Monthly Archives: June 2013

WTH 2 – God, Holiness, and Sin

Last time we saw that Jesus describes hell using a perpetually burning city dump (gehenna) as a metaphor.  It is a place where unclean things are disposed of.  Christ speaks of it as a very real consequence that we face rather than as a figure of speech.

Sin is the unclean thing that is disposed of in hell.  In order to better understand the relationship between God and hell, we must first spend some time considering the relationship between God and sin.  God is holy.  As a matter of fact, He’s so holy that the four living creatures around His throne have to constantly say the word “holy” 3 times in a row to even begin to express how holy He is.  (Revelation 4:8)  Skimming the rest of Revelation 4 gives us a further glimpse at just how Holy God is.

The Greek word translated as “holy” that the four living creatures say designates something being most sacred or pure.  The Hebrew word that is often translated as “holy” carries similar meaning.  The overall sense that we get from the words translated as “holy” is something that is set apart as being pure and without blemish.  To say that God is holy is to say that He is set apart from all things because of His pureness.

God is so holy that the place where He dwells is also holy.  When God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, He tells Moses to, “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.”  (Exodus 3:5)  Much of the law regarding the priests in Israel dealt with them being sanctified to minster before the Lord.  In the New Testament, Paul reminds us that we are the temple of God because His Spirit dwells within us and that temple is holy (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).  (This is why it is important that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the perfect and all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins.)  Heaven is also a holy place since it is where God dwells.

This idea of God’s dwelling being a sinless place comes into focus best when we consider John’s description in Revelation of the New Jerusalem where, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people.  God Himself will be with them and be their God.”  (Revelation 21:3)  It says of the city that, “But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.” (Revelation 21:27)  “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8)  Nothing that is sinful will enter into the city where God dwells with His people because God’s dwelling is holy by virtue of God’s holiness.  So what happens to sin if it is unable to be where God is?  It is disposed of in hell, the perpetually burning dump.

That is all well and good, but where do people (and angels for that matter) fit into the equation?  That is something that we will address next week.  For now, here are the main points:

  1. God is holy; meaning that He is set apart or separate from all other things on account of His purity.
  2. Because God is holy, the place where He dwells is holy and nothing that defiles can enter into it.

Practical Questions:

  1. How do you feel when you think about God’s holiness?  Fear?  Awe?  Indifferent?
  2. Have you ever thought about hell in the context of God’s holiness?  Why or why not?
  3. What does it say about God’s character that He, who is “holy, holy, holy” makes His Spirit to dwell in us?

WTH 1 – Yes, Virginia, There Really is a Hell

Hell can be a difficult thing to get our minds around.  Perhaps the most difficult part of it is reconciling a God Who is love with a God Who created hell.  We will be spending the next couple of weeks considering this topic.  I do not promise that at the end we’ll have all the answers arranged in neat rows, but I do hope that as we work our way through it will help you to get a better handle on the matter and on Who God has revealed Himself to be.  That being said, the first step we’ll take in our little journey is to consider what hell really is.

The Scripture that we are going to look at is Mark 9:42-48.  Here, Christ gives a warning about what awaits us if we remain in sin.  Christ does not literally say “hell”.  Instead, He speaks in metaphor, making a comparison with something that His audience would have been familiar with:  Gehenna, also known as the valley of Hinnom.  Located just outside of Jerusalem, it functioned as a city dump where garbage and all manner of unclean things (such as dead animals) were thrown and all of this garbage was ultimately disposed of by burning.  Thus, the image that Christ paints of hell is a place where unclean things are disposed of.

Here’s a brief thought experiment to try:  envision a place filled with garbage, and not just empty cans and candy wrappers, we’re talking animal guts and other such refuse that rots and putrefies.  You can almost feel the filth rising off of everything and clinging to your skin.  That’s not all, everything is burning and the smoke carries the stink up into the air, up into your nose, and the soot that rests on your already dirty skin is itself infused with the stench and rot of the garbage.

That’s the kind of place that Christ uses to describe hell in terms that we can understand.

Here are some more passages where the Gehenna imagery is used of hell:

Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33

Luke 12:5

James 3:6

Christ also speaks of hell as a place where “Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”  This is actually a quotation from Isaiah 66:24 where God describes the corpses of those who transgressed against Him.  In that particular passage, it is added that, “They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh”.  Think back to the thought experiment and, instead of merely imagining being in the place, consider being that which is constantly putrefying and being consumed by fire and worms.

Having these analogies in mind makes it easier to understand why Christ would use such strong language when making the case that it is better to enter into life maimed rather than to enter into hell.  Christ says that it would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around your neck, to lose a hand, to lose a foot, or to lose an eye and enter into life rather than to go to hell.  Of course, Christ is not advocating self-mutilation as a means to avoid sin; such physical acts cannot prevent us from sinning (which has its origin in the heart).  However, He is making a point of how much better it is to enter the kingdom of heaven and have life than it is to choose hell.  Another way we may think about it is to recall the various stories that have been told about people and animals severing their own limbs in order to escape from certain death.

Using such graphic imagery and intense language, it is apparent that Christ isn’t talking about a metaphorical or figurative place but a reality that awaits us should we not enter into life.  Notice that hell is not itself a metaphor, the metaphors are used to describe hell.  Jesus’ statement is not “It would be better to lose a hand and enter into life because otherwise it would be like going to a place which is like…”   Instead, His statement flows as, “It would be better to lose a hand and enter into life than to enter into the place which is like…”  Christ sets up a dichotomy where there are two possible outcomes:  1) we enter into life and are with God forever.  Or 2) we enter into death and spend eternity in hell.  If God is real, if heaven is real, if sin is real, then hell must also be real; but more on that next week.  For now, let’s sum things up with the following:

  1. Jesus describes hell as a place where unclean things are disposed of.
  2. Jesus uses metaphor to describe the reality of hell, He does not speak of hell as a metaphor itself.

Practical questions:

  1. What or who have been the greatest influences on your idea of hell?
  2. What does that idea say about God’s character?
  3. How does Christ’s description of hell differ from your own idea of it?
  4. What does Christ’s description tell us about God’s character?

Coming Soon: “What the Hell?!”

Coming soon to kuroboushichristian:  “What the Hell?!”  A study looking at how God, who the Bible says “is love” (1 John 4:8), can also have created hell where “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44).  Does this make God inconsistent?  Does it make Him less merciful or righteous?  I cannot promise to put a decisive end to such questions, but I do hope that the next couple of weeks will help you to think about them in new ways.

Who’s the Boss?

Many times we fall under the impression that being a Christian means that things will be “nice” from now on and all of our troubles will be over.  However, we soon discover that this is far from the reality.  Rather than being moved to a retirement community, we find ourselves in the midst of strife.  When we gave our life to Christ, we rejected our sin and agreed with God that it is vile and worthy of destruction.  Thus, we stepped out the dark and into the light.  Our former partners in crime (our sinful nature, the World, and all enemies of God), are loathe to see us go over to Him and do all that they can to regain control of our lives.  Perhaps the most intimidating of these foes is Satan and the rest of the fallen angels.  They are often portrayed as immensely powerful beings seeking to deceive, destroy, and dominate.  Peter refers to Satan as a “roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8) and John uses the terms “dragon” and “serpent” to describe him.  We read in the book of Job how Satan afflicts Job and destroys all his worldly possessions (Job 1:13-22, 2:7-10).  Later, in the Gospels, we read of the terrifying results of demonic possession such as the man who wandered among the tombs crying out and cutting himself (Mark 5:1-5).  Many stories exist of the desert monks being harassed by demons appearing in many fantastic and horrifying shapes.  Even today we see churches torn apart by petty quarrels, cults rising up to spread false doctrines, and all manner of death, suffering, and destruction.  The size and scope of the threat posed by demons often leaves us dumbfounded.

It is easy, when confronted by Satan and his works, to forget a profound truth:

“You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”

-1 John 4:4

We often speak of the war between good and evil, but consider this: when has God ever fought a war or a battle?  God does not fight, He smites or refrains from smiting.  Satan and his ilk run around and cause trouble only because God does not strike them down as He can at any given moment.  To ask why God refrains is to ask why there is suffering in the world; this is a question that God is not obliged to answer us on and we must trust in His goodness and holiness.  Returning to the main point, two instances illustrate that God has complete power to do as He wishes with devils.  These are the same two instances cited by St. Anthony in his speech to encourage his fellow monks in the desert.

The first instance is Jesus’ casting a legion of demons out of the man who lived among the tombs.  At the very sight of Christ the demons cried out and begged Jesus, saying, “If you cast us out, permit us to go away into the herd of swine.”  Not exactly the words of someone who getting ready for a battle.  Rather, it rings more of a scoundrel caught in some mischief by the king and who begins to plead for his life without the king saying a word.  Perhaps more startling is the fact that the legion of demons is begging Christ for permission to enter into a bunch of pigs and it is only after Christ says they can that they are able to do so.

The second instance involves the story of Job.  While Satan’s affliction of Job is what may first come to mind, recall the events leading up to it:  the angels are coming and presenting themselves before God and Satan shows up as well.  The conversation between God and Satan soon turns to Job, a man who “fears God and shuns evil”.  After Satan slanders Job before God, God gives Satan permission to do what he will with everything that Job has.  However, God sets a limit on Satan’s power, commanding him not to lay a finger on Job’s person.  Satan destroys Job’s children and possessions, but leaves the man untouched.  Again Satan comes to God and slanders Job and this time God gives Satan permission to attack Job’s health but sets another strict limit on his power by commanding him not to kill Job.  Here we have Satan himself, the leader of all demons and ruler of the World, unable to do a thing without God letting him.

It is important to keep in mind that God is not ordering the demons to cause havoc, but instead He allows them to carry out what is in their minds to do.  Jesus allows the demons to go into the pigs as they requested.  Satan is allowed to carry out his plan against Job only after God permits him to and only to the degree that God allows him (first not to harm Job himself and second not to kill Job).

What this means to us is that although it may seem like Satan is in control, we can still trust in God who is the One really in control.  We may not understand why God doesn’t just destroy all of the rebellious angels rather than allowing them to pursue their wicked schemes, but we know that they act only as far as God permits them to.  This is one of the reasons why Paul can encourage the Corinthian church by writing,

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.  God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide a way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

-1 Corinthians 10:13

Why should demons, who have no interest in our welfare (quite the opposite, actually), refrain from overwhelming us with their wickedness and despair save that the hand of God holds them back?

Thus, despite their apparent power and authority, Satan and the other angels who have rebelled against God, are still subject to God’s power and authority.  They are “reserved in everlasting chains of darkness for the judgment of the great day,” unable to do anything without God’s allowing it.  We are not held at Satan’s mercy, we are given refuge under God’s.

“Submit yourselves therefore to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

–James 4:7

Called to be Chosen

The parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14) tells of a king who prepares a feast for his son’s wedding and sends servants to invite the guests.  However, after refusing the invitation once and being invited a second time, the guests either blew off the invitation and went about their business or mistreated and killed the king’s servants.  After sending out his armies and wiping out those who were originally invited (them and their city), the king sends out servants once more, this time to invite to the feast anyone and everyone they can find.  The servants do so and gather many people, bad and good, so that the wedding hall is full.  When the king comes out to see the guests, he notices a man who is not wearing a wedding garment (that is to say, he is not dressed for the occasion).  When confronted by the king, the man has nothing to say for himself and is cast out of the hall into the outer darkness where, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Christ concludes the parable with the words, “For many are called, but few are chosen”.

When Christ says that many are called, He refers to the open invitation to life with God and living out the kingdom of heaven.  In the parable, invitations to the feast were ultimately given to everyone regardless of who they were, their status, etc.  Likewise, through the gracious and mighty work of God on the cross, everyone has been invited to be with God.  John 3:16-17 reads,

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

Consider also the parable of the dragnet (Matthew 13:47-50) in which as many as possible are gathered and later separated, being either placed in vessels or thrown away.  The door to salvation stands wide open despite being on the narrow path.

Now, it is also true that the Bible contains much talk of “the elect” or “the chosen” and this must be addressed if one is to credibly speak about there being an open invitation to salvation and the kingdom of heaven.  The word used in these instances carries the connotations of being a higher quality; similar to choice cuts of meat or choice parts for a car or computer.  Perhaps, then, we might say that the elect are those chosen by God because they are of a certain quality.  However, we know that we not saved by works or achievement (Ephesians 2:8-9), so what is this quality and how is it found out?

While not a comprehensive study, the parable can help us to begin to get our minds around this.  We can first conclude that the man who was thrown out was called but not chosen while those who remained were called and chosen.  The man was thrown out because he did not wear a wedding garment and therefore he was not dressed appropriately.  (FYI, this is not a lesson on what we should or shouldn’t wear to church.)  He did not put off his old clothes and put on those befitting a wedding feast.  Likewise, we are called to “put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24)

Although the man was called and came to the wedding feast, he did not respond to it.  He did not allow himself to be conformed to the nature of the feast.  We may show up at church or Bible study, but that alone does not mean that we’ve responded to God’s invitation to us.  To respond to that invitation is to believe in Christ who God has sent (John 6:27-29) and whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).  So it seems that the quality that separates the elect, that makes them God’s chosen, is to believe in His Son which means to submit to His lordship over our lives and to allow the Holy Spirit to shape us into Christ’s image.  That is what it means to be called and chosen.