.

Rugby Australia simply has no choice.”

In other words, you have the freedom to speak but should your words fail the test of modern secularist orthodoxy, your words will cost you.

The headline in today’s Fairfax newspapers is telling,

“Until Folau repents, Australia has no choice but to let him go”.

This is only the latest of a growing number of examples of Aussie Christians facing job loss and financial cost for choosing Jesus. There is no tolerance, no accepting of religious opinion that deviates from the proscribed agenda. There is only space for the dogmatic preaching of conformity to the storyline of authoritarian secularists.

 

5. Jesus was serious when he spoke about taking up a cross and following him

Notice the deathly silence from Christian leaders once again, as we squirm with the uncomfortable knowledge that we agree with Izzy even if we would say things a little differently. This is another awkward day for Aussie Christians because one of our own has let the cat out of the bag, and if we’re being honest, we’d prefer if he hadn’t. I wonder, what does this say about us?

At the time when Israel Folau was the subject of similar controversy last year, I wrote

“As a nation we are struggling to cope with societal pluralism. Sexuality has now been defined in such strong terms, that alternative views, as reasonable and loving as they may be expressed, are now perceived as evil and unacceptable. It’s reached the point that sporting codes are now making theological commentary, and assuming a position on hell. Unfolding before us is another test for Australian society. Are we serious about religious freedoms and freedom of speech, or does the rhetoric only apply when beliefs fall into line with the new sexual morality? Do we accept that millions of Australians don’t subscribe to the now popular view on marriage and sexuality, and that these Australians have a right to express their opinions? While politicians and company CEOS and sporting organisations wrangle over a position on religious freedom, it is even more important for Australian Christians to be thinking through these issues. What do we really believe? How can we best communicated what we believe? What are prepared to lose for the sake of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord?”

Even though Folau’s sporting future remains uncertain, his testimony presents a challenge to the rest of us Aussies who profess faith in Jesus Christ. Would we be prepared to walk away from job security? Would we be willing to give up a lucrative income? Are we ready to embrace public abuse?

Our Bible text for this Sunday at Mentone Baptist Church is Matthew 16:13-28. Following Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus began to explain that he must suffer and die. When Peter rebuffed Jesus for suggesting such a crazy idea, Jesus then explained,

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.”

Do we love our sport more than we love Jesus? Is our pursuit for social acceptance more important to us than loving our neighbours as Christ has loved us? 

When Jesus spoke about taking up a cross and giving up the world’s offerings, he wasn’t speaking rhetorically. Perhaps it is time for Christians in Australia to begin pondering his words and examine our own hearts and ambitions.

 


Update: Rugby Australia have announced that they are terminating their contract with Israel Folau (April 11th, 6:30pm)

 


Update April 14th

It’s important to relay important information when it comes to light so that I’m not misrepresenting the facts

  • Rugby Australia remain intent to sack Folau, however, the argument is being made by legal experts that this may not be possible as RA haven’t followed their own code of conduct when it comes to disciplining players
  • More important, someone has brought to my attention that Folau seems, at the very least, to be confused by the Christian teaching of the Trinity. His comments on the Trinity that have been shared with me are troubling, to say the least. This doesn’t negate the 5 points made in this post, but it may cause us to reevaluate Folau’s understanding of Christianity.  I suspect that many Christians, in explaining God, fall into one Trinitarian heresy or another, simply because they haven’t been taught the Scriptures well. Perhaps he needs a Christian brother to get alongside him and disciple him with a Bible in hand (don’t we all?). The doctrine of the Trinity, however, is too important, too central to the Christian faith, for us to ignore.
  • A few voices are now suggesting that Folau made a verbal agreement with Rugby Australia not to post such comments again on social media (I don’t know whether this is accurate or not). If that is true, then he has acted dishonestly and it is appropriate for Rugby Australia to sanction him. It also remains the case that it is inappropriate for RA to make such religious demands of its players, especially given there are examples where other players have publicly commented on similar issues, albeit for a different point of view to Izzy.