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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. 🙂