There seems to be a helluva a lot of talk about hell lately.
The debate about exactly what “hell” is has raged for millennia. The place — or concept of such a place of torment for unrepentant sinners — varies not only within Christianity but among the world’s other major religions. So, I presume argument about what, where, how, if, who goes there, etc. has gone on nearly as long as humankind has had language.
Or, at least as long as it has had prophets and preachers.
Then, along came Rob Bell, a pastor/author in the “emergent church” movement, and his book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell questions the (literal) hellfire-and-brimstone teachings that the bulk of humanity, by rejecting Christ, will end up in fiery, eternal agony — and that has ignited (pun intended) a firestorm of condemnation and even cries that he’s committed heresy.
Bell doesn’t make conclusions about what hell is, or how long it’s punishments last, or exactly who deserves to go there. Others have. Some, like Dr. Edward Fudge, whose book The Fire That Consumes was recently released in a third edition, argues that hell is not a place of everlasting, conscious torment, but a portal to final destruction of rebellious and evil souls.
But Bell’s book drew direct response when Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, penned the just-released God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News is Better than Love Wins.
As the son of a Pentecostal minister, I knew about hell early. God is love, and he is compassionate and forgiving, Dad would preach. No sin too great that His grace cannot overcome it; bury it in the deepest sea, as far as the east is from the west, etc. BUT He also is a righteous God who, ultimately, cannot tolerate sin. God doesn’t “send” anyone to hell, Dad would insist. “We do that ourselves by what we decide to do about Christ.” To which Mom would add: “There is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun.”
(Unwittingly, she was paraphrasing Seventh Day Adventist co-founder Ellen White, who wrote: “Every soul has a heaven to win, and a hell to shun.” Oddly enough, Seventh Day Adventists, too, believe in the destruction of the wicked, not an eternal hell).
Privately, Dad, would muse about what hell was, or meant. Our fundamentalist Christian denomination taught the traditional eternal hellfire view, but he wondered — without making conclusions — if “hell” also could be just the grave, or a state of eternal separation from God where remorse could be like a fire of regret, etc.
“Whatever it is, you don’t want to go there,” Dad would conclude. He preferred to talk about heaven, where God really (really, really) wants us to be — so much so that He sent his only begotten Son to take the ultimate penalty for us on the cross. Now, that’s Love.
Me? I don’t know, and I don’t want to know much more about hell. The only real way to settle that debate is to, well, go there. I’ll pass.
Do I believe hell exists? Sure, in whatever form, it has to. Look at human history. Look at current events. We pay lip-service to faith, but our actions seem to show that as a species, humanity truly worships warfare, greed, prejudice, violence and depravity (and the latter goes far beyond mere obsession with sex).
With one hand, we comfort, with the other, we pummel. From the same lips come curses and lies, poetry and song. The same eyes that shed tears for the suffering also drink in violence on the big screen and pornography on computer monitors.
Yes, there’s hell. And it seems to me my preacher father had the right of it: A lot of us seem intent upon sending ourselves there.
It turns out that the Son of God is no stranger to social media. He did that pretty well, as you recall, more than 2,000 years ago.
Huge crowds followed him, even into the countryside. He taught them, blessed them, healed them and fed them. When he rode into Jerusalem in triumph, the cheering throngs crowded the streets, paved the path ahead of his donkey with palm fronds.
That was then, this is now. Jesus not only is on Facebook, but on a given day he’s beating out celebs. Lady Gaga? Runner-up. Justin Bieber? Popular, sure, but no messiah. Twilight? Vampires fade in the Light, too, you know.
The “Jesus Daily” Facebook page has more than 5 million “friends,” while “Jesus Christ” the Facebook Page adds another 2.7 million. And then there are the hundreds of thousands who joined the ranks of similar pages with titles like “Jesus the Christ” or “Jesus ‘Christ’ of Nazareth.” There’s even “Jesus Christt,” which offers its 14 friends (and counting) only a picture of Him . . . with a dinosaur. (That’s it, to the right).
From reverent to arguably sacrilegious, Jesus is big on Facebook.
In an ecumenical vein, though, let’s give props to other expressions of the divine. “Prophet Muhammed” was approaching 323,000 friends when I last checked. “Allah” was closing in on 114,000; and “Lord Krishna” . . . well, that’s hard to tell.
Explanation: There were at least 50 Facebook pages devoted to Krishna, perhaps the most predominant of Hinduism’s avatars of the Supreme Being. So, theologically, I guess it should be no surprise Krishna has so many Facebook . . . incarnations.
Buddha? His Facebook page garners about 95,000 friends.
That, too, I guess, shouldn’t be a shock. After all, the guy did teach that Nirvana was, among other things, a state of bliss reached only by shuffling off desire, cravings, anger, etc . . . . or, one might extrapolate, fame on Facebook.
To be the son of the Pentecostal minister is to believe in the possibility of divine healing. And, I do.
However, a lot depends on how broadly you define “healing,” and that, in turn, depends on your willingness to not limit how, when and where healing takes place.
What I have trouble believing in are the self-proclaimed “faith healers.” Some are well-meaning. Others, naïve. A lot of them, though, have made this “ministry” a profession –a deceptive, cynical one that preys on the desperate – and makes a mockery of the gospel of compassion and love.
SO, brace yourself. I have a lot to say.
Even as a wide-eyed child, I seemed cursed with the ability to keenly observe. One of my earliest memories was when I was five years old, sitting with my mother in Bakersfield, California “healing service” when the evangelist proclaimed, “The holyghost is in this place, moving among you right now!”
I peered into the rafters, looking for . . . something. A cloud perhaps, a mist, something. I was scared, and fascinated, my heart pounding with anticipation. The only “ghost” I was familiar with was “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” I half-expected to see something like the cartoon figure; maybe bigger, probably with a halo and, of course, a more serious visage.
After all, people did some unusual things, I had noticed, when holyghost enveloped them. Danced. Laughed. Cried. Spoke in tongues. Fell in blissfully backward into the arms of designated “catchers,” who had blankets nearby to safeguard the modesty of women who were “slain by the Spirit.”
Well, I quit looking for the holyghost. (Yes, one word, as I’ve mentioned before about the old-time Pentecostal dialect). Mom, anxious to quiet my squeaking inquiries, had explained He was invisible, and that His work was something mysterious and internal, anyway.
Made sense. It had to be that way.
Flash forward and I was 12, attending a “camp meeting” prayer service. I got close enough, finally, to see the “holyghost bump” for what it was: a loser rendition of a martial arts “open palm” strike. Instead of being delivered to the nose, chin, solar plexus or groin with kiai battle cry, though, the evangelist might shout, “Heal!” or “Here it comes!”
Anyway, I saw the poor guy being prayed for take a shot to the forehead, stumble backwards and look a bit confused and stunned as a red blotch deepened and spread across his supraorbital ridge.
And yet, I believe. A miracle, that. Over the years, I’ve witnessed surgeries and treatments succeeding beyond even the most optimistic expectations; unusually rapid recoveries, and spontaneous remissions of cancers that even baffled physicians. A common denominator: prayer. In some of these cases, doctors just shrugged; others used the “M” (miracle) word.
Healing, though, is what the grateful recipients of prayers believed had happened.
But here’s the thing: None of those healings I knew of came via some faith healer’s head blows, or generic, widely-applicable “word of knowledge” aimed at the desperate and gullible, or after hearing the inevitable, apocryphal tales of veritable acts of Christian magic being performed in some distant land *.
(* India and South America seem favorite locales for these stories. Recently, I heard of a young faith healer telling his rapt audience of supposed “healings” of not just a decapitated man, but a dismembered one as well.)
More dangerous than such tales, though. are those who see it as a sign of faith to quit medications and treatments without seeing their doctors first (to hesitate, in the first instance, or to be examined, in the second, are obvious signs of disbelief and will earn you the feigned look of horror reserved for the rankest of heretics).
Years ago, one of finest Christian men I’d ever met died of colon cancer. Dave lived his religion more than anyone I’ve known other than my own father. Dave prayed for healing, and for him, the answer was no. He accepted that because his trust in God was the foundation of his faith.
Chemotherapy gave him one more good year, and he never wavered in his love of God and people. The time came, though, when cancer resumed its march. His family urged him to attend a local tent meeting put on by a traveling preacher with a “healing ministry.” But this fellow wanted nothing to do with a sallow, frail Stage Four cancer patient. Eventually, though, he reluctantly laid hands on him, “coming against” the cancer.
In the weeks ahead, Dave got worse. The healer? He blamed . . . Dave. Not enough faith, obviously. After all, how many times had Jesus told the healed, “Your faith has made you whole,” right? (Actually, Jesus, Peter and Paul are recorded in scripture with healing people who weren’t believers, let alone brimming with faith . . . but that just complicates the equation).
And oh, the man told Dave this, too: If you had “sin in your life,” you’re out of luck. Now there’s an ironclad escape clause, since honest Christians readily admit they are sinners in constant need of grace.
“Do you think he’s right? Is that why I wasn’t healed?” Dave asked me.
“No,” I said, choking up. “No one could meet those standards, and this jerk knows it.”
Dave smiled and shook his head. After a while, he sighed: “Well, it’s all right. I’m ready. I’m at peace with this.”
A few weeks later, he slipped away, his family and friends around him. It was a celebration. That hospital room felt like a holy place. Time itself stopped for a few minutes and love ruled. Call it the Presence of the Lord. (Eric Clapton’s song by that title had an interesting origin, by the way).
And we knew, Dave had been, finally, healed.
My dad, the preacher, never completely fit into the Pentecostal/evangelical Christian mold.
That is not to say he did not embrace the charismatic experience. He did, and he preached the critical need to be “born again” (a future blog on that one, I promise), the imperative to be baptized by immersion and the desirability of “second work of the Holy Spirit” for an effective Christian life.
Yep, that was pretty much doctrinaire for Pentecostals at the time (and still is for a significant portion of the movement sparked by the Azusa Street Revival).
Then there was that banjo. Dad played it so well, with such skill and innovation, that he was repeatedly offered secular performance gigs (including at Disneyland). He turned it down — eschewed the big money for “the call” (and paltry salary) of a preacher’s life. Still, that just didn’t matter to some of our co-religionists.
There was something tainted about the banjo, what with its African origins and early associations with the “worldly” music of smoke-filled bars, minstrel shows, burlesque shows and dance halls.
Well, if the worst sinner can be redeemed, so can music and musical instruments. Dad persisted, and as a youth evangelist — accompanied by my mother’s high-energy, racing-up-and-down-the-keyboard piano style — he packed in the kids into tent and church revivals through the Pacific Northwest and Canada. When he gave up the road to raise a family and pastor churches, the banjo and piano remained a draw for Sunday worship services.
Dad is long since retired now, and arthritis forced him to switch to the shorter and lighter ukelele, albeit still tuned like a four-string plectrum banjo. His love for music is unmitigated by time, or genre. I once sent him a CD of Eric Clapton’s acoustic blues. He loved it, and began experimenting with ways to incorporate what he heard in his own playing.
So, it got me to thinking. Could there be such a thing as Christian Blues? I mean, theologically speaking, would that be an oxymoron? Well, no. There are numerous sites dedicated to this genre (here’s one: ChristianBlues.net).
The late, great blues great Muddy Waters occasionally tipped his hat to the influence of gospel music on the blues. “You get a heck of a sound from the church. Can’t you hear it in my voice?” he is quoted as saying.
Now, the blues genre is paying back gospel with a variety of offerings. Click here to watch 3Thirty3 perform No More Blue Mondays and check out some of the links below, and I bet you will be pleasantly surprised. Great instrumentals, honest faith, and music that speaks to the soul: