Q & R: hell and 2 peter
Here’s the Q:
First of all, I want to express my utmost appreciation for your writings, which have been by and large the greatest influence on my faith and journey. It all started several years ago when I downloaded your interview with Leif Hansen, which opened me up to a new vision of the scriptures which had previously been dark to me. The question of hell as metaphor rather than a real place of condemnation just destroyed the conservative, literalistic, fundamentalist faith in one fell swoop – so much so that I went immediately into a crisis, a ‘dark night’ if you will, leaving the church and my devotion to God. It happened exactly like you describe in note 1 of Chapter 10 in A New Kind of Christianity: “For this reason, I would grimly prefer atheism to be true than for the Greco-Roman Theos narrative to be true.” For a long time atheism seemed the only viable alternative, for the only God I knew of was precisely that which you characterize as Theos.
Fortunately the story did not end there, for God is not capricious, not intent on my destruction, but is probably best represented like the father in the story of the prodigal son. My recent journey back to faith really began upon listening to The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity and thrilling in the fact that everything I’ve learned about the world since my faith crisis is completely compatible with a new appreciation of God, Jesus, the Bible, and the Church. Of late I have found myself in a new church home which unfortunately is rather conservative but not constrictive on my own journey. I also managed to purchase a range of your books at a very good discount, am working my way through A New Kind of Christianity, and have A Naked Spirituality on order.
Now to my question. In Chapter 11 of A New Kind of Christianity, you write of your disturbance with the account of the flood, and how through the narrative of scripture God moves from a capricious deity to be ultimately represented in the person of Jesus as love, mercy, and grace. Out of curiosity I put the keyword ‘flood’ into my Bible software, checking for the New Testament references, and was pointed to Second Peter. The character of God represented there does sound an awful lot more like Theos and Jehovah of early Genesis. For Peter first speaks of a kind of salvation by works (2 Pet 1:10-11), and later uses the genocide accounts of Noah and Sodom and Gomorrah as examples of God’s judgment. He really does paint an awful picture in these verses!
How do you reconcile one of the latest documents in the Bible with your understanding of an evolving narrative? Is it possible that Peter was captured under an ancient worldview, making his writings more representative of an earlier rather than later stage of development? If so, this narrative business is messy stuff!
I really appreciate how your thoughts have captured my focus back to a vital and living faith. I have suffered greatly through my departure from God and the church, and am now appreciating the healing that is just beginning. May God richly bless your efforts.
Here’s the R:
Thanks for your note. Really, I don’t have a lot to add beyond what I said in New Kind of Christianity … whenever we find passages that promote or seem to promote a violent or cruel view of God, I think we need to re-interpret them through the prism of Jesus in whom we who are Christians most truly encounter the Word of God. We might say that at least some of the writer’s views were “captive to an ancient worldview … at an earlier stage of development.” That doesn’t require us to throw him under the bus … it just makes us more grateful to have Jesus as the “norming norm,” or we might say as the Rosetta Stone through which to interpret any and all Scripture. (Of course, even this requires interpretation … because we learn about Jesus through media – the Bible, the church, mentors, experiences, etc., … which must also be interpreted. It’s interpretation all the way down.)
One additional thought – sometimes I think it helps to read many of these passages rhetorically, i.e. in light of the main point they’re trying to accomplish, rather than analytically (scrutinizing every detail with equal weight). That allows us to put some of the secondary issues aside. For example, I might write, “We need to be like the Tin Man – always seeking for more knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.” In making that reference to the Wizard of Oz, I’m not asserting that the Tin Man was a historical figure, nor am I intending to validate the original novel from which the epic movie was made. I’m simply using a figure in a well-known story to make a point. For 2 Peter, the point seems to be to endure all the trials of the moment, and to resist temptations to compromise to false teachers who are really more about self-indulgence than spiritual formation. Thanks for your question … and glad you got the books at discount! I especially hope you’ll enjoy Naked Spirituality …
I’d even go so far as to suggest that sometimes we need to read Jesus in light of Jesus! What most Christians I’ve encountered seem to glibly report is that God authored the Bible. They fail to take into account the unique slant of each author. In any case, I’m kind of weary of nit-picking and debates. Depression and poor health has driven me to seek meaning and simplify. So I’d much rather just err on the side of faith and grace.