Empire, or Kingdom?

Will we ever wake up in a world with no violence or conflict? We see it on the news, we hear about it in the lives of people around us, maybe we experience it personally. Yes, there will be a day there will be no more conflict. Christ will return and there will be

a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away . . . And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.'” (Revelation 21:1,5 NRSV)

But are we to just wait for that day, putting up with all this conflict until then? The prophet Nahum will help us find our way.

Nahum points us in the right direction by pointing out what happens when we get on the wrong track. Nahum is a prophecy to a people who had been on the wrong track. The Assyrians were on the track to empire. Nahum had the task of telling them that they had reached the end of the line. There are three problems with the track to empire.

First problem with the empire track; empire is temporary. Much of the history of the world is a history of the empire after empire seeking to become the biggest and best. The history of the world teaches us that they all fall in the end. Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, it doesn’t matter, empire is always temporary.

There is a better track; the track that leads to the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is eternal. We may struggle to understand the book of Revelation, but the main message is really quite simple; empires rise and fall, but the Kingdom of God is eternal.

So are we building towards empire, or Kingdom? Are we building for things that are temporary? Are our time, talents, and treasures going toward things that last?

Second problem with the empire track: empire destroys relationships. In empire living, there are only allies or enemies. The peoples within and around an empire are either going to help the empire get bigger, or they are going to get in the way and be a threat.

There is a better track, one that leads to the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God, there are only neighbours. Jesus taught us to “love thy neighbour as thyself” and then went on to define our neighbour as anyone and everyone.

When we meet people, do we see them as either allies of enemies? Do we see them as either being useful to us, or in our way, and even a threat? Or do we simply see them as neighbours to be loved?

Third problem with the empire track; empires are built through brute force and brutality. Nahum tells of this, for example:

Ah! City of bloodshed,
utterly deceitful, full of booty—
no end to the plunder!
2 The crack of whip and rumble of wheel,
galloping horse and bounding chariot!
3 Horsemen charging,
flashing sword and glittering spear,
piles of dead,
heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
they stumble over the bodies! Nahum 3:1-3 (NRSV)

Yet she became an exile,
she went into captivity;
even her infants were dashed in pieces
at the head of every street;
lots were cast for her nobles,
all her dignitaries were bound in fetters. Nahum 3:10 (NRSV)

In building empires, countless of people were killed. For those who lived, eyes were often gouged out, tongues cut off, people sold off and removed far from home. So brutal were some empires that even unborn babies were ripped from their mother’s wombs, and orphaned infants dashed to the ground. This is how empires struck fear in their enemies. Better to surrender to the power of a “better” empire, than experience it firsthand. Nahum’s prophecy is about the Assyrian empire experiencing what it dished out to others.

All who hear the news about you
clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped
your endless cruelty? Nahum 3:19 (NRSV)

There is, thankfully, a better track, the track that leads to the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is built with a different kind of force: “not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit” Zechariah. 4:9 (NKJV).

Jesus said “those who draw the sword, will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:62-54 NRSV). Jesus was doing two things when he refused to use violence at his arrest in Gethsemane. He was taking the Kingdom track for our sake, so that we might be forgiven rather than destroyed. But he was also giving us an example to follow, an example of Kingdom thinking, Kingdom living, Kingdom dying. Jesus call us to pick up the cross and follow, which means to trade empire for Kingdom. We are to become Kingdom people, good news people.

We are empire people when we show up with swords and guns and bombs. We are Kingdom people when we show up with the Spirit of God: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Galatians 5:22,23 (NRSV). Do we show up to our relationships with swords or the Spirit? Do we show up on Facebook, Twitter and other social media with swords or Spirit? Do we show up ready ready to fight people? Or to fight with people against the evil in their lives? Do we show up as empire people or Kingdom people?

You might perceive a problem with the Kingdom track. It does not seem to take into account your suffering at the hands of another. It is unfair. You deserve vengeance. And perhaps you are right. It is unfair. However, the prophecy of Nahum, though addressed to the Assyrians, was for the encouragement of Israel when they experienced what seemed to be very unfair treatment. Having been on the wrong track for a long time, Assyria has reached the end of the line. However, nowhere in the prophecy of Nahum is there a call for Israel to take up arms. There is no need. We can think of Paul’s word to the Christians in Rome who also knew a thing or two about being treated unfairly:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21 (NRSV)

Every day we wake up to violence and conflict. Every day is an opportunity to live as God’s good news people. Every day is an opportunity for Kingdom rather than empire. While we may not feel we have much influence in conflicts around the globe, the ones close to home are opportunities for Kingdom building.

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Fire & Brimstone, Part 2.

We have already seen the reality of the judgement of God, that separation from God and His goodness is real and therefore hell is real. But what does it mean to “go to hell”?

There are three possible views on hell which could be summarized by the words fire, torment, and destruction.

Fire: The first takes the language used in the Bible about hell most literally and those who hold this view think those in hell will literally experience everlasting fire along with everything else mentioned.

Torment: The second view holds the language around hell to be metaphorical, but still very descriptive of experience. Those who hold this view don’t think those in hell will experience literal everlasting fire, but will experience everlasting something, and that something will be bad.

Destruction: The two former views reflect what we call ‘eternal conscious torment’ and are considered to be the more tractional views. The third view is different. Let us look at this third view more closely since many of us already know the traditional views.

Remember that time Luther posted his 95 theses which helped spark the move from what tradition taught to what the Bible taught? John Stott called for a similar move in the last century:

As a committed Evangelical, my question must be—and it—not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say? And in order to answer this question, we need to survey the biblical material afresh and to open our minds (not just our hearts) to the possibility that Scripture points in the direction of annihilation, and that ‘eternal conscious torment’ is a tradition which has to yield to the supreme authority of Scripture.  – John Stott.

You can read that passage in its context here.

Is it possible that hell, the experience of separation from God and his goodness, could be summed up by ‘destruction’ rather than ‘everlasting conscious torment’? Does the Bible teach that? Let us consider the same passages we looked at in the last post when we asked if God’s judgement was real:

. . . then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. Genesis 2:7

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Genesis 2:16-17

Adam is given the gift of life and is warned that the consequence of rebellion against God is death. Nothing is said about eternal eternal conscious torment at this point.

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. Genesis 3:22-24 (emphasis added)

Adam and Eve did rebel against God and the consequences started to fall into place. Here, at the very first sin, the consequence of rebellion is framed as death, not everlasting conscious torment. This death and life theme is reflected when Paul brings up Adam’s sin and the resurrection of Jesus:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 (emphasis added)

In that same chapter on the resurrection, Paul does not speak of going to heaven rather than hell as we might think he would. He speaks of eternal life made possible through the putting on of immortality:

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:50-57

The focus here is on life versus death, rather than heaven verses hell. The Bible does speak elsewhere of the unrepentant also being raised for judgement. But from this passage in Corinthians we can infer that the unrepentant will not receive the wonderful gift being celebrated by Paul here, namely the gift of being clothed in imperishability and immortality. We should note here that the concept of the immortality of the soul is a Greek concept that has more to do with Platonic philosophy than Biblical teaching. Our souls have not been around for eternity, they were created. Adam and Eve could have enjoyed everlasting life in the Garden, but sin messed that up. Our default without Christ is mortality. God, however, graciously offers the gift of eternal life in Christ.

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23

This last verse reminds us of the doctrine known as the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus. That is a fancy way of saying that Jesus paid the wages of sin on our behalf. No one believes that Jesus is experiencing eternal conscious torment on our behalf.  He experienced death, and in a mysterious but real way, separation from the Father and His goodness.

Consider, finally, these verses that speak in a matter of fact manner of everlasting life versus destruction.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

But what about those passages that speak of everlasting torment? When Biblical teaching which has the sound of metaphor is placed next to Biblical teaching which sounds quite matter of fact, perhaps we should consider the matter of fact statements to be pointing to facts, and the metaphor to be poetic. “The wages of sin is death” is a matter of fact statement and so, in fact, sin without the atoning work of Jesus will lead to death, separation from the presence and goodness of God. That “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12) is a poetic way of saying that to experience separation from God and his goodness, to experience death, is utterly regrettable. That too, is a fact! But to take the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” as a factual description of the experience of separation from God may not be what is intended.

Likewise, when Jesus speaks of hell he often is being poetic by using the word “Gehenna”. Gehenna was locatable on a map and was a place of idol worship, including the incredibly evil practice of sacrificing children. The people of Jerusalem ended up burning their garbage there. When Jesus speaks of people going to Gehenna, in the Sermon on the Mount for example, the idea is that if you want to appeal to your own righteousness, then you will end up being taken out with the trash. Perhaps what we learn through the poetry of Jesus’ words on hell should not be lost by forcing them to become a scientific description.

Which view of hell is correct? I’ll leave that up to you to research further and decide (A good start is to read both John Stott and J.I. Packer on the topic). Whichever view is correct, we agonize over our loved ones who do not know Christ. Whichever view is correct, we agonize over anyone who would choose to be separated from God and His goodness. Whichever view is correct, we thank God for His wonderful love and grace.

Is it time to bring back fire and brimstone? Whichever view on hell we think is correct, are we witnesses that hell is eternal conscious torment, or that Jesus rose from the dead and is Lord, even over death? Keep in mind that our unbelieving friends do not yet believe in hell. They already believe in death. The Good News is that though “the wages of sin is death”, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That is the Good News we share. We don’t need to be angry fire and brimstone preachers to do that.

 

Fire and Brimstone

Do we need to bring back hell-fire and brimstone? Preachers don’t seem to preach on hell as often these days, and for that some people are very grateful. Others think that something important has been lost. The good folk at Calvary may or may not have noticed I rarely use the word “hell”, preferring to refer to “separation from God”. But is there even such a thing as being cast out from the presence of God? There are those who would say that God is so loving, that everyone will be saved in the end. That might be what we would like the Bible to teach. But is it?

A brief overview of the Bible will help clarify our thoughts on God’s judgement. Let us begin at Genesis:

. . . then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. Genesis 2:7

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Genesis 2:16-17

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. Genesis 3:22-24

The Bible is clear from the get-go that separation from God and His goodness is a consequence of rebellion against Him. Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden, the place where they could fully experience the presence of God, plus the way to the tree of life was guarded. Death became a reality, a sure thing. The gift of life was taken back.

This is reflected in the New Testament:

For the wages of sin is death . . . Romans 6:23

That is the bad news. Now for the good news:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:10

While it is clear that judgement against sin results in death, it is also clear that Jesus came to give us life. But perhaps Jesus came to give everyone life?

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16

John 3:16 is a favourite verse for many, but implicit there is the fact that eternal life can be refused. Further Scriptures confirm that there are those who refuse and so are perishing:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

The Bible is clear that though Jesus came to give us life, people can say “no thanks”.

The Bible is also clear that God is a good father:

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11:11-13

Would we as imperfect Dads go and force an adult child to return home, locking them up in our living room? God invites people to call him Father, but he gives people the freedom to people to say “no, I’m not coming home”.

There is such a thing as being cut off from God and his goodness. Hell is therefore a reality. So, time to bring back fire and brimstone, right?

We will consider that in Part 2.