All of us interpret the Scriptures in a way that makes sense to us.
I have heard it said, and agree, that the interpretation of Scripture is as much an exercise in philosophical reasoning as it is in exegesis. That is, our understanding of the Scriptures comes as much from the influences, experiences, and cultures that impact our reading of the text, as it does from our grasp of the original Biblical languages, author’s intent, recipient’s culture, etc. We are all reasoning our way to an understanding of the Scriptures that makes sense to us, or makes sense to our faith community. This is an important consideration because the way we interpret the Scriptures, the way we understand God must at least approximately line up with what makes sense to us.
For example, when we hear the word “love,” certain images or feelings come to mind. We have assigned a certain meaning to the word “love” that enables us to talk about it as a community, even as humanity, and to define what we mean by it. Generally, we all agree upon what we mean when we say the word “love,” or “just,” or “fair.” Those words bring to mind a certain understanding, a certain awareness of what we mean by them, and reasonable agreement on whether or not we think they would accurately describe a certain person or action.
So, when we say God is loving or just, we are saying God’s character at least approximates what we mean when we say the words “loving” or “just.” God may be, we would believe Him to be, the perfect expression of those words, but His perfect expression of them must at least come close to what we mean by them. Otherwise, God would be meaningless. If God’s love and justice were so far removed from our own that we could not understand them at all, then really we would have no idea what we mean when we say that God is love. God’s love could be anything. God’s “love” may actually line up closer to what we mean when we say the word “hate.” Or God’s “justice” may actually be more like our injustice. If God doesn’t at least sort of make sense to us then He’s meaningless.
Of course this whole idea makes sense when we consider the fact that God made us in His image and gave us brains to use. Tainted though we are by sin, it is God who has imprinted Himself on us and given us an understanding of who He is. When we reason our way through something, we are using God given abilities and even following an innate understanding of what is right and wrong. Romans chapter 2 tells us the Gentiles did things required by the law, even though they didn’t have the law, because the law was “written on their hearts.” We are made in God’s image. We all have a conscience. We are using brains God gave us. (See the first chapter of CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity for a similar discussion.)
This being true, it seems curious that the idea of hell as eternal conscious torment doesn’t square with our sense of justice, especially for those of us taught by Jesus to love our enemies. None of us would torment anyone for any length of time, let alone eternity, no matter how bad the crime. People who do torment others we consider depraved, insane or evil. Such action doesn’t make sense to us; it doesn’t seem just.
And yet, somehow most evangelical Christians believe God will eternally torment those who don’t place their faith in Jesus, even though most of them have had no significant opportunity to respond in faith to Jesus, at least not the same opportunity I have had. Is this really what the Scriptures teach? Is this really who God is?
I don’t think so.
Let’s begin to take a look at the Bible and see if we can understand its teaching on heaven and hell in a way that makes sense.
We’re getting there soon.
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