October 26, 2017
This week on the blog, I return to a topic I started two weeks ago with the promised part 2: how do we deal with the difficult parts of the Bible that we kinda wish weren’t there?
Let’s start with a quick recap because, you know, it was two weeks ago when we started this conversation. In Luke 10, Jesus pronounces woe on three Jewish cities (Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum), telling them that it will be better on the day of judgement for Tyre and Sidon than for them, and that instead of being exalted to heaven, they’d be cast down to Hades.
This week at Parkland, we’re going to deal with the topic of heaven, hell, and judgement from that text; the question I asked in the blog was more of a big-picture one: what do you do when you come across a topic that makes you uncomfortable?
There are three options: we could ignore it and hope it goes away; we could try to wriggle out of the truth, usually by engaging in esoteric arguments about the nuanced meaning of various words in the original languages; or we could press into it, seeing difficult topics like puzzles that have a solution that holds the entire story of the gospel in balance.
But how? Here are some pointers that I hope are helpful to you.
Don’t Try to Defend God
The first one is pretty simple: resist the instinct to come to God’s defence. I see this happen all the time. When a difficult subject comes up in a conversation with someone who’s not a Christian (e.g., “how could a loving God send people to hell?”), our first response is usually to list all the reasons why God is right and justified in doing it.
There’s nothing wrong with giving reasons why God is justified in doing what he does, but the problem is that our explanations usually serve only to water down the topic. Our explanations tend to be directed toward making the difficult stuff more palatable, both to us and to others.
At the heart of it, we’re insecure about what the Bible says. We don’t really know the answers. We’re often scared of them because we’re worried that our belief system will be compromised and we’ll be exposed as imposters.
In other words, we’re not trying to defend God: we’re trying to defend our insecurity.
Here’s what we need to see: God never gets defensive about what he says. He just says it. And he says it because it’s true.
God didn’t feel the need to defend himself, and he doesn’t need us to come to his defence, either.
Start with What You Know
As Protestant Christians, we believe that the Bible alone is the Word of God. It is complete and contains everything we need to know in order to walk as Jesus’ disciples.
But it’s always amazing to me how much of what we think the Bible says isn’t actually in there. And that makes conversations about difficult topics almost impossible.
Here’s an example. When someone is going through a particularly difficult time in their lives, one of the ways we comfort them is by saying that God has promised not to give us more than we can handle.
There’s only one problem: that’s not what he says.
He does say that he won’t allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear (1 Cor. 10:13). But he never says that our life circumstances won’t be overwhelming. In fact, you could argue that Jesus says exactly the opposite: “In this world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33).
Of course we’ll have to deal with more than we can bear: that’s the entire point of faith. In this world we will have tribulation, “but take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
There are times when what the Bible actually says is difficult enough. Let’s not make it even more difficult by adding in what it doesn’t say.
Don’t Do It Alone
One of the great benefits of living 2000 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection is the fact that people have been thinking about the difficult topics for 2000 years. We stand, to use a common but true metaphor, on the shoulder of giants. Upstream from us are men and women of vast wisdom and thoughtful engagement who have considered deeply the questions that we’re still asking today.
It would be folly not to take advantage of that.
When difficult questions arise, the first book off my shelf is usually a systematic theology textbook, specifically the first systematic theology textbook I got in my undergrad: Millard Erickson’s Introducing Christian Doctrine. The book is now in its 3rd edition, and you can get it from places like Amazon or Indigo. Or just go to the closest Christian college or university and buy a used copy from the bookstore.
You might not consider yourself to be a theologian, but you are. And I think it’s wise for every Christian to have a book like this on their shelf.
But be warned: like the nonograms I talked about in part 1, reading theology can be addictive, and you might need a new bookshelf.
But even without the books, you don’t have to do it alone because you’re part of the community of God’s people, and there are others who have the same questions, have been seeking answers, and who can share their understanding of the question with you. Seek them out. Ask for their thoughts. And watch how quickly your level of understanding increases.
One of the ways we make difficult topics even more difficult for ourselves is by seeing them as abstractions and forgetting that there are real people with deeply personal stakes involved in the discussion.
For example, when the topic of hell and judgement comes up, some Christians almost seem delighted to talk about the eternal punishment of the wicked. When atheist Christopher Hitchens died in 2011, social media was abuzz with Christians posting various versions of, “Now he’ll see that he was wrong!”
The problem is that we’re never just talking about Christopher Hitchens. We’re talking about the people we know and love who are in the same boat. We’re talking about my father-in-law. We’re talking about my uncle. We’re talking about my neighbour. I take no delight in the concept of hell because I don’t want it to be their fate, yet I know that it will be if their lives continue on the same course.
Don’t let difficult topics descend into philosophical debate that neglects the human beings—all of whom are created in God’s image and likeness—affected by them.
At the end of the day, there are a number of things about which we’ll remain unsure, not because God hasn’t told us about them, but simply because of our inability as finite and time-bound beings to understand the infinite and eternal God.
And here’s the thing: God doesn’t demand that we know all the answers in order to be authentic disciples. He simply beckons us to come and see.
In other words, it’s okay to look at a difficult topic in the Bible and say, “I don’t know.”
And that’s the hardest part of all of this, I suspect. But that’s where faith comes in. Some will argue that faith is the opposite of reason, and that’s why it should be abandoned. But I would say in response that “reason,” at least as it’s used in those arguments, requires more faith than faith itself.
Does faith require us to make assumptions that we can’t empirically prove? Yes. But so does “reason.” The difference is that the assumptions associated with “reason” are often stated with far more confidence than they deserve. And when those assumptions are proven wrong (as they often are), nobody seems to want to tear down research laboratories.
The truth is that science has disproven exactly nothing of what the Bible claims to be true. In fact, every discovery only seems to bear further witness to the Bible’s reliability. And if you need an example, here’s one.
Here’s the bottom line: if we believe in the Bible’s story, then God is a trustworthy person, period. We won’t know all the answers to the questions that life raises until our knowledge is perfected in God’s presence. Until then, we proceed with faith because we know that he who promised is faithful.
One last thing. If you have questions about heaven, hell, and judgement, I’d like to be able to address them, so send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. They might be part of my sermon this week, or a future blog, or something else, and I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.
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