Bliss, torment, and the temptation of metaphor

I’ve been thinking about how Christians tend to portray the eternal destinies of believers and unbelievers as either “bliss in the presence of God” or “torment away from God’s presence.”

So it’s bliss verses torment.

However, the Bible over and over portrays the distinction as between “life” and “death.” It is so amazingly common to see this; once I started noticing it I can’t unsee it.

In order for the bliss-versus-torment group to keep their doctrine, they have to change the definitions of life and death. To them, life just means bliss, and death means torment.

But this is so hard to do when we just look at the passages which talk about the destiny of believers and unbelievers. I read another one yesterday:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Luke 13.1-5

Jesus says, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” What will it be like? It will be like being killed by Pilate or being crushed by a tower. What happened to those people? They died. They weren’t tormented; they were killed.

Some folks want to turn this around and say, “Jesus didn’t mean actual death. Death is a metaphor for suffering and pain.” The thing is, Jesus knows how to talk about suffering and pain. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, he describes the state of the rich man in Luke 16.23: “In Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes….” It’s not as though Jesus lacked the words to describe suffering or pain, and had to use death as some sort of obscure metaphor.

The temptation of metaphor is this: when we don’t like (or don’t understand) what the text is saying, we attribute it to metaphor and then substitute our own interpretation. And that doesn’t mean metaphor isn’t commonly used: Jesus uses it in this very passage. The murders by Pilate and the death from the tower are metaphors! Jesus isn’t saying that the fate of the unrighteous is precisely to be killed by Pilate or crushed by a building. No, he is saying their fate is to be killed, just like the people in those examples. Their violent (and probably painful) deaths are figures or examples (metaphors!) which Jesus uses to describe the eternal destiny of those who do not repent. To claim that the unrighteous won’t actually die robs these metaphors of their power, and make Jesus’ warning confusing at best.

Let’s be aware of how often the Bible uses metaphor, but not detach the metaphor from the meaning the authors intended.

The gospel according to Acts

I’m writing this from a children’s home in Mexico, where I’m with a group of men who are constructing a multi-purpose building for the children. It’s very rewarding and will bless the kids, but that’s not what I’m thinking about tonight.

Instead, I keep thinking about a song the kids sang for us. It’s in Spanish, and you can find it online if you search on the first few words. I’ll provide the Spanish words, and then an English translation.

Dios me ama
Y he pecado
Y Christo murió por mí
Si yo le recibo seré su hijo
Y es su plan para mí

In English, it’s:

God loves me
And I have sinned
And Christ died for me
If I receive him, I will be his child
And this is his plan for me

It reminds me of the “Four Spiritual Laws” which I heard a lot as a high school student in youth group. They go something like this:

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
Humanity is tainted by sin and is therefore separated from God.
Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for sin.
We must place our faith in Jesus Christ as savior in order to receive the gift of salvation.

It seems to me that while everything in the song and in the laws is true, it’s NOT what the apostles preached when they evangelized.

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God wants you to have lots of children

Try to think of a way in which God could communicate that he wants you to have lots of children. What would he say? What words could he use and what imagery could he employ?

Maybe he would tell you what a blessing children are. He could give examples of how having many children will improve our lives. He could contrast that with the devastation which comes from not having children. Maybe he would remind us of the joy we experience when we hear someone is pregnant, and the anticipation we have for the birth. He could promise that having many children is a direct result of our faithfulness and loyalty to him.

It seems to me that if God did everything in the above paragraph, it would be pretty clear that he is in favor of you having lots of children. And you probably guessed it already: that’s exactly what he did.

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Be filled with the Spirit

Here’s a transcript of a sermon I gave a few years ago.

I’m going to talk about a special day today. Besides being Mother’s Day, it’s Pentecost in the Christian calendar. Pentecost is a Greek word that means “fiftieth day.” It’s the fiftieth day after Easter, which begins a new season in the Christian calendar, and it lines up with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. There are three big Jewish pilgrimage festivals in the Old Testament, and they are times when all the Jews who can come to Jerusalem and have a big party.

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Rethinking Spiritual Gifts

I’ve been thinking about spiritual gifts recently. I have been through several spiritual gifts courses and listened to a lot of teachings on it, and now I’m beginning to wonder about what I’ve been taught.

I have two questions which haven’t been answered:

  1. Some “spiritual gifts” are present in those who are not Christians, ex. teaching. Are we to say that a Christian has the spiritual gift of teaching, and a non-christian has….what? also a spiritual gift? Or some other kind of gift? Or maybe the non-christian is just good at teaching. Does that mean the Christian wasn’t good at teaching, but only became good when he or she converted? How is it that this is a spiritual gift for Christians, but just a skill or talent for non-Christians?
  2. Some “spiritual gifts” are (or should be) present in all Christians, ex. faith. The teaching I’ve received is that Christians with the “spiritual gift of faith” have what amounts to a lot of faith; they can trust God for big things. So is a spiritual gift just more of what we should all have? At what point does it morph from a characteristic of a mature Christian (see Gal 5.22) and become a gift?

Ok, that’s way more than two questions.

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