Brought up in an Evangelical-Reformed church, in the nineties of South African youth culture, with the quasi-charismatic youth revivals running high, as a young theological student Universalism had the meaning that everyone was going to heaven… or maybe it rather had the meaning that no one was going to hell. This was a doctrine to be feared, some had to go to hell to legitimize the God we prayed to (if you find yourself within this approach, and distance yourself from fundamentalism, wouldn’t you please leave a better understanding in the comment section).

Universalism knocked on my door thanks to our Western linear approach to time. Thing is that I believed that the Jews of the Old Testament was children of God, a.k.a children of Abraham. Then Jesus came, and you had to become a Christian. But this 19/20 year old wannabee theologian started wondering: when did it change? I mean, at which stage did you move from being a Jew going to heaven to being a Jew going to hell? Well, my evangelical-reformed-quasi-charismatic-semi-fundamentalist theology could probably answer it, but it needed to much of metaphysical ideas, and so much of psychological presuppositions (such as whether someone “really” believed, “really” regretted his/her sins etc) that it didn’t really help me.

One sentence I read today brought this question up again. It talked about the “train going to hell”, the train that was going to Auschwitz, carrying Jews. The hell that it was talking about was the hell of Auschwitz, a hell that made Dante’s Purgatory look like children’s party. The question I wondered about was whether my theology should say that this train was also leading to the metaphysical hell that Dante wrote about, since everyone on the train was Jews, and wouldn’t convert before they were killed.

Anyhow, how would they have converted, since the only Christians they would have had contact with after getting on that train was Nazi Germans, probably Lutheran, from the tradition that talked about Sola Gratia and Sola Fidei more than anyone. Am I willing to also say that those Lutherans would go to the metaphysical place called heaven as well while their Jewish victims go the Dante’s hell?

I don’t think Universalism is the answer, so please don’t quote me for saying so. But I do think the system that I had (and whether this was an accurate understanding of Reformed doctrine is highly debateble) wasn’t addequate, and that it has to be modified. This is some of the questions that we really need to look at somewhat more seriously.

a heavenly problem

August 11, 2008

More and more I think that we have a heavenly problem in the reformed and evangelical churches today. It’s heavenly in scale (acknowledging my one lecturer who, one day when I called a certain systematic theologians systematic system of theology “one hell of a system”, corrected me and said that it’s “one heaven of a system” [OK, it sounds much better in Afrikaans]), but the problem is also about heaven.

I’m looking through Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy at the moment. He tell the story on page 45 of the Protestant minister who spent 15 minutes on the radio explaining that “forgiveness of sins, involves no change at all in the heart and personality of the one forgiven”. He was stressing the well-known Reformed pillar of sola gratia, by grace alone.

I remember my young 17 year old theological mind first struggling with this when I once confronted one of my fellow Christians brothers, and fellow EE3 trainee, about something in his life. (No, I really did this in a nice way). He started using the language of EE3 to defend himself! Since he was saved by grace alone, God will forgive him the thing he was doing (which I can’t even remember what it was). Suddenly, the EE3 system, and with that a lot or reformed theology, broke down for me. Because he was supposed to be thankful for what Jesus did and therefore change his lifestyle. But I started asking the obvious question: And if someone get saved and then isn’t thankful for this? Because onviously this couldn’t be undone?

My next memory of my struggle with this is much less complex. I read the Bible, the the Bible talks a hell of a lot (with apologies to Dr Veldsman, my lecturer from the above mentioned systematic theology class) about how I should live. So, if the Bible talk about what I should do, now, here on earth, and believe that the God about whom the Bible is telling is real, then maybe I should just do it!

So, I get to the second point why I think we have a heavenly problem: Well, it’s simple, we built everything around heaven, and now we have a problem. You see, if the question is whether I can get into heaven by kissing the popes feet (another set of apologies is in order at this stage, I am aware that the RCC has changed a lot after the Reformation), then I’ll answer: No, sola gratia, sola fidei, sola Christi (only grace, only faith, only Christ). But now we’ve become so good at providing this answer, that we go on giving it after the pope is not requesting any kisses anymore!

Maybe we should put heaven back into it’s place, as a footnote to our theology. Now, for the serious theologians who want to deliver critique, let me say up front, I’m not saying that eschatology is a footnore to our theology, just that the heaven (and specifically the heaven hell thing after you die) should be a footnote to our theology. Kind of like I’d wanna say: “OK, so life don’t stop when you kick the bucket, we clear on that? Good! Now: so you say you believe in God? You agree that then doing things God’s way is best? You do? OK, so lets go search for that, cause the Bible has a lot more to say on that than on who’s going to heaven and who not!”

OK, so tomorrow I might say it much more nuanced, but this is tonight, and I’m posting this. Comments?

burn in hellTurn or Burn T-shirtWe’ve all met them. The “turn or burn” type evangelicals. Those who give evangelicals their bad name. Those who drive the idea that faith is about a fear for hell. But time has passed, most of us don’t take them very seriously, few people I know actually still try this take on evangelism, and even with someone like Kimball that still try to make hell and important concept, it’s important that hell should not become the motivating factor for evangelism.

But more and more we are getting the “turn or burn” message with global warming as well. Those angry liberals (and sometimes I’m one of them) who keep moaning about the conservatives (and yes, I think this is stupid labels) who only worry about heaven (and more often than not more about hell than heaven) and is of “no earthly good” now have there own hell. It’s a hell on earth. And if you don’t turn… well, you will burn. If you don’t change your ecological lifestyle then you will have it hot in a couple of years time.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I feel very strong about the ecology. I accept what scientists tell me about global warming (yes, I know that there isn’t consensus). I took a lot of trouble this year to make global warming a larger part of the Engineering curriculum at the University of Pretoria (OK, it’s just one week’s worth of ethics lectures more, but I tried!). Sometimes I even think an extremist like James Lovelock might be right!

What I’m concerned about is when the motivation for change become fear, which just cause people to again react against it (what I think underlies a post like this). Global warming should be feared, but when that is all that motivate the changes we make, then I doubt how deeply we really change.

Now, those not converting people by making them afraid of hell, could either tell them of the utopia of heaven, or tell them about a story by which to make sense of life. This isn’t a post about evangelism, so I’ll not go into that too deeply. Point is that I believe that there is some deeper reason to change why we do things the way we do. Not because of our fear of a hell on earth, neither because we are promised an earthly utopia when we do change. Rather because there is a way of making sense of our lives which call us to live different.

Our Green Spirituality should be based on respect for creation, on a love for creation. If ever we do find ways of undoing every bit of damage we do to the earth, would that give us a pass to do whatever we want? If fear is all that drive us, then yes, it will. But if we live life in a way which search for harmony with creation, then a different approach is needed. Oh, and with harmony we obviously need to remember to humans are part of creation, so human extinction projects is not what I’ll be proposing.

As followers of Jesus we should talk about ecology, but then remember that there is a positive motivation for change. Global Warming seem to be the result of humans not living in harmony, not the motivation for changing our lives which is not in harmony. And this can be true whether Global Warming is the issue or not!

This post is a part of the June Synchroblog on “Green Living and Spirituality.” 

Other bloggers:

Is it All About the Green? by Phil Wyman
Rediscovering Humanity’s Primal Commission by Adam Gonnerman
Bashing SUV’s for Jesus by David Fisher
Little Green Man by Sonja Andrews 
Saints and Animals by Steve Hayes