Uncomfortable with the Wrath of God

Few cultures are as individualistic and man-centered as American culture. I remember watching commercials for Time Warner Cable where the tagline was “Rule Your Kingdom”. In the commercial, a homeowner is depicted speaking and acting like a powerful king commanding their servants – high speed internet, digital cable, and phone – to do their bidding. This summarizes the American view of the individual as the completely sovereign ruler of their own existence with numerous and ever-expanding rights and fewer responsibilities and demands.

This view is everywhere. In entertainment, films like The Adjustment Bureau tell us we are masters of our fate and films like Sucker Punch tell us we define our reality. In law, retribution gives way to rehabilitation; instead of punishing crimes we attempt to fix broken individuals. In marriage, relationships serve individual happiness; if one isn’t happy no fault divorce laws quickly terminate the marriage. In politics, government serves the individual by guaranteeing their right to a job, decent wages, food, home ownership, education, health care, abortion and on and on.  In religion, individuals mix and match elements of different religions into a custom-made faith of which they are the high priest.

It is this man-centered individualism that makes the love of God so popular and the wrath and justice of God so unpopular. The love of God is easy for us because we believe we are so darn lovable! That is why Joel Osteen is the most popular preacher in America ignoring sin, wrath, and hell but declaring, “You are [God’s] prized possession.” It’s why Rob Bell’s book Love Wins is a best seller on Amazon; it preaches a view of God’s love that is so man-centered He is obligated to get every individual into heaven no matter what. This culture cannot believe in a God who is not bound by the rights of individuals and who is not as obsessed with them as they are with themselves.

Some will protest – the Bible says God is love! It does; but God is not only love. The Bible also says God is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24), gracious and merciful (2 Chron. 30:9), a righteous judge (Ps. 7:11), king of all the earth (Ps. 47:7), holy (Ps. 99:9), an everlasting rock (Is. 26:4), spirit (Jn. 4:24), and light (1 Jn. 1:5) But in our culture, one particular “God is…” phrase from the Bible – God is love – has drowned out all the others. I’m not picking on Francis Chan’s book “Crazy Love”, but could you imagine Christians rushing to buy a book called “Crazy Wrath” or “Crazy Holy”? God is all of the above characteristics and more. He can’t be reduced to just one word. When God acts he does so as a whole God with all of his character, love and wrath, mercy and holiness, sovereignty and grace.

God’s wrath is not like human wrath. As the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology states: “It is not an emotion or an angry frame of mind… it is the settled opposition of his holiness to evil.” It is the result of His perfect justice. So what happens when you throw out the wrath of God?

First, you destroy the love of God. Sin and we who do it demolish God’s good creation. If God truly loves His creatures He must hate and punish what is causing them harm. How can it be said God loves an abused child, oppressed slave, rape victim, or drug addict if He simply sweeps the sin of the abuser, oppressor, rapist, and drug lord under a big cosmic rug for the sake of forgiveness? That may be a sentimental pat on the head, but it is not love. Like the wrath of a loving father who finds his child has been molested, God’s wrath is a necessary companion to His love and the result of His perfect justice.

Second, you destroy the glory of God. If an enemy badly dents my 1996 Toyota, I probably won’t have much wrath. Why? While it was a great car fifteen years ago, it’s a tin can with an engine now. We are enemies of God (Rom. 5:10) and all of our sins are ultimately against him (Ps. 51:4). We broke His laws, despised His authority, trampled His creation, and rejected His love. If God does not have wrath for godlessness (Rom. 1:18) than it implies He is of lesser value, like my Toyota. If God is great and glorious, our offense demands justice for God and requires His wrath as punishment. If our sin against Him is simply brushed aside, it suggests we are the glorious ones to whom God must accommodate Himself.

Third, you destroy the cross of Christ. Without the wrath of God folks opt for one of two explanations of the cross. The first is “Christ our example” – on the cross Jesus was our example of suffering for the sake of love. That is true, but if it is all He did why a political execution that only set free Barabbas, a criminal? Could he not have been our example suffering for the children of Calcutta like Mother Teresa? The second is “Christ our victor” – that on the cross Jesus conquered sin, death, Satan, and hell. That is true, but if it is all He did why not have a glorious victory descending from the sky and frying His enemies with laser beams from His eyes like Cyclops from the X-Men? The beauty of the cross is there was no better way to do it. At the cross, God’s love and wrath collide. God loves sinners but His justice demands they receive His wrath. So instead He pays the price for their sins by pouring out His wrath on Himself. God achieves justice for every evil deed and at the same time rescues hopeless sinners! (Is. 53, 2 Cor. 5:21, Rom. 3:23-26)

Don’t buy into a culture that enthrones the individual and reduces God to vague, sentimental love that exists to serve the happiness of that individual. Our God is infinitely glorious and His love is fierce, demanding justice for the wrongs endured by Him and those He loves. He secures that justice at the cross where the wrath of God meets the love of God and sinners who deserve hell find glorious rescue.


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Rob Bell Ignites Controversy by Repainting Hell (and the faith)

This week, Rob Bell released his latest book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived. To say this book ignited controversy would be an understatement. Bell became one of the top ten trending topics on Twitter. CNN reported on it twice, USA Today ran an article, and MSNBC interviewed Bell. Both Christianity Today and Relevant Magazine have done reports. If we measured theological controversies like earthquakes, this would be a nine. Most theological issues don’t even register to the average churchgoer, much less shake up Twitter. So why has Bell’s book on eternity generated so much discussion?

For a hurricane to form it needs warm water and a cool atmosphere. This storm was formed by the volatile combination of Hell and Bell; a warm place and a cool personality. Bell has been repainting the faith in culturally attractive shades for years. He is a gifted communicator with the ability to express concepts in such artistic ways that they capture your heart and resonate with your mind. In fact, he can resonate powerfully with both the Christian and the culture, as Bell’s successful speaking tours testify.

In an interview with Christianity Today, Rob Bell was asked how he would Tweet the gospel. He responded:

I would say that history is headed somewhere. The thousands of little ways in which you are tempted to believe that hope might actually be a legitimate response to the insanity of the world actually can be trusted. And the Christian story is that a tomb is empty, and a movement has actually begun that has been present in a sense all along in creation. And all those times when your cynicism was at odds with an impulse within you that said that this little thing might be about something bigger—those tiny little slivers may in fact be connected to something really, really big.

Now that’s an attractive gospel. Aside from a reference to a tomb, any Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, or Jedi Knight could appreciate it. And that’s the problem. There is no sin. No cross. No blood. No Son of God. No saving faith. No Jesus. While it might be more tuned to the culture, this is not the biblical, Christian gospel. Bell’s message, however, has become a haven for Christians navigating conservative evangelicalism while skirting liberal theology.

Then there’s hell. Hell is increasingly unpopular in both the American culture and the church. Shying away from the “fire and brimstone” preacher, the subject of hell is rarely mentioned in most sermons. In 2008, USA Today reported 52% of Christians believe people of other faiths will go to heaven. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, just 59% of Americans believe in some kind of hell; down from 71% in 2001. According to a Barna survey, while 65% of adults believe they will go to heaven, only half of one percent believes they will go to hell. The attitude toward hell has become, “if there is one, me and my friends won’t be going.” Anyone who has discussed Christianity with a non-believer knows how difficult hell is to defend and explain in this particular culture.

Thus, when you have a creative, popular preacher willing to rethink a culturally offensive topic like hell, you have the conditions for a storm. The danger Bell’s book poses is that it will resonate, especially with young Christians. It will tell us what we want to hear and our sinful flesh will leap at the chance to remove the offense of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18). What should we do to avoid being swept away?

Beware of blindly following a favorite preacher. When I was in college I loved Rob Bell’s Nooma videos and messages. We should be thankful for any truth we learned, but realize its impact on us was ultimately due to the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. Our allegiance is to Christ, his Spirit, and his book, not any man or woman. If we are willing to sacrifice Jesus (who taught about Hell more than any other) or the Bible for a teacher  we are idolaters, turning a man into a god.

Beware of flowery, well crafted words. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2

And I… did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Cut through the lofty speech and ask yourself, “what is this person really saying?” While Bell claims to believe in hell, in Love Wins he paints it as something we create for ourselves. Eventually God’s love will penetrate our hells and everyone will enter the New Jerusalem. That’s not the traditional Christian view, despite what he claims. Unlike Paul’s desire to be centered on Christ and him crucified, this is a view centered on man and him glorified. Don’t be fooled by well-chosen Bible verses and the skillful use of a thesaurus; compare it to the whole counsel of the Word of God.

This is not the first theological earthquake, nor will it be the last. If we are willing to evaluate the teachers we listen to and cut through the rhetoric to evaluate the message by the Word of God we’ll still be standing after the tremors fade. The gospel is “folly to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18) and we “will be hated by all” (Matt. 10:22) for the sake of it; but that’s no reason to repaint it.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

-Romans 1:16

For an excellent review of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, click here for Kevin DeYoung’s review.

For an assessment of Rob Bell’s theology in Love Wins, click here for Al Mohler’s review.

For an excellent biblical, philosophical defense of hell, click here for Tim Keller’s article.

For an excellent biblical, theological defense of hell, click here for the chapter from Mark Driscoll’s book.

To watch MSNBC’s Martin Bashir point out issues with Love Wins in an interview with Bell, click here


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A Passionate Generation Giving Almost Nothing

Few generations talk as passionately about doing good in the world as the one currently emerging on the scene. College students and twenty-somethings are concerned about injustice in the world. They want to eradicate poverty, embrace green technology, fight the spread of AIDS, provide education to the disadvantaged, restore civility in public discourse, and put an end to oppression. President Obama’s message of hope and change in the 2008 campaign resonated so strongly with 18-29 year olds that they turned out to the polls in historic numbers and voted 2-1 for Democrats.

The same is true in the church where this generation has embraced the social justice aspects of the Christian faith with a renewed fervency. While a previous generation may have seen a committed Christian as one with a near-perfect Sunday school attendance record, the current generation sees a committed Christian as one who sponsors a destitute child in Africa. They see the church as a force for good in the world and want to see it increasingly involved in not only spreading the gospel but in helping the poor, healing the sick, cleaning up the environment, and securing the rights of the oppressed.

But there is a fly in the ointment, so to speak. While this generation talks the talk of doing good, they do not walk the walk. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith in his book Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults concludes that while this generation views volunteering and giving as good things, they are largely good things for someone else to do. He writes:

…nearly all assume that volunteering and financial giving are simply unrelated to their current existences, but perhaps will become more important at some future time in life. Someday, when they have a lot more time and money than they do now, they may begin to volunteer and give money to good causes.

Only 34% gave $50 or more in charitable donations and only 40% volunteered for some kind of non-required community service in the past year. Needless to say, fifty dollars and a few hours a year isn’t exactly a serious level of engagement; which makes the failure to reach it even more revealing.

Many claim they cannot give because they don’t have any time or money to spare, but they will in the future. But are we really so broke? If you make $4,000 in a year, you are in the top 20% of world wealth. If you make more than $11,000 a year as an individual, you are above the U.S. poverty line. Thus, the problem is not a lack of money – we are richer than the vast majority of the planet. As for the hope you’ll have more time and money in the future, the reverse is actually true. As family and work responsibilities increase, time and disposable income decrease. It turns out that owning a home, raising children, advancing in a career, and growing old actually make more demands on a person’s time and money, not less.

What is the real reason this generation does not actively give and volunteer? Smith also writes in Souls in Transition that most young adults’ life goals sound like this: “finish education, get a good job, marry, have children, buy a nice house with a yard, raise a family, become financially secure, drive reliable cars, enjoy family vacations, enjoy family relationships, maybe have a dog.” Thus, it is essentially selfishness; not an unbridled pursuit of materialism or pleasure but a modest, secure life one can fully enjoy. We don’t give, not because we don’t think it’s important, but because we haven’t yet achieved what we truly desire. Our failure to give time and money to what we know to be worthy causes is rationalized by promising we will when the finances are stable, work slows down, school is paid for, and we finally get that iPad we’ve been needing.

This is sad in culture, but tragic in the church where 18-29 year olds are notorious for being unreliable and uncharitable. Jesus said in Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If this is true (and I’ll assume it is), where are the hearts of this generation? If I find money for a new computer, designer jeans, and an appetizer at an upscale restaurant but have no money to give, and if I find time to hang-out, watch sports, and achieve level 60 in World of Warcraft but have no time to volunteer, the answer is obvious, even if it isn’t to me. The idea of sacrificing some aspect of our ideal life to give our time and money to something greater isn’t even in the equation.

One of the most challenging passages for this generation can be found in 2 Corinthians 8:1-4

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.

If their extreme poverty overflowed in generosity why can our light poverty not do the same? When my wife and I were in seminary, the grace of God at work in our lives enabled us to give away roughly 10% of our income. We could not afford cable television, our furniture was hand-me-down, and Arby’s was a fancy meal. Yet after considering what Christ had done for us, how could we do less and not make some small, ultimately insignificant sacrifices for something much greater?

This is a generation easily excited about causes and doing good in the world. What would happen if we got equally as excited about making sacrifices of our modest, secure, enjoyable lives to give time and money to actually doing something about it? Giving and volunteering after we someday achieve our goals is selfishness and idolatry. I have fallen short, but I can do better now. We can do better now.


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Warning: Safety Is an Illusion

If you’re looking to stir up neighborhood gossip, try this: at dusk on a cold day, turn your kids loose on their bikes without helmets or jackets. Give them 2 Blo-Pops to eat at one time while they pop wheelies in the dark, playing with kids you’ve never met. Better yet, leave your doors unlocked, forego your yearly physical, undo your Facebook privacy settings and don’t shred those credit card applications in your mailbox.

America is obsessed with safety. Some believe knowledge, effort and character can create a bubble-wrapped, pad-locked, hypoallergenic world where no one experiences pain, loss or inconvenience. Disbelief and panic ensue when safeguards fail because people invest in total prevention; they end up reacting rather than responding.

Many pride themselves on their knowledge, believing their collection of facts and statistics will help them navigate the world unscathed. They read international news, follow the experts and smirk at those who are ignorant. Some couple their knowledge with effort. They buy weapons, pet insurance and cases of bottled water. Their CPR certification is always up-to-date and their children ride in a carpool (not the bus) to school, armed with an ID bracelet and gallons of hand sanitizer. When these fail, the cushion of karma comforts some.  Commendable morality and citizenship will keep hardships at bay, hitting only the irresponsible.

Unfortunately, the tragedies of a broken world discriminate against no one, regardless of beliefs or deeds. There is a view of God circulating campuses, cafes and churches that His chief responsibility is to shield humanity from hurt; if He doesn’t, He is guilty of failing to love. Since this is not the view of Scripture, it is the view of sinners: God exists to keep me safe.  This idea is quickly squashed by the biblical narrative.

Esther, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Job and Paul weathered experiences that would rattle our lives beyond repair, yet were not shaken.

“If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Daniel 3:17-18

“Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” – Esther 4:15-16

But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” – Job 2:10

Though He slay me, I will hope in Him.” – Job 13:15

“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” – Philippians 1:12-13

Their words testify about what they worship: it’s not their comfort, success or preservation. They worship the holy and living God of Scripture and lived for His kingdom purposes. Hyper-safety is a very new, American idea sadly adopted by Christians that is completely foreign to many other generations and cultures.

Years ago I was listening to John Piper preach on missions. He lamented that many applicants for staff positions at his church ask the same first question in the interview: “Will my family be safe?” With eyes down and arms outstretched, he pleaded, “Could you ask that tenth?”  Safety should not be the first priority for the Christian. A Christian’s response to tragedy can clarify or confuse the gospel of Jesus. While God can shield every human being from paper cuts, car wrecks and cancer, He doesn’t. Until He returns to establish the new heaven and earth, life is an indiscriminate blend of God’s grace and sin’s effects. If I view my life as a finite amount of time and live only for the here and now, of course pain and tragedy will destroy me.

At the beginning of his letter, James wrote to Christians:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (1:2-4).”

Even more stunning than asking us to consider our trials as joy is the next part. Rather than wishing and praying our pain away, we are to sit in it until God has used it to complete an area where we are lacking. Tim Keller observes: “Sometimes God appears to be killing us when actually He’s saving us.”

Knowing that would be difficult to swallow, James wrote verse five: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” He is talking about the specific wisdom needed when life is no longer safe. We are not called to seek delivery from trials but the wisdom to navigate them.

Wearing a seatbelt and purchase identity theft protection is a fine thing, but when those fail, what will you do? The safest place for anyone is to rest in the trust and hope of an unchanging, ever faithful God Who has the grace to use trials to conform us to His Son’s image.


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Beware the Nanny State! (Even If You Like the Nanny)

As you drive down the road, the car in front of you drifts to the left and to the right, changing speeds erratically. You speed up to pass this reckless driver; trying to catch a glimpse of the person you have judged to be a sub-par human being. With a satisfied grunt you see exactly what you suspected – they are texting! “All cell phone use while driving should be banned!” you declare and when the legislature takes up laws to enforce it, you heartily support the decision.

Currently 28 states have made it illegal to text while driving and eight of those have banned all handheld cell phone use by drivers. Many of these are primary enforcement laws; police can stop you and issue a citation without any other offense to your credit. Last month, Maryland made it illegal to read any electronic message in the car, moving or stopped at a light, in an attempt to close some loopholes in the law. The only time Marylanders are allowed to touch their phones in the car is answering or ending a call on a hands-free device. These laws continue to pile up despite studies from the Highway Loss Data Institute that found accident rates due to texting stayed constant even after the bans.

What if, as you passed the erratic driver, instead of being on the phone they were eating a burrito? Or dealing with an unruly child? Or fiddling with their satellite radio or GPS? Or reading printed directions? Or putting on makeup? Or just falling asleep? Any of these is as problematic as texting; so where is the legislation making them illegal? In fact, if a universal speed limit of 35 was applied, imagine the lives that would be saved!  For the record, I personally abhor the use of cell phones while driving and avoid mine when behind the wheel. I also believe laws against driving while drunk are necessary. But how far are we willing to go for the common good? As far as New York assemblyman Felix Ortiz who promoted the installation of ignition-lock breathalyzers on all cars – whether you drink or not?

The argument is always the “greater good”. If we don’t protect people and society from themselves, who will? That’s the idea behind San Francisco’s ban on Happy Meals. Obesity costs lives and society’s money so say good-bye to fatty food in a friendly package. Of course, AIDS and other STDs cost lives and money, too – a cost that would go away if sex with multiple partners was banned. Maybe San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom will tackle that next, but I have my doubts.

So what am I getting at? The regulation of behavior through legislation changes with the tides of culture and power. At one time, moral conservatives passed blue laws prohibiting work on Sunday along with anti-sodomy and obscenity laws. Now, social progressives pass laws banning cigarettes and fatty foods while requiring composting and recycling. Both are attempting the same thing through legislation – to change personal behaviors thus promoting the greatest common good as their worldview sees it. A conservative may see the good as adults staying married for life while a progressive may see the good as adults separating paper from plastic in the recycling bin. Either way, it’s a project Christians should approach with caution.

Caution is needed because the same power we might use to curb freedom for the common good might be wielded against us when the winds of politics and culture change. While controlling cell phone use isn’t a huge issue, requiring Christians in the medical field to provide care that runs counter to their beliefs is; the Obama administration opened that door last month by repealing Bush-era protections. Is requiring a Christian doctor to perform abortions part of the “common good”? It all depends on who is defining the “common good” at this moment in history.

Furthermore, using legislation to change personal behaviors typically ends in failure. Remember Prohibition? Seemed like a good idea; we’ll ban alcohol and eliminate all the suffering that comes with it. Only problem was Prohibition didn’t end drinking – it just forced it underground and turned regular people into criminals. That’s because laws don’t change hearts, they just change consequences. In the Bible after the Exodus, the Israelites broke the Sabbath by going out to gather manna on the seventh day (Ex. 16:27-30). After the Law was given on Mount Sinai, they still broke the Sabbath. The only difference is after the Law, those who went out to gather wood on the Sabbath lost their lives (Num. 15:32-36).

We need to be passionate defenders of personal freedom as long as it does not cause direct harm to another. The more power we give to any government to regulate our lives the greater the likelihood that power will make claims on our faith. Whether it’s the freedom of our Muslim neighbor, atheist coworker, or Christian brethren, we defend freedom out of the freedom Christ has given us (Gal. 5:1). We must also resist the urge to use legislation to change the behavior of the culture. Our hearts were not transformed by the law, why should it be different for anyone else? When Jesus called us to be the “light of the world” he wasn’t speaking politically. Will we do the much harder work of bringing the light of Jesus to our schools, offices, neighborhoods and cities? It worked pretty well for the early church and continues to work well for our politically disadvantaged brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.

So fight for freedom and work to see Jesus change lives and cultures. And while you’re at it, stop texting while you drive. You may still have the freedom in 22 states to be foolish, but it doesn’t mean you have to.


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