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    February 23rd, 2012 @ 1:27 am by Kevin

    When it comes to hell–or any theological issue–we all tend to gravitate toward a regulating text of some kind, a Scripture passage or theological concept that becomes the lens through which we view the rest of Scripture. Over time, this text or concept often becomes a non-negotiable, the foundation on which we (wittingly or not) build the rest of our theology.

    For example, people in the Universalist camp will often cite 1 John 4:8 as their regulating text: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (emphasis mine). If love is the essence of God’s being, then everything he says and does–including punishment–can ultimately be seen as an expression of his love. When such an idea is combined with the definition of love given in 1 Corinthians 13 (patient, kind, not self-seeking, not easily angered, always hoping, always persevering and keeping no record of wrongs), it makes the idea of people suffering eternal torment in hell a difficult concept to fathom, because it seems that God’s patience and perseverance eventually do run out, that he actually does keep a record of wrongs and so forth. The only way out of this is to argue that either God is not beholden to the definition of love Paul describes in 1 Corinthians or that he reserves this kind of love for a limited number of people. (Calvinists take this view, calling the small group of fortunate people “the elect.”)

    On the other hand, people who believe in hell as a place of eternal, conscious punishment will gravitate toward a passage like 1 Peter 1:16, which cites God’s words from Leviticus 11:44, “Be holy, because I am holy.” In this case, “holiness” is often taken to mean “set apart,” “pure” and “without blemish.” For God to be holy, he must remain set apart from sin. And seeing as people are sinful, he must stay separate from them unless some way can be found to make them clean. This gives rise to certain doctrines of the atonement, which interpret Christ’s death and resurrection as the means by which God removes the blemish of sin and makes it possible for us to have a relationship with him. People are free to reject the cleansing work of Christ if they want, but if they do, God will have to find somewhere to put them for all eternity, lest their sin pollute his perfect kingdom. Hence the need for a place like hell.

    From these examples, it should be pretty clear that once you determine someone’s regulating text, you pretty much know the rest of the story. It should also be apparent why discussions on such issues are so contentious, b/c each side is beginning from a place of strong felt sensibility that is often diametrically opposed to their opponent.

    The question is, what’s your regulating text? And how did you arrive at it? Did you reach your conclusion as the result of a theological reasoning process like the one I described above? Or was something else at work? In other words, what was the regulating text for your regulating text? Do you even know?

    Psychologist Richard Beck has written extensively and insightfully on this aspect of belief formation, so I won’t bother repeating him here. But I’d be interested to hear from some of you regarding your regulating texts.

    And who knows, one of these days I may even share mine. 🙂

leave a comment on this post (2 Comments)

  1. Concepts of afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Not all Christians agree on what happens after this life, nor do all Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or other believers. Rebirth, resurrection, purgatory, universalism, and oblivion are other possibilities…none of which can be proven.

    Mystics of all faiths have more in common than the followers of their orthodox religions. True mystics realize that eternal life is here and now; it does not begin after mortal death. The age of Earth is said to be 4.5 billion years, of the Universe 13.7 billion, yet few humans live to be 100. This lifetime is a fleeting moment.

    Scriptures are subject to interpretation; people often choose what they prefer to believe. In my personal interpretation, heaven is union with the divine…hell is separation from the divine. They are modes of being, not places.

  2. Interesting question.
    i came from standard Evagelical theology, but i always had struggles as long as i can remember with the OT texts referring to judgement followed by mercy in nearly all examples. i really struggled with the idea that God used judgement to teach in the Old Testament, but suddenly switched gears in the New Testament, especially as He is reported to be unchanging.
    it seemed that God could be persuaded, in the Old Testament, not to unleash wrath (Abraham, Jacob and Moses all argued/fought with Him…and one! and Job too, though he got an earful for it.). as God is all knowing, this had to mean that He knew they’d win…that the fight was good for them! that God even WANTED them to win!
    this to me is not a God who is just “holy” for the sake of it. He is holy because the alternative is destructive and hurtful and wrong. He wants holiness from us, not so we can be clothed in white, strumming harps on clouds, while our families and friends who were less holy burn beneath us…not so we can be smug in our righteousness…no. He wants holiness because He wants everything to be one in His love…when He is all in all.

    i appreciate this is a bit lengthy and not limited to a single text. i personally feel that the meta narrative of the Bible, the overall story, is one in which God sorrows over His creation suffering…and years to bring us all in close. if God fails in that endeavour, then i can’t see Him being happy for all eternity. i can’t see those few of us that scrape by being happy either. not unless the very nature of love changes and we “glory” in the destruction of the wicked, as some horrid people have claimed.

    the funny thing is that God may be described as holy. holiness is an attribute but not His whole nature. the ability to get angry is an attribute, too. Him being just is the same. but we are only told that His NATURE is Love and Light. all the previous attributes must come from His nature…they in themselves cannot be His nature.

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