Part 1: Beware the fires of Hell.
When I was fifteen I experienced God in a physical way. Audibly, I heard a voice tell me that I am loved. Visually, I saw a constellation of a heart in the night sky. Physically, I was pushed to the ground. Emotionally, I cried and was afraid. Never in my life had I even remotely experienced a love like I had that summer night at a Young Life camp, crying to God about how I wasn’t sure they loved or cared about me.
There was something about that experience of love, that would challenge my theology in the years to come. In college I had numerous peers trying to move me into the Reformed camps of theology. I despised Calvinism the second I met it. It was impossible for me to believe THAT God and THAT love that I experienced, picked and chose who went to Heaven and who went to Hell. That the same God I’d come to know predestined people to be tortured forever in Hell simply because “…that’s the way it works. Adopted children don’t complain about the other kids who aren’t adopted, they are simply thankful that they were adopted.” This was how seminary grads and would be pastors encouraged me to find peace with their theology. YEAH, but 1. that’s absurdly selfish and 2. if the orphanage the child came from was going to burn and torture the adopted kid’s friends forever, simply because they weren’t adopted, then you better damn well believe I’m going to take issue up with that system! I knew it in my bones that this was wrong! It seemed illogical to believe that God could be less loving than how I experienced. Could the Divine’s love be defined in ways other than what God revealed to me? I’m sure that is so, but why would that make sense? God gave me a certain context, and these theological approaches challenged that. So which do I trust? A two thousand-year-old text interpreted by my pastor or a personal life-changing experience? It’s these kinds of experiences and challenges to faith that create the mystics.
If someone told you all these stories about how great DaVinci’s Mona Lisa is, described it in detail, and then one day you went and saw it yourself, which account would you trust more? What they told you? Or what you’ve seen?
I struggled deeply to reconcile my experience with the stories of the Old Testament where God kills the firstborns of the Egyptians, or the stories from Hosea and Kings where God promises to rip open the bellies of pregnant women and smash the infants to death. Or 1 Samuel 15 where God commands people to kill animals, men, women, and infants. Stories where if we were to hear about them in any other context we would quickly call evil. Yet, somehow our faith allows us to ignore all of that. Eventually, even the beliefs of the Tortuous Eternal Hell went with it too. But see, it wasn’t just my experiences that were in tension with some of these things but also because of my studies. Sure my questions blossomed from the things I was experiencing, but my studies seemed to reflect that which I experienced to be true. Every time I stepped beyond literal interpretations I found something more. My experience simply gifted me the openness to push through a lot of the bullshit. The bullshit being the ideas our culture and faith have perpetuated without much dissection or challenge. We simply trust that because an idea has maintained for so long, we needn’t be bothered by people’s questions about it.
Because of what had happened to me, my belief in God and His love for me was so solid, I could challenge Christianity, or rather orthodoxy as I knew it, without losing that one precious fact. It’s honestly the only way I think I survived the Religion Department and the constant gut-checks from the Bible Scholars. But alas, I became a skeptic. Not of God, but of the Bible. Could I actually trust this book the way I was raised to do so?
There is studying the Bible by reading it. Which is how most people begin and why I think we’ve made such a great mess of things. We let scripture interpret scripture without getting deep into what sources beyond the Bible influenced the understandings we have in scripture. Were the ideas unique to the pages we have or could they be traced throughout other religions? Other tribes of the day? Could it be cultural and not just ideas that came from the sky? When we anchor on scripture alone for our truth, we by nature block out almost everything else. Some people believe this is what we are supposed to do. But they’ll never hear any other options if they refuse to hear any other options. Therefore they can never test their beliefs because they’ve created a chamber for them to live in unchallenged by any source but the Bible. There are many things that you will never learn about the Bible by only reading the Bible. This is why there are also those who study the Bible by reading it, analyzing it and the history around it.
I started studying the Bible in a new way when I was a teenager. This led me to learn things like the word for “Hell” comes from the greek word “gehenna.” And that this word means “The Valley of Hinnom.” And that this Valley was actually a real physical place on Earth just like “the Gates of Hades” that Jesus mentions in Matthew 16:18. In this valley, outside the border of the Holy City of Jerusalem, the trash and dead bodies of the criminals of Jerusalem were sent to burn. Where smoke was constantly rising. Where children were sacrificed as burnt offering to gods.
If you’ve never heard this, doesn’t that information immediately stir you? When I first learned this, the entire construct of salvation that I was raised to believe was challenged and disrupted. I felt betrayed by this information. Why had no pastor ever once taught me this? How come when I asked pastors about it, they knew nothing of it? I thought Jesus came to rescue me from Hell? But you’re telling me Hell is a place I could visit by simply hopping on a plane and traveling to Jerusalem? And before one goes off claiming this information about history could be wrong, this isn’t just historical but Biblical (2 Kings 23:10, Jer. 7:30-33). It’s a literal place that Jesus warns the religious Jews they are in danger of finding themselves. Because they’ve literally found themselves there before around 587 BCE when Nebuchadnezzar burned Jerusalem to ruin. He warns the Jews time and time again that his way is not a way of violence but of love. He is warning them of ruin not in some afterlife but in this life. Yet the Jews insist on violently revolting to remove the Roman Empire. A reminder: That’s what they expected Jesus to do and why they are so shocked when Jesus says he must die! But Jesus foretells of the fall of the second temple in 70AD (Mark 13). He warns them not to revolt. But they do. The temple is destroyed. Jerusalem is in flames. The Jewish people go against the ways of Christ, and the Romans throw their dead corpses into the fires of the Valley of Hinnom…or in other words they throw them into the eternal fires of Hell.
The Jewish people go against the Kingdom of God, and are literally thrown into the eternal fires of Hell.
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed with two hands than to go into gehenna, where the fire never goes out!”
But see this is the problem I encounter. People hear these ideas and they assume caution. Their brains get angry. They hunker down. They easily trust their pastors accounts of the events but the second anyone comes to challenge the assumed truth, we decide we must reject it. Because people couldn’t have been wrong about these things for this long! Well, sure they could!
Most of the Christians I grew up around happily and rather blindly accept the writings of the Quran and teachings of Islam as wrong. And those have been around from just about as long as Christianity. Its lifespan has been about 1,400 years and chances are, if you identify as a Christian, you believe it’s been wrong for all 1,400 years. Longevity doesn’t always equal truth; of course it doesn’t. The problem is that we come to the book looking first for questions like what is right and what is wrong. That’s not the question that invites us into the book. The question is not simply what should I be for and what should I be against. The question is why has this book endured for so long? What about these stories and these traditions has invited people back to its pages for thousands of years? Start there. With the human.
When Christians become open about these understandings, it is quite common for them to be rejected by their community. For their status in the tribe to be changed. For their position to lose its trust. And there is no confession more ridiculed, more receptive of anger, more receptive of ugliness, than a confession that you may not believe the scriptures are supposed to be our final authority on every matter of truth. Be it scientific, be it historical, be it moral. That other things influence truth and that this is okay. Divine even. That inspiration isn’t bound to one set of writings. Because yes, it challenges our main source of Godly knowledge. It challenges our ability to remain certain that we are right and others are wrong. It challenges our ego of enjoying superiority over others. It challenges our understanding of God’s role in the process. It’s why for thousands of years, people have either ignored following this question to its conclusions or barked at (or murdered) people who dared to. Because we don’t want to lose any of that. Pastors don’t want to lose their jobs by following the answers to their hard questions. But any honest search HAS to lead one to these questions. I don’t know how you can avoid it. Any intensive search MUST bring you to these questions. Otherwise I’m lead to believe that a person is avoiding and ignoring their doubts.
Is the Bible inerrant if I can show you contradictions?
Is the Bible trustworthy in all matters of truth if it teaches things we can disprove scientifically and historically?
If it were wrong about science and history, why couldn’t it be wrong about other things?
Did our religion come up with these stories if there are strong similarities in stories and traditions that predate our Bible?
Can we trust stories of Jesus if the Gospels just flat out contradict certain events?
Can we trust Jesus’ words when they are recorded differently in another Gospel?
What about realizing that the order of creation is different in Genesis 1 than it is in Genesis 2?
What about when the Bible teaches two different people killed Goliath? (2 Samuel 21:19 -see your footnote.)
Or the differences between the two birth narratives in Matthew and Luke.
Or that the two genealogies of Jesus are different.
What about learning that Augustus Caesar was called the “divi filius” or “the Son of God” and that this same Caesar would go from town to town posting his “Euangelion” announcements that had these words; “There is no other name under heaven by which you can be saved, save for Augustus?” (Acts 4:12)
Or that proclamations were read that stated: “The most divine Caesar. The birthday of Caesar has been for the whole world the beginning of the euangelion.” Euangelion, which means “good news” and it’s where we get the word “gospel.” “The birth of Caesar is the beginning of the good news for the whole world.” Take all of that insight and read the first line of Mark’s gospel: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…”
What about learning that the Greek god Dionysus (the god worshiped by much of John’s audience) was worshiped by his followers eating his flesh and drinking his blood through wine and feasting? His followers were doing this practice long before the Christian Eucharist.
I had an easier time learning some of these things than I did seeing the differences in details concerning the final days of Jesus. This information was tough to figure when all I had ever known were the stories taught one way. I had been taught over and over again that all the Gospel accounts are in historical agreement. But they just aren’t. You can see this clearly just by placing the three Synoptic Gospels side by side and seeing what the authors added and took away or the order in which they are told. Not to mention John who’s kinda just doing his own thing. Mark’s account, the first we believe written, originally ended with the empty tomb and the women running away terrified saying “nothing to anyone”. We never saw the resurrected Jesus in Mark’s gospel. The women running away scared and telling no one was the original ending according to the earliest manuscripts! Luke’s gospel is quick to point out that the women “remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest.”
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus shares the Passover meal before his arrest. (Matt. 26:16-20, Mark 14:12-17, Luke 22:7-15.) But in John it reads at his meeting of Pilate: “Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.”
Mark 15 says “And it was the third hour when they crucified him.” But John states: Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” Somehow Jesus was crucified before he even went to trial!
You might respond to this information much like I did. With anger. With resistance. With a refusal of the details. Thinking that I’m just angry and trying to cause problems. That the person communicating these things doesn’t even believe the Gospel so why should I trust them? Heck I think I went as far as thinking my professors were agents of evil trying to dissuade me from God’s truth! It wasn’t until I found that there are entire communities of Christians who have seen these things and accepted them and asked what then does this say about God? What does all of this teach us? What does it mean that God would give us THIS Bible? What does that then reveal about truth?
We can hold onto Biblical authority, as C.S. Lewis points out, if it has room for historical inaccuracies, clear understandings of myth, Paul’s use of saying “The Lord, not I says…” and “I, not the Lord, say…”, and if it includes a clause that says “inspiration” is not exclusive to one meaning, (or book). (C.S. Lewis, Letter to Clyde S. Kilby, May 7th, 1959) We can hold on to authority if we believe each of these deviations are intentional and purposeful by the authors. That the authors don’t much care for literal history or scientific truth but simply spiritual truth as the point of their writings. That their intention wasn’t to give us literal accounts in all details but to share things in a way that pointed us higher than that. And this is how many people have made peace with these factors. But in all, it reveals that the Bible does not operate the ways that a large number of people think and have been taught that it does.
It certainly revealed that to me. And that loss was painful. I had been taught my entire life to believe things about the Bible. Things that I defended and upheld as true for many years. I taught children these ideas and that they should defend these truths when atheist and skeptics and people of other faiths try to challenge them. When I learned that things didn’t work this most certain of ways, I felt shame for the blind certitudes that I had believed and taught to a new generation. That I had perpetuated the immovable, unchallenged, beliefs I was given. That I had been such a stubbornly close-minded person to those who were just trying to show me more. That I made no room for what they were teaching me. It didn’t work with what I had been taught was absolute and what I had long believed with certainty, and so I ignored it, mocked it, dismissed it, because I believed I was doing righteous work. I believed I was fighting for God’s truth, when all along it was the truth that I was wrong that I was fighting against. That I was protecting myself from.
The Bible doesn’t behave to our common expectations and coming to realize this when you’re whole life has been anchored on accepting and defending a perfect book is it’s own Hell. It’s painful, lonely, despairing work. But it is this Hell, this shadow of darkness, this dark night of the soul, that gives life to profound intimacy and wonder with mystery. A mystery that my certitudes had protected me from.
The Bible is a messy, extraordinary, complex, book written by many people from many diverse perspectives and it is logical, if not necessary, to acknowledge this messy-ness and keep ourselves from forcing the Bible to behave to the expectations of our Pastors and seminaries. Because the idolatry of the Perfect, Inerrant, Non-human Bible has gone on long enough. This idolatry gets in the way of the Christ that I believe is taking us forward.
Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened for you. Die and you will be born again.
The Bible points us to God. But the Bible is not God.
The Human leads us to the Divine.
The mystery is the intimacy.
(Continued in Part 2: God Breathed)
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