If you thought the Old Testament was scary, take another look at the New One..
Mob stories on television don’t bother me. They reassure me. I look at the lives of Tony Soprano or Ray Donovan, and I think, “I’m a buttoned-up Mennonite by comparison.” When someone asked me if crime drama frightened me, I responded. “No. The Godfather wasn’t frightening. Jonathan Edwards, on the other hand..”
Even as a believer, the prospect of endless, eternal hellfire of the sort that Edwards describes with morbid relish–well, I just find it difficult to process. It’s not that I don’t long for justice. This morning’s news speaks of an ISIS captain, recently captured, who was responsible for burning a Jordanian pilot alive in an iron cage. Were I made emperor of the world, I would have no problem keeping that Jihadist Jackal alive for ten years, if only to suffer exquisite, ongoing torture.
But eventually even the ugliest crimes exhaust our wrath, don’t they? In the next life, can we see our wrath lasting past a hundred years? A thousand? Edwards was at pains to tell us that were we to endure a million years of burning agony, it would be an impossibly small fraction of what was to come. Those consigned to hell will have endured billions of years of ongoing agony only to contemplate it never ending. Ponder that. It’s not just the flames; it’s the prospect of knowing they go on forever. Almost every pain in life finds solace in the notion “this too will pass.” Those in hell will have no such consolation. Ever.
Just as God’s love is incomprehensible to us mortals, so is His wrath. But, surely, that’s just some Old Testament Baptist or some Bay Colony Puritan thundering away, through a clerical scowl, right?
No, that is Jesus of Nazareth, the Prince of Peace, the Son of the Most High..
The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that cause stumbling, and them that do iniquity, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.
And the punishment is eternal, and observable. The righteous will watch the condemned, unable to console or comfort them. When the rich man who would not help the poor beggar Lazarus screams out to Abraham for comfort, Abraham answers:
Hellfire. Eternal Hellfire.
In Christian circles, Andy Stanley stirred it up this week when he advocated that Christians un-hitch their walk from the Old Testament. I suppose there’s a charitable version of that, since Paul went out of his way to let us know the ceremonial and dietary law of the Old Testament had been brought, mercifully, to an end. No one should take any eternal comfort in losing their foreskin, or keeping the holy days, or turning down a ham sandwich. God wanted the circumcised of heart, not a bunch of Pharisees with clean hands and murderous hearts.
The promise of the New Testament seems beautifully, marvelously, GLORIOUSLY simple. It’s not about you. It’s not about what you’ve done. If you find yourself bragging to the Lord on judgment day about all the wonderful work you’ve done in His name, you weren’t listening. Even John the Baptist, greatest of all the prophets, could not be saved by his righteous living and his meager diet of locusts. We are saved by grace through faith in Him.
That’s it, right? Too simple! Just believe.
But here’s the thing: even if you were to do the Andy Stanley thing and “un-hitch” yourself from all that Old Testament stuff, there’s a fearful warning that both Jesus and the apostles repeated too many times to ignore. Your faith should be changing you. If it’s the real thing, you should look back on a life of growth. If you thought the Old Testament was scary, ponder a life unchanged by false belief under the New covenant.
After making it clear we are NOT saved by our good works, the New Testament repeats these warnings:
Revelations 22:15 do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?
1 Corinthians 6:9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God…
Galatians 5:19-24 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Colossians 3:5-7 Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them.
Ephesians 5:3-5 But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
From time to time, I’ll listen in to “big church” preaching over the internet, and while there is much that is good, I’m surprised by how many times scripture is either ignored or used as a flimsy springboard into a little “Pastor riffing” on the hopeful, happy-talk of the hour. Even though I teach in a house church for about nine people in attendance, I understand why pastors are tempted to avoid the Holy Text. It hurts!
You may not be a flamboyant homosexual, flaunting your depravity with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, but how about that “silly talk?” How about that covetousness? How about one too many glasses of wine? How are those outburst of wrath coming along, brother? Remember that last insurance claim you fudged the truth on? Remember that subtle ambition you indulged to move yourself ahead in the work place? Pick your sin. I’m guessing it’s in there.
You may not be bruised by the Bible, but I am. Someone chided me for calling Kathy Griffin “butt ugly” the other day, that it was talk unbecoming a Christian. On one hand, I have my reasons: I’m trying to let believers know that it is okay to mock those who behave like a vile Jezebel, that we don’t hear prophetic scolding nearly enough in our culture, but there’s a part of me that concludes: if that were the worst of my indiscretions, I’d be among the righteous. The fact is that I love pleasure, even if I don’t live for it. (I think?) I try to help the poor, but not nearly enough. (I think?) My “coarse jesting” is more in the “blind leading the blind” category of rhetoric. (I think?) I’m trying to help my brother-in-law who keeps making very bad life choices. (I think?)
I say, “I think?” because these verses about who inherits the kingdom are convicting. Let’s face it. Jesus set an impossible standard. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
When the world mocks Christians for not living the standards, it’s because a few of them know our standard better than we do. Has someone stolen from you? Don’t try to get it back. Have you given up your entire fortune for Christ? Walked away from family? Endured beatings and imprisonment? Have you been mocked and professionally ostracized? Have you risked your life to defend the innocent? If you are a magistrate, or a politician, have you turned down the bribe? Have you uncovered the works of darkness around you and brought them into the light? Have you given charity to those who will never be able to pay you back?
As near as I can tell, from the New Testament, Christ wants us obsessed with the weightier matters of the law, not because the law saves, but because the law brings peace to His kingdom. It’s the way we show love for our neighbors.
The race is not easy. We stumble. We wade through a thousand legalisms and false pieties; we have to fend off libertines of both varieties, those who claim Christ and those who want nothing to do with Him. Even the Holy Text we read is obscured by the rantings and ruminations of false teachers over the centuries.
But I think it’s better to be burned by the text, than burned by it’s Author. Let’s work it all out, brothers and sisters, with fear and trembling.