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Theology Scarier Than Halloween

Greg Strand – November 2, 2013 Leave a comment

In keeping with the Halloween theme for another day, an article written by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite provided a contrasting perspective to that provided by Timothy George. Thistlethwaite served as the immediately past president of Chicago Theological Seminary and presently serves at the Seminary as Professor of Theology. In her article, she address “Five Christian theologies scarier than Halloween.”

Halloween is not something of which to be frightened, she notes, but these five “Christian theological themes” are quite scary. Here are the five she lists with brief excerpts from her longer explanation.

1. Christian Dominionism

Christian dominionism is the idea that our nation should be governed by Christians according to a conservative understanding of biblical law, and was, I believe, the theology behind the recent government shutdown. This is the “scariest” Christian theology to me because . . . it is fueled by “sanctified” rage.

2. Hell and Damnation

Scary images of Hell and damnation have been part of religions for millennia . . . But while these scary images abound, a theology of hell is something different than images of demons and fire. Images of hell as judgment have been used over Christian history to construct a punitive, punishing idea of God that is used like a club to manipulate people, producing true horrors instead of faith journeys.

Theologies of hell and damnation that are used to make human lives a misery are truly scary to me because they help to create and sustain ‘hell on earth’ for many. They contradict God’s love and mercy.

3. Women Should “Submit”

Theologies that emphasize a hierarchy in creation, i.e. that women were created second, and Eve is to blame for the sin that got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden, are scary to me because they are literally responsible for a lot of violence against women. . . . “Submission” is a scary theology that justifies abuse in the name of Christian obedience by women.

4. God versus Evolution

One of the scariest places I have ever been was the Creation Science Museum in Kentucky. . . . “Creation science” is a theology, not a science since it does not use scientific method. It is a scary theology because it is used to deny the real science of evolution and undercut the genuine urgency to stop polluting human activities that are causing violent and abrupt climate change.

5. God Doesn’t Love You If You’re Gay

Homophobic Christian theologies that condemn people who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender are scary dangerous, and they need to be continuously countered.

Because there is so much that is scary in the world, Halloween, Thistlethwaite claims, should no longer be one of them. She explains that she has made it fun for her children and now her grandchildren. Let the kids have fun. In contrast, the five Christian theologies are truly the things of which to be frightened. She concludes,

What really scares me, not only this week but all year through, are the Christian theologies that prey on our legitimate fears of human finitude, physical suffering, economic uncertainty, environmental destruction, and the threat of war in order to accelerate anger and alienation. There’s no treat in that, only being tricked.

Not surprisingly, there is no reference to the Bible and no clear statement about how she moves from the Bible to theology. In essence, theology has become her attempt to state her own beliefs. This is not just scary, it is wrong, especially as a teacher of theology. Though the Bible and theology are not one and the same, one’s theology must be rooted in the Bible and shown to be rooted in the Bible or it is not Christian theology.

And regarding her conclusion on the doctrine of hell, it is moves beyond wrong to being damnable in the sense that if one does not believe and receive the Lord Jesus Christ, one will experience eternal conscious punishment (cf. EFCA Statement of Faith, Article 10, Response and Eternal Destiny). Satan denied this truth in his deceptive lies spoken to Eve that led to her rebellion against God. He claimed, “You will not die” (Gen 3:4b), a direct contradiction to God’s word.

A Postscript

Free Church Historical Connections to the Chicago Theological Seminary

Unknown to many, our Free Church history is rooted in and indebted to the Chicago Theological Seminary. Many of our Free Church Norwegian-Danish pastors were trained at the school. Beginning in 1884, the Norwegian-Danish department was established, with Reverend T. C. Trandberg appointed as the head, and the next year, the Swedish department began with Fridolf Risberg serving as head. In 1895 P. C. Jernberg, a graduate of Yale and the Chicago Theological Seminary, replaced Trandberg as head of the Norwegian-Danish department

Jernberg claimed that the Chicago Theological Seminary was the “pioneer in the work of the Norwegian-Danish Free Churches.” During these days, Jernberg himself trained many of these pastors of Free Churches.

However, as often happens in academic institutions, in order to keep up there was a merger. The leaders of the Chicago Theological Seminary looked to align with the University of Chicago as its graduate school of divinity. Free Church people were concerned with biblical and theological drift at the Seminary. This resulted in the Norwegian-Danish Free Church opening its own school in Rushford, MN in 1910. This is one of the two schools (the Swedish the other) that became Trinity International University/Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Concluding Thoughts

I am thankful for the role the Chicago Theological Seminary played in the preparation of our Free Church pastors. I am also thankful that our Free Church pastors were committed to the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. And in practice, I am thankful these pastors were wise and aware to discern the times such that it led to their departure from the school and that they began a new school for training pastors that reflected these important truths.

May we remember we stand on shoulders of giants and be grateful. May we remain committed to preserve and pass on the same foundational truths to the next generation(s), the truths once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3), and remain humbly dependent on God, His Word and His grace.


Thoughts on Halloween

Greg Strand – October 31, 2013 Leave a comment

Every year Halloween comes on the calendar, Christians are faced once again with the decision of how they will respond. Will they celebrate the day or will they not? If they do, will they do so in an alternative way, e.g. harvest festival or Reformation day, or will they do so evangelistically?

Timothy George, in The Gospel of Ghoul, notes how Christians have used the day evangelistically. Prior to addressing this he states what he believes about hell.

I believe in hell. Not only the hell within, for there are those “private devils that hang like vampires on the soul,” to use the language of Thomas Merton—and not only the metaphorical hell around evident in war, violence, and destructive evil on a global scale—but also the hell to come. This orthodox Christian belief is firmly grounded in the teaching of Jesus, as well as in the inspired writings of the apostles. As Joseph Ratzinger said in a book on eschatology: “Dogma takes its stand on solid ground when it speaks of the existence of hell and of the eternity of its punishments.”

Using Lewis, George writes of two inappropriate responses to the doctrine of hell: disbelief and denial; an excessive and unhealthy interest.

C. S. Lewis famously described two equal and opposite errors into which people fall when thinking about things infernal. The first is disbelief and denial, a familiar pattern in forms of rationalist religion. The other is to cultivate “an excessive and unhealthy interest” in Satan and his pomp. The latter is on full display in what has become a thriving phenomenon within the subculture of American fundamentalist and evangelical churches: the seasonal appearance of a Halloween alternative known as Hell House or Judgment House.

Hell Houses, notes George, come in many variations. Primarily they follow the pattern of showing gruesome events and experiences of a person’s life revealing that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Following these events is a visit to hell. Finally, there is an opportunity to receive Jesus to save one from hell. This sort of outreach has become so large and popular there is a how-to kit for those who desire to use this evangelistic approach for Halloween.

As real as hell is, and as essential as it is to evangelize, for people to hear the gospel, being confronted with sin and implored to repent and place one’s faith in the Lord Jesus Christ for He is the exclusive way of and to salvation (Acts 4:12; Jn. 3:36; 5:12; 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5), is this particular method appropriate? Is it reflective of the Bible’s teaching? Do the means matter as long as the gospel is presented and people are given an opportunity to repent, respond and receive Jesus? Is it truly reflective of the gospel?

George answers:

The problem with this kind of approach to the afterlife is not that it says too much, but that it offers too little. It says what it does not know and thus falls prey to that most damning of theological temptations, what medieval scholars called vana curiositas. Theology should be done within the limits of revelation alone but what is shown in most modern-day Hell Houses is 90 percent speculation.

It may be that some young people will find their way to genuine faith through such ghoulish shenanigans, but their overall import is a distortion of the Gospel. Those who indulge in such displays are taking something serious, eternal, and consequential and treating it with a finesse of a butcher doing brain surgery. In the process, they trivialize evil and domesticate grace. I seriously doubt that the Old Fiend himself is much upset about how his wiles are portrayed in such faux-dramas. He knows that conversion without discipleship is not likely to be lasting or deep. He is well aware that evangelism as entertainment seldom, if ever, results in genuine repentance or transformation.

Thankfully, George concludes,

in the sending and self-sacrifice of his Son, God himself has absorbed not only the penalty of sin but also its eternal consequences, the “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus Christ has visited the original House of Hell, and this has rendered redundant all cheap imitations. As John Calvin said, “By his wrestling hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, and with the pains of hell, Jesus Christ emerged victorious and triumphed over them, that in death we may not now fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up.

Paul reminds us of this incredible truth in 1 Corinthians 15:54b-58:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

On this day, celebrate Christ, His perfect fulfillment of the law, His triumph over death, and our victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. And grounded in these truths, abound in the work of the Lord!

Jennifer Senior interviewed Justice Antonin Scalia in New York: “In Conversation: Antonin Scalia.”  Many issues were discussed during the interview. One very interesting exchange pertained to heaven and hell and belief in a real Satan. For context, Scalia is a Roman Catholic and committed to the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.

Here is the exchange, the bold consisting of Senior’s questions, the plain text Scalia’s responses.

You believe in heaven and hell?
Oh, of course I do. Don’t you believe in heaven and hell?

Oh, my.

Does that mean I’m not going?
[Laughing.] Unfortunately not!

Wait, to heaven or hell? 
It doesn’t mean you’re not going to hell, just because you don’t believe in it. That’s Catholic doctrine! Everyone is going one place or the other.

But you don’t have to be a Catholic to get into heaven? Or believe in it? 
Of course not!

Oh. So you don’t know where I’m going. Thank God.
I don’t know where you’re going. I don’t even know whether Judas Iscariot is in hell. I mean, that’s what the pope meant when he said, “Who am I to judge?” He may have recanted and had severe penance just before he died. Who knows?

Can we talk about your drafting process—
[Leans in, stage-whispers.] I even believe in the Devil.

You do?
Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that.

Every Catholic believes this? There’s a wide variety of Catholics out there …
If you are faithful to Catholic dogma, that is certainly a large part of it.

Have you seen evidence of the Devil lately?
You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore.

It’s because he’s smart.

So what’s he doing now?
What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.

That has really painful implications for atheists. Are you sure that’s the ­Devil’s work?
I didn’t say atheists are the Devil’s work.

Well, you’re saying the Devil is ­persuading people to not believe in God. Couldn’t there be other reasons to not believe?
Well, there certainly can be other reasons. But it certainly favors the Devil’s desires. I mean, c’mon, that’s the explanation for why there’s not demonic possession all over the place. That always puzzled me. What happened to the Devil, you know? He used to be all over the place. He used to be all over the New Testament.

What happened to him?

He just got wilier.
He got wilier.

Isn’t it terribly frightening to believe in the Devil?
You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil! Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.

I hope you weren’t sensing contempt from me. It wasn’t your belief that surprised me so much as how boldly you expressed it.
I was offended by that. I really was.

This says a great deal about our society and culture. This was an acceptable belief. However, as this interview reveals, and which we have known, we no longer live in a day when this is believed. Interestingly, when a culture “progresses,” often the first thing to be questioned are the truths and morals taught in the Bible. In many ways, it affirms the initial sin in the Garden through the means of the Enemy when he duped and deceived Adam and Eve by questioning God, His character and His Word. Though the outer garment changes with the times, the tactic often remains the same.

We in the EFCA affirm the inspiration, inerrancy, authority and sufficiency of the Bible. We believe that the Bible is authoritative in matters of faith and practice and of science and history.

In our Statement of Faith we explicitly affirm this truth in Article 2, The Bible. Because the Bible teaches Satan is a real, historical being, we believe it. We make explicit reference to Satan in Article 3, The Human Condition. The real, historical Adam and Eve “sinned when tempted by Satan.” We also affirm that Satan is a deceiver (Rev. 12:10) and the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). As such, he defies God, blinds the minds of unbelievers (2 Cor. 4:4), and does what he can to “kill, steal and destroy” believers (Jn. 10:10).

Jesus came to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8). He is a defeated foe, having been triumphed over in the cross of Christ (Col. 2:15). As we affirm in Article 8, Christian Living, we “combat the spiritual forces of evil,” with Satan as the chief of the demonic realm and demons and all the forces of evil, “with God’s Word, the Spirit’s power, and fervent prayer in Christ’s name.”

This is the word of God. This is the teaching of the Bible. This is the teaching of the Church. This we believe.


The Church and Bioethics

Greg Strand – March 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Commenting on the recent publication by John F. Kilner, ed. of Why the Church Needs Bioethics: A Guide to Wise Engagement with Life’s Challenges (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011):

The book centers around three case studies – better birth, viz. “having a baby the new-fashioned way,” better life, viz. “gaining every advantage,” and better death, viz. “a difficult death” – with an integrative response to each of the ethical questions. There are essays/responses from the Old Testament (Dick Averbeck), the New Testament (D. A. Carson), Systematic Theology (Kevin Vanhoozer), Bioethics (John Kilner), Counseling (Stephen Greggo and Miriam Stark Parent), Law (Paige Comstock Cunningham), Intercultural (Harold Netland, Bruce Fields and Elizabeth Sung), Medicine (William Cheshire), Pastoral Care (Steven Roy), Preaching (Greg Scharf). Most of the authors are from the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

This is an excellent resource I would encourage you to read and discuss with your fellow staff members and elder boards. It is important that we provide leadership and guidance to God’s people in this area and that we help them to navigate through these bioethical waters. We cannot leave this task to someone else. The church must lead the way. This resource will help you to do that well and with wisdom from above.

Information on this book was recently posted on Trinity International University’s website, where you can also watch a video clip where John Kilner addresses the book.

Learn more about the EFCA
EFCA Statement of Faith
EFCA ReachGlobal (international mission)
EFCA ReachNational (U.S. mission)