Friday, April 29, 2011

Franklin Graham Calls Hell-Denying Pastor Robert Bell a Heretic

As a guest on Fox's Bill O'Reilly show last night, Samaritan's Purse CEO Franklin Graham was asked about Pastor Robert Bell's denial of hell in his book, Love Wins.

Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, wasted no words in describing Bell as a "false teacher and a heretic" because "the Bible is very clear that there is a hell." Playing the devil's advocate O'Reilly questioned whether the belief in eternal damnation in hell is cruel. The evangelist responded.
What's cruel is a person who rejects Almighty God and slams the door in God's face. The Bible says God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.
Graham made it clear that God has made every provision possible through the gift of His Son Jesus Christ so that no one need spend eternity separated from God.

Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Bible Church, outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has become the center of controversy due to his denial of hell recently reported in Time magazine's cover article. Bell is a declared participant in a growing movement trying to pass themselves off as part of  evangelical Christianity known as the "emerging church."

The emerging church phenomenon is a  new generation churches, according to Christianity Today  known for their improvisational approach to everything "from worship to leadership to preaching to prayer."  Unfortunately, emerging church pastors are also taking an improvisational approach to the authority of the Bible.

I have to ask myself if a so called "christian" movement questions the reliability of the Word of God, then what is this movement emerging towards. Heresy?  False doctrine?  A watered-down version of the New Testament?

In an CT interview with Pastor Bell, he told the evangelical magazine that he started questioning his own assumptions about the Bible, "discovering the Bible as a human product, rather than a product of divine utterance."

Bell's wife Kristen confessed in the same interview that she grew up thinking "that we figured out the Bible that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea of what most of it means."  With statements like these from the Bells, perhaps Mars Hill Bible Church should rename itself  to "Mars Hill Bibleless Church."

It also seems any pastor who associates himself with the views of Pastor Bell may lose his job. At the end of March,  North Carolina Methodist minister Chad Holtz was fired from his pastoral position after expressing his doubts over the existence of hell.  Holtz was outed for his beliefs after posting on his Facebook page support for Pastor Bell's book Love Wins.

As a former pastor I rejoice that evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham, pastor and author John Piper and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president R. Albert Mohler, Jr. are stepping forward in condemning the false teachings that are expressed by the leaders of the emerging church movement, especially Pastor Bell.

In a time when sound doctrine is essential to communicate the good news of Jesus the Messiah to a lost world, we cannot be improvising the eternal truths of the Word of God as seen in this current movement.

The challenge to the growing rank of emergent churches is to start emerging back to holding fast to timeless teachings of Jesus, and stop worrying how to make Jesus more relevant to today's aimless culture. Jesus Himself told His contemporaries that "heaven and earth will pass away, but my words shall not pass away" (Matthew 24:35).

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pastor Rob Bell: Imagine There's No Hell

In 1975 John Lennon wrote the song Imagine in which he visualized a world where hell does not exist:
Imagine there's no heaven
 It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

Now Pastor Robert Bell of Michgan's Mars Hill Bible Church has sketched out the theology to accompany Lennon's classic tune.

On the cover of the April 14th issue of Time magazine, the question sparked by Rob Bell's book new best seller, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, is asked, "What If Hell Does Not Exist?"

The Time article offers a meandering outline of Bell's theology regarding the issue of hell's existence. The news magazine makes it crystal clear that the traditional evangelical message is that salvation is found only in the atoning death of Jesus Christ. Bluntly stated, Time author Jon Meacham acknowledges the classic Christian viewpoint, "In the Evangelical ethos, one either accepts this and goes to heaven or refuses and goes to hell."

In contrast the Michigan pastor suggests that the redeeming work of Jesus Christ "may be universal." In other words, every person who has ever lived has a place in heaven. Rather than parlay with Bell's non-evangelical theology on every jot and title, I want to address a few disconcerting issues in his belief system:

*Pastor Bell's lack of certainty in his denial of the existence of hell is a red flag. In contrast to the New Testament authors who speak with confidence about salvation through Christ alone, Bell speaks of his "salvation for everybody" with a great deal of uncertainty. He feels the eternal destiny of those who don't accept Christ is a "mystery" and that his view is a "suggestion".

Of what advantage is Bell's beliefs if they are merely uncertainties and suggestions of mystery? Pastor Bell is concocting a stew of controversy in the church over issues he is not really sure of himself. Consequently, his book helps no one but is a tragic piece of Christian literature whose sole purpose is to raise doubt regarding the veracity of the Bible.

Perhaps Bell should have written a science fiction novel about a make-believe Christian utopia rather than a book about a make-believe theology!

*If Bell's view of hell is true, then, as Meacham points out, "Christianity becomes [little] more of an ethical habit of mind than a faith based on divine revelation."

If all Christianity has contributed is just one more religiously based moral code, then Christ died needlessly. Without the substitutionary death of Jesus, the Apostle's have given us a set of rules to follow in order to live a better life. Eternal salvation through Jesus becomes a non-issue in Pastor Bell's uncertain theology.

Even if Jesus died for everyone resulting in the fact everyone is going to heaven, where is the motivation for sharing the gospel message? There is no need for the church to share the message of Christ and there is no need for the cross which is the essence of the gospel message.

*Finally, if there is no hell as John Lennon merely imagined, then there lacks a sense of justice in the universe. In the afterlife both the victimizer and the victim are destined to the same end. Even if one believes the afterlife is a state of sleep or annihilation, the adherent to this view has to deal with the fact life ends without a sense of divine justice. Hitler and Mother Teresa share the same fate.

An afterlife without divine justice means that murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Joseph Stalin and Pol Put will never face judgment for their sins. Unless they confessed their sins and sought forgiveness from Christ for their heinous crimes, they will be enjoying eternal bliss with their victims.

 Though I am not a betting man, I highly doubt if anyone of these brutal killers ever repented of their sins and begged Jesus for forgiveness. I don't know about you, but a world that does not include divine justice is a sad, meaningless world.

The worse aspect of Bell's Love Wins is his question, "What does it mean to be a Christian?" Bell's book leads us to the conclusion that a follower of Christ is non-judgmental, lacks a sense of conviction about the gospel message of eternal life through Christ and that other faiths are no different than the New Testament message of salvation through Jesus. If am a Buddhist, then why do I need to accept Jesus as my Savior if He has already redeemed my soul and promises me heaven?

Robert Bell has a lot of answering to do for his "denial of hell" which has placed him outside the fold of the evangelical faith.


Saturday, April 2, 2011

Jury Out on Recent Major Discovery of Christian Codices

This week newspapers trumpeted the significance of the discovery of 70 lead codices (manuscript volume) that could impact our knowledge of early Christian history.  Some scholars are of the opinion this find may be more important than the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

According to the BBC News this could be the earliest Christian writing in existence. 

Tests so far by metallurgists on the badly corroded lead leaves. unearthed in a northern Jordanian cave, suggest the books were not made recently, suggesting they are not a fake.  The jury will have to remain out on the dating of this discovery until all the evidence has been examined. 

Director of Jordan' Department of Antiquities, Ziaf al-Saad advocates the books may have been composed by Christians living in the "few decades immediately following His [Jesus] crucifixion." 

The Jordanian government is arguing the codices were smuggled out of Jordan by an Israeli Bedouin who claims the relics were in his family for 100 years.  Rather than belabor the issue of who owns the books, biblical scholars need to focus on the validity and meaning of this possible unprecedented find.

The Composition of the Codices

The books, which turned up five years ago,  were cast in lead before they were bound together by lead rings. They resemble an ancient spiral notebook. The pages or leaves are the size of a credit card and the text contained within the manuscripts are written in ancient Aramaic - the language of Jewish people living in the time of Jesus. 
Presently a British team of archaeologists, headed by David Elkington, a scholar of ancient religious archaeology, is investigating these objects that may have made the rounds among early Jewish believers in Jesus.  

So far, according to Yahoo News inspection of the codices  contain "a number of images and textual allusions to the Messiah, as well as some possible references to the crucifixion and resurrection." 

In the upper square of one of the book covers, a seven-branch menorah is displayed.  Elkington states the presence of the menorah would be interpreted by early Christians as indicating Jesus.  Since the menorah was placed in the holy place in the Temple, it spoke of the presence of God.  Since Jesus brought the presence of God on earth, the menorah on the manuscript cover, says Elkington, points to Jesus. 

The Validity of the Codices

Are these codices valid or not?  My main concern is the readiness of some Christian scholars to add their twentieth century theological biases to the understanding of this ancient relic.

The so-called reference to the crucifixion of Jesus. Philip Davies, Emeritus Professor of Old Testament Studies at Sheffield University, emphasizes the early Christian origin of these leaves is demonstrated in the plates cast into a picture map of the city of Jerusalem.  Davies describes:
There is a cross in the foreground, and behind it is what has to be the tomb [of Jesus], a small building with an opening, and behind that the walls of the city. There are walls depicted on other pages of these books, too, and they almost certainly refer to Jerusalem.
Davies is way too assured when he states, "it is a Christian crucifixion taking place outside the city walls." One cannot forget that Jesus was not the only one crucified by the Romans.

Crucifixion was a regular method of execution of Jewish rebels against the Romans rule in the early centuries. A casual examination of the New Testament reveals the two thieves that were crucified next to Jesus at a location outside the city walls that was probably used to execute Jewish Zealots.

When Davies says, "what has to be the tomb [of Jesus}, he needs to rear back before making such bold pronouncements until further evidence is brought forth.  We cannot forget the forgeries of other so-called Christian relics such as the ossuary that was said to contain the bones of James, the half brother of Jesus.

The questionable reference to the resurrection of Jesus. Along with the image of the menorah, a text reads, "I shall walk uprightly," a sentence Robert Pigott, BBC News religious affairs correspondent, says could refer to the resurrection of the Messiah.  He also maintains this phrase appears in the Book of Revelation.  

The presumption this phrase refers to the resurrection is Pigott's conjecture and thus far is not supported by any similar statements from either Jewish or Christian source materials.  Christians should be hesitant to quickly conclude like Pigott that we have an early reference to the resurrection of Christ in the lead leaves. 

The preposterous reference to the sealed book in Revelation  I am amused by the view put forth by the Yahoo article that "since some of the codices were sealed, prompting yet more breathless speculation that they could include the sealed book, shown only to the Messiah, mentioned in the Book of Revelation."

This view is fallacious for several reasons: 

First, the sealed book mentioned in the futuristic vision in Revelation 5:1 refers to a heavenly (not earthly) scene taking place before the throne of God, and only the Lamb of God, Jesus was able to open the book (vs. 6). So these codices could not be the book that could only be opened by Jesus. 

Second, further reading of Revelation 5 shows the sealed book contains the seven seals of judgment to fall upon the earth during the period of the tribulation on the earth prior to the return of Jesus (Revelation 6).  

Third, if the sealed book can only be shown to the Messiah, why are we even discussing this archaeological find?  All the experts would need to open the sealed books would be a pair of wire cutters and the mystery is solved.  Fortunately, the mystery is already solved since we are already told what is contained in the sealed book in the Book of Revelation.

Conclusive Comments

Whether or not the codices are authentic remains to be seen.  For sure, their discovery is exciting and could contain a link to the early Jewish followers of Jesus.  If anything, these codices, assuming they are not forgeries, can provide many unanswered questions concerning the beliefs of the early Jewish followers in Yeshua in the first century. If the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are contained in these manuscripts that would put to rest the liberal Christian view that the resurrection of Jesus was a doctrine fabricated by Gentile Christians in later centuries. 

I would be the first one to celebrate the validation of the widespread faith in Jesus as Israel's Messiah among first century Jews. However, for now the jury is still out on confirming the authenticity of this important archaeological discovery.