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 is 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.

“he will come to judge the living and the dead” (Apostles Creed)

“Q. 19. 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.

“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, used various metaphors and analogies to convey the awfulness of hell, they did so not to obscure its existence 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 turning to 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, for 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. While Greg Growden was resorting to humour, his comment is closer to the truth than perhaps he realises.

Help Australians understand why hell is needed and even why they probably already believe it exists.

Aussies have been making a house of hay from Folau’s most recent posts. Social commentators have been using Folau’s list of transgressions as a checklist to see how many they have already worked into their lives. It is easy to joke about lying and sleeping around and stealing from others, but the reality of such things is far from funny. Marital unfaithfulness hurts profoundly. Lying breaks the bond of friendship. Theft is a betrayal of trust and leaves the victim frightened and at times financially destitute.

Our nations, for all its greatness, is filled with extraordinary pain and sorrow caused by the greed and hate of fellow Australians. 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?

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 their religious beliefs) who do not, on some scale, believe or wished they could believe that hell exists for some people. One of the things the Bible does as we read 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 and thus 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 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

No one turns to God, seeking his mercy unless we first appreciate personal culpability and accountability before a holy God. We may not understand the depths of our personal predicament but there is surely a manifest awareness of guilt and a new found trust in Christ.

 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)

““So 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 comment 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’. While such attitudes have become mainstream platitudes, Australia has this week realised once again the naivety of this thinking, and we now want to send Izzy into the eternal Rugby exclusion zone.

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?

Australians turning to the USA to find the ideal baby

Australian couples are turning to the United States to help them find the ideal child.

Among all the questions that Susan and I talked about and thought over as we considered having children, not once did we ask, ‘what coloured eyes would we prefer our children to have?’  Such contemplation would not find entry into the top 1000 questions that we asked ourselves about the children we hoped to have the privilege of raising and loving.

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An article published by the Herald Sun over the weekend revealed that hundreds of Australian couples are paying up to $20,000 for ‘designer babies’.   Australian couples are utilising the services made available at Fertility Clinics across the United States, to siphon out babies who don’t fit with their dream baby. Most common, parents are screening for gender, deciding whether they wish to have a girl or boy. There are also cases where parents are selecting their child’s eye colour; in fact, there is now an 18-month waiting list for this screening test.

Journalist Natasha Bita reported that “Controversially, it claims that Australian medicos are co-operating with the offshore clinic…The NHMRC yesterday warned it would be illegal for Australian doctors to co-­operate with foreign clinics offering selection for gender or eye colour.”

Brisbane geneticist Professor David Coman is right when he said, this is a case of “eugenics” and it is “grossly inappropriate in the Australian culture”.

The Oxford Dictionary defines eugenics as, “the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.”

What these “desirable heritable characteristics” are, will vary depending on the culture and the dominant moral narrative of the day. Eugenics has been advocated and practiced in many cultures, perhaps most infamously in Nazi Germany during the 1930s-40s. One difference today is the greater wealth of scientific knowledge made available to medical experts for identifying all kinds of details pertaining to an individual human being from its earliest moments of life in the womb (or petrie dish as it may be). Technology is a useful servant, and it can create greater destruction than the hammer of Thor. Too often, what is discerned as possible through science, soon afterward becomes a moral commitment; we can therefore let us do.

Thank God that many forms of eugenics are currently banned in Australia, and yet the door has already swung wide open as doctors test for all manner of ailments and give parents permission to keep or to kill, based on whether they wish to have a child with a potential illness. No doubt some parents use this information to help prepare them for parenthood, while others use diagnoses to determine whether they will keep the pregnancy or not.

What happens to those embryos who don’t fit the parents’ requirements, whether it is the ‘right’ gender or even the ‘right’ coloured eyes? Are these little ones given another chance or are they discarded into a rubbish bin, like we would with a piece of fruit that is past is best used by date?

Are children to be loved unconditionally or should they be viewed as a valuable commodity, selected and loved like the family pet. Should a parent’s love for their children be measured by gender or by disability or by how many fingers or toes are counted? Is a child to be more or less valued because of their DNA or potential chromosomal abnormality? Should we really take into account the colour of a baby’s eyes? Australian culture is drifting far from the worldview of Psalm 139.

“For you created my inmost being;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    your works are wonderful,

    I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you

    when I was made in the secret place,

    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;

    all the days ordained for me were written in your book

    before one of them came to be.”

Our society has moved a long way from holding fast to these ancient words, words which delight in the life of every image-bearer of God. It is liberating Psalm, for the dignity of each person is not contingent upon the value attributed by another person or social opinion, but by the fact of ontology.

Popular threads on social media and in the news will downplay the wonder of Psalm 139 and instead elevate the freedom of others to choose life or death. The practice is revealing uncomfortable truths that can’t be denied, despite clamorous noises trying to ignore and/or downplay:

  • The majority of babies aborted are girls
  • Babies diagnosed with possible physical abnormalities are many times more likely to be aborted than those without
  • In parts of America, such as New York State, the number of African-American babies being aborted is greater than those who are born.
  • Most late-term abortions are not performed because the baby’s or mother’s life is at risk.

Most of these examples are forms of eugenics. We may avoid the language due to its historical associations, but it is nonetheless the practice of controlling breeding in order to increase desired social outcomes.

Psalm 139  reveals a complex anthropology. For while the Psalmist glorifies God for the wonder of life in the womb, he also calls for God to intervene against those who shed blood. It is as though those who destroy human life are hypocrites, denying their own humanity as they refuse it in others.

“If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!

They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.

Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?

I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.” (verses 19-22)

The Psalmist, however, does not end with this view of retribution but turns to his own situation and asks God to make known to him things that are unacceptable and unbecoming in his own life.

“Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting”. (verses 23-23)

The point is this, we are quick to judge nations around us for their discrimination and violence, but we are slow to acknowledge our own participation in the dehumanisation project. Instead, we have resolved to justifying ourselves in manipulating and even taking life. We allege that “it’s an act of mercy…the cost would be too great…the parents may not cope”.

Even we Christians who speak to the dignity of every human life, ever for us, especially us, we must ask of God, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting”. When this process of Divine examination begins, we remember that our own faults and offences are great, so hideous that they demanded a bloody cross to bring redemption and peace. In other words, the Psalmist’s anger, although justified, leads to personal reflection and repentance; not only damning culture but offering a better paradigm. With this in mind, Christians have something worth offering. Just as Christians once challenged the Roman practice of infanticide by quietly loving and saving the unwanted, let us consider how we can counter the growing and dreadful practice of eugenics.

The ongoing offence of the Gospel and of Sydney Anglican Diocese

My brothers and sisters in the Sydney Anglican diocese have donated $1 million to aid the ‘no’ vote on the marriage campaign. The almost instantaneous public backlash following the announcement was as surprising as hay fever in Spring. Critics jumped on board to advise the Diocese as to how they should be using their money.

A balanced media report would have explained how the Diocese uses all its funds, including the near million dollars raised to help Syrian refugees, the huge sums invested into Anglicare, and the even larger sums that are raised annually within churches for many different projects. Naturally, there is more to the story than social media is sharing, but examining the fuller picture isn’t what critics do best. Fairfax once again performed valiantly as they lifted a facebook comment by one Sydney Minister, cutting and pasting his opinion with the surgical skill of my 3 year old pet dog.

I am not saying that I finally agree with their decision (Baptist blood runs thick!), it was not my decision to make and I am not privy to conversations inside the Standing Committee. I am grateful though that the Sydney Diocese is treating this issue with the seriousness it deserves, and they are prepared to back up their words with action and money. Archbishop Glenn Davies is correct in his analysis of the current debate and of the consequences that will inevitably follow should marriage be redefined.

“I believe that a change in the definition of marriage is unwarranted, not just because it is in opposition to the teaching of Scripture and our Lord himself in Matthew 19, but because I believe marriage, traditionally understood as a union of one man and one woman, is a positive good for our society, where marriage and the procreation of children are bound together as the foundational fabric of our society, notwithstanding the sad reality that not all married couples are able to conceive. Moreover, I consider the consequences of removing gender from the marriage construct will have irreparable consequences for our society, for our freedom of speech, our freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. It is disingenuous to think otherwise, given the evidence to the contrary in Canada, the US and the UK.”

Same-sex marriage is about redefining society. It is about degendering  the family unit, and removing the rights of  children to be raised by their biological mother and father.  Numerous social activists are telling us how marriage is only the next stage of the much larger agenda to remove gender altogether and remove religion from public society.

Mauvre Marsden wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald (Oct 4),

“Yes, marriage is not the final frontier. Yes, we want safe schools. Yes, gay conversion therapy is child abuse. Yes, we want transgender kids’ agency to be respected and supported – regardless of what their parents want. Yes.”

Auberry Perry argued in The Age (Sept 3),

“This survey offers us a conscious opportunity to make a firm stand in support of a secular government and to reject discrimination or favouritism based on religion. It’s our opportunity to say that religion has no part in the shaping of our laws. A vote against same-sex marriage is a vote for religious bias and discrimination in our legislation, our public schools, our healthcare, and ultimately, in the foundation of our social structure.”

If the same-sex marriage activists are telling us the truth about their aims, surely we are loving our neighbours by trying to speak up about the good of marriage.

 

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Sydney Anglican Media

There is one particular criticism over the Diocesan donation that I wish to comment on, and it is coming from a few Christians who are suggesting that this will make evangelism more difficult. I understand the point, but I don’t buy it.

People will always be offended by the Gospel and by Christians expressing God’s righteousness.

Society has its own grid for defining moral rights and wrongs, and this isn’t always in tune with God’s righteousness. Sometimes when the culture says I’m a hypocrite, I am acting like a hypocrite. Other times, society just doesn’t like the fact that I’m not agreeing with them. Believing something different to the culture doesn’t make me hypocritical.

As Christians we want to be wise and not glibly explain away offences people may take at us, for it may well be that we ourselves have been blinded by our own sins and it takes an unbeliever to point it out to us. The reality is, the Sydney Diocese has a positive track record of acknowledging wrongdoing and seeking restitution. Last night’s domestic violence policy is the latest testimony to this. I even suspect that Sydney Anglicans are doing a better job than most in serving society’s vulnerable and needy. This may be partly due to the means available to them, but it’s partly because they’re living out what they preach and believe. It is however foolish to suggest that any current social milieu holds truth captive and is the arbiter of moral axioms, and that’s precisely the problem here – the Diocese isn’t conforming to the controlling pattern of our culture.

Same sex marriage was only one of several important social issues being addressed at Synod, including their important policy dealing with domestic abuse. This news story has received some media attention, but pales in comparison to the $1 million donation. Why? Because Sydney Anglicans gave the money to the “wrong” side. Alan Joyce’s $1 million donation and the free advertising given by the NRL are lauded because they conform to the set narrative. I guarantee that if a Christian denomination had donated money to the ‘yes’ campaign, the media would be praising them for their love and boldness.

I don’t believe Sydney’s donation will make evangelism harder, it simply affirms how hard it already is. Who knows, instead of fearing that critics and heretics will take another swing at the Church, perhaps in God’s kindness, this may create new  Gospel opportunities as people in our community see that someone has the guts to stand and be counted.

My caution to Christians is this, be very careful about defining our decisions by public opinion. I’m not saying that the beliefs and ideas of people around us don’t matter to us, but it’s the wrong starting question. We ought to first ask, how we can faithfully and wisely apply what we believe to be true and good in God’s word. We won’t always get this right, but I am thankful for those Churches and denominations who are trying.

 

 

In accordance with s 6(5) of the Marriage Law Survey (Additional Safeguards) Act 2017, this communication was authorised by Murray Campbell , of Melbourne, Victoria.