Hell (part 1). . .

This post has been brewing for a while now. To be honest, I haven’t reached a comfortable landing point just yet, but I think I’m getting close. In fact, by the time I finish writing on this topic, I’ll probably reach a stance. I realize that I might end up receiving a decent amount of angry or frustrated responses to this post (and its follow-ups), so I’m going to maintain at least some irenicism and civility, but don’t be surprised if a bit of sarcasm peeks through (I’m from New Jersey, after all).

Hell. It’s an admittedly difficult topic to cover given the incredible lack of experience most people have on the subject (given the fact that most people who have offered any thoughts on the subject are either alive or were alive when they offered their thoughts).

If you’re at all familiar with Evangelical Christianity (a faction I’ve grown less convinced I’m even a part of anymore), you’ve probably heard of the concept of “eternal conscious torment” (henceforth, “ECT”), even if you might not realize it had a name. The idea of ECT is that the unrighteous will suffer unending punishment after they die in a non-figurative “Lake of Fire,” or colloquially, Hell.

In this post, I want to discuss the concept from an epistemological standpoint, addressing Scripture, history, and Christian philosophy. In a follow-up post (or maybe two), I’ll approach it from a spiritual perspective before finishing with some closing thoughts.

If you’ve followed my blog since at least 2011 (and I do apologize for my complete lack of writing the past couple years. Life took several major turns recently), you might recall that I alluded to an affirmation of the standard Evangelical view of the “doctrine of Hell,” as held by my former colleagues in the “Young, Restless, Reformed” camps. Since leaving that camp and its affiliated churches and organizations, I’ve come to a different place in my beliefs on Hell.

The first thing I want to mention is that the word Hell is an incredibly incomplete and insufficient word that doesn’t come close to describing what the Bible describes. It’s so insufficient that many scholars and theologians think it does more harm than good and that it should be wiped from theological language altogether.

There are, in fact, no fewer than nine words in the Bible that get turned into the English word hell. We’ll look at a few of them, but before we do, let’s examine the English word for a moment. The word hell actually derives from an ancient Proto-Germanic word that meant “to cover up.” According to most etymological studies, the word was a means by which Norse mythology regarding the afterlife/underworld entered Christian theology. To be honest, our evangelical concept of hell has more in common with the Norse idea of Niflheim, where Loki’s daughter ruled over the unrighteous dead, than it does with early Christian ideas about the afterlife. I tend to agree with the aforementioned biblical scholars. The word hell is unhelpful in its vagueness and is so connected to a pagan concept that it sheds almost no light on the biblical concepts whatsoever.

For our first biblical word, let’s take a look at the Hebrew word Sheol. The Christian Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, so it’s probably best to start there since the Christian faith is, at its foundation, a derivative of the Jewish faith. Sheol in Hebrew is a reference to “the grave,” and depending on the context, is often synonymous with death, destruction, the earth (as being buried), the sea (as being a deep, dark place), or the pit. To the ancient Jewish mindset, sheol is a dark, morbid word that connotes inactivity, stagnation, and a lack of memory and awareness. Click here for Scripture references to Sheol.

Second, the Greek word Hades. The Christian New Testament was written in Aramaic and Greek, and while we might look at Greek mythology as espousing pagan concepts, we can’t ignore the fact that a good chunk of the Bible was written in Greek to people who spoke Greek in a culture that believed Greek things about the universe. The idea of Hades was not foreign to St. Paul’s audience, so it’s not surprising that he, along with other New Testament writers, would use the word to convey an idea. The Greco-Roman concept of hades most closely resembles the ancient Hebrew concept of sheol, relating a very similar image of “the grave,” or a state of being dead. Very rarely does it portray the idea of punishment in the afterlife; it’s most commonly used in the previously mentioned context. Click here for Scripture references to Hades.

Third, the Greek word Geenna (Latin, Gehenna). King Jesus used the word Gehenna as a symbolic reference to the Valley of Hinnom, a region southwest of Jerusalem where, according to the prophet Jeremiah, the unrighteous kings of Judah sacrificed children to the pagan god Moloch. It’s also likely to be the location of a mythological event during the reign of King Hezekiah when the legendary Messenger of YHWH slaughtered 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in King Sennacherib’s army. See 2 Kings 19:35-37.

The Valley of Hinnom is also traditionally known as the place that the prophet Isaiah refers to in the final chapter of his book (“they that go out” is a reference to leaving Jerusalem and entering the valley). This place is where dead bodies were cremated by an all-consuming fire and undying worms. Ancient Aramaic translations of Isaiah’s book explicitly refer to the Valley of Hinnom, leading the majority of scholars to believe that Jesus confirms this traditional view of the Valley of Hinnom as a place filled with fire and maggots. Click here for Scripture passages referencing Gehenna***

As I mentioned, there are at least nine different terms throughout Scripture that end up translated as “hell” in English, but I won’t go into all of them here. Others such as Matthew Hartke, Benjamin L. Corey, and Mark Edward have done much more work and research than I could have done. I would encourage you to dig into this a bit deeper, particularly Edward’s works. And don’t forget to check out Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. (Really, anything by Tom Wright is vital for Christians to read. He is, after all, the C.S. Lewis of our generation.)

Let’s transition to a more philosophical approach to the subject matter. Over the 26 years or so that I’ve been a Christian, attended Christian day school, studied theology as part of my admittedly non-theological degree program at a “Bible-based” university, and worked both part-time and full-time as a minister in “Bible-teaching” churches (I mention this not to brag, but to address some who have sent me messages calling into question my knowledge of the Bible), I’ve observed a few key themes across the narrative of Scripture. The one I’ll touch on here is that of God’s work as reconciliatory/restorative rather than conciliatory/debt-cancelling.

Scripture’s overarching narrative paints God’s salvific work as restorative; in other words, God is mending the fractured relationship between himself and the world, which includes the work of mending the fractures in the world itself (between the world and the world).

If death (another word translated into hell) and hades are the two great enemies of God’s people and the antithesis of his restorative work, then the idea of ECT is actually detrimental to that work. We have a future where evil and the satan win and where God loses.

Track with me for a moment. God creates the world and says it’s good. Humanity’s choice to rebel against God releases the satan into the world along with all its evils, the most destructive of which are death and hades. But God still loves the world and all humanity in it, so he sets out to rescue them. He chooses a nation through which he will reveal himself to the world, but they fail him. He doesn’t give up on them, but he decides to take matters into his own hands and enters the world he loves as a human and as a Jew. He succumbs to the satan that has been destroying the world he loves and allows the enemy to overtake him in order to show the world just how much he loves her. But good will not be overcome by evil, and in a sudden twist of events, he delivers a blow to death by rising from the grave and then calls on humanity to announce and usher in the kingdom he has inaugurated.

But if humanity at large is defeated by death and hades as ECT unintentionally asserts, how can God be victorious?

As this post has gone on for quite some time now, I’m going to end here and continue these thoughts in part 2. For now, I want us to consider the implications of ECT and its compatibility (read: incompatibility) with a restorative view of God’s work. If God is by very nature love, how is the idea that the vast majority of people over the course of human history are experiencing torment consciously forever and ever compatible with that characterization of God? Did St. John use the wrong word when he wrote, “God is love”? Should he have written, “God is wrath,” instead?

Or, as the 19th-century author Thomas Allin put it in his book Christ Triumphant:

“God is not anger, though he can be angry; God is not vengeance, though he does avenge. These are attributes; love is essence. Therefore, God is unchangeably love. Therefore, in judgment he is love, in wrath he is love, in vengeance he is love — ‘love first, and last, and midst, and without end’.”

Stay tuned for more on this topic. I’m far from finished.

*** I completely forgot to include this paragraph when I initially published this post.

It’s been a while. . .

First off, let me apologize for being pretty much nonexistent on my blog for a while. It’s been an insanely busy and hectic year (and it’s about to get even busier and crazier).

I want to update you on a few things. First off, a lot has changed in me over the last year. Let me take you on a very short version of the journey I’ve been on this past year.

A little over a year ago I started a new job at a church called Emergence. At first glance, I thought it was more of what I was familiar with. Rock music: check. Teaching pastor in jeans and plaid: check. Lots of twenty-something people: check.

But little did I realize that God had brought me to a place that would change me, shape me, and in so many ways mold my vision and understanding of the Church and the mission he has called her to.

It’s been an odd period in my life, to be sure. I grew up in a fundamentalist church (yes, the type of church that was the topic of a 20/20 report. I left that church and found myself bouncing from one church to another, finally finding a place to rest at a place called Liquid Church.

If you’ve been reading my entries over the years, you’ve seen me discover this new church culture. You’ve seen me learn to embrace a “progressive” church and find the strengths in its style.

It’s often said that change is the only constant in life. And once again, my life is changing. My thoughts are changing. My beliefs are changing.

I won’t presume to have all the answers, but I will say this much—I’ve learned far more this past year than I could’ve ever thought possible.

I’ll leave you with this today: I love Liquid Church. I’m thankful for the grace that I received there, for the friendships I built there, and for the message of hope that God has proclaimed through the leaders there. Yet I can’t help but ask these questions.

1. Are we actually making disciples? Not converts. Christ’s commission was “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Discipleship is a lifelong pursuit, not a one-time prayer.

2. What are we empowering people to do? How high is our bar? Handing out bulletins or planting a church? Changing slides in a media presentation or developing intentional, mission-driven relationships with the people they rub shoulders with?

3. Is Sunday our “game day,” or are we engaged in mission all week long, stopping only to rest, refuel, and reflect on Sunday?

These questions make me think. I realize that I’m asking them of you, my readers, but as I read them, I find myself guilty of taking the easy options in regards to my church life. But if I understand the mission of Christ and his kingdom, and if I think about how the church existed in the first century, then there’s no way my “church life” should be truncated to making converts, handing out bulletins, or “going to church.”

I’m leaving Restored to Grace. . .

Not for good, but definitely for a while.

I think God is trying to teach me something—discernment and wisdom. Many, if not all, of my posts were impulsive and reactionary. Which, in itself, isn’t bad. But here’s where it all goes south. Restored to Grace was a public blog. One that I was using as a journal. Those are my thoughts. They’re to be wrestled with in my mind with no one but myself and God (and one or two very trusted advisors).

My life is changing at breakneck speed. I’m no longer a kid just stumbling along trying to figure things out. While I can’t say that I’ve got everything all put together (because, as we all know, none of us do. . . and thank God for that; it’s nice to know that he’s writing our story, and we aren’t), I can say with a fair amount of certainty that I know what I want from life and who I want to be. And now I’m in a position of leadership. And not the kind of leadership I had at my last job where I was just telling people to alphabetize the items on the shelves. I’m a spiritual leader.

And while something inside me shies away at the thought, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s God’s calling on my life.

And because of this calling, I can no longer vomit my initial thoughts and struggles into the public forum. I have to act differently from how I’ve previously acted. Paul wrote these words to the church in Corinth (who, incidentally, had some seriously skewed ideas about the spiritual and physical “realms,” not unlike ourselves in many ways) —

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”

This verse has been weighing heavily on my mind these last several days. I know what I have to do. First, I have to be very careful about what I allow to define me. While I’m not the sum of my blog posts, status updates, and tweets, to the people who know me primarily through those avenues I am. And I have no way of changing their views of me. My friend-pastor-boss likes to say, “We are our own PR firm.” That statement couldn’t be more true. And the task of maintaining our public image is made especially difficult in today’s world with Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere.

I’m not talking about not being authentic. I’m talking about being intentional.

Second, I have to be careful to not react to whatever situations or ideas may come my way. My old mentor (and former friend-pastor-boss) used to exhort me day after day to be careful about my reactions to fundamentalism. Yes, there have been personal hurts. Yes, their approach to the Gospel is quite skewed. But by constantly reacting and trying to “prove that I’m different,” I continue to give them control over my life.

Someone told me recently that in reacting, we give in to our sinfulness. While emotions are a gift from God—allowing us to experience joy, love, and even sadness, emotional highs and lows are Satan’s way of turning our emotions against us. Emotions should never govern our actions, but instead should give power to our rational thought which in turn controls our actions.

Think about it this way (the following analogy is my own, though possibly not originally, as the aforementioned acquaintance didn’t give this to me; I’m saying this so you know I’m not putting words into her mouth) — Our actions and decisions are like a car. They take us from point A to point B. Our carefully reasoned thoughts act as the steering system (wheels, rack, pinion gear, steering wheel, etc.) which controls the direction of the car. Our emotions act as the engine, setting our actions into motion. Without emotions, we don’t really take action. But actions driven by emotions alone are as dangerous as a car without a steering system.

Another of my former pastors once reminded me, after one of my errors in judgment came to light, of this principle from Proverbs 19—that although wisdom without zeal is dead, zeal without wisdom is deadly.

I’m guilty of that. I have for too long allowed the car of my actions and decisions to be governed by the engine of my emotions without the control of my reasoning. Recently a circumstance came into my life that vividly highlighted this. Thankfully it was only a fender-bender that affected an interpersonal relationship that I hadn’t yet invested much time or effort into. I’m glad God didn’t allow this to progress to the point of irreparable damage to the work he’s allowing me to do.

This lack of self-control has led me to take dogmatic stances on grey-area issues. It has caused me to make quick-snap decisions that ended in my hurting people I care about. It also turned me into a democrat.

Paul wrote about this in his second recorded letter to his protégé Timothy.

“God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

Power, love, and self-control are all gifts from God. I pray these words come to describe me in time. For now, I’m progressing there. “Under construction,” if you will.

But I want to thank you all. Thanks for reading Restored to Grace these past three years. It’s been an interesting journey, and one thing I hope I’ve learned through it all is this: God is not giving up on me.

Or on you. Phil. 1.6.

Questions. . .

One of the beauties of my job right now is that I’m not jumping onto a boat that’s already sailing (metaphorically speaking, of course). Instead, I’ve been given the unique opportunity to build the boat. It’s a pretty liberating feeling to be able to start a program from scratch, but at the same time it’s rather daunting as well. So as I go through the process of building this program from the ground up, I’ve been chewing on some questions in my mind.

I’ve got a whiteboard in my office where I do most of my brainstorming and thought-wrestling. (Steve, our Pastor of Development here at Emergence, claims that getting an iPad will effectively eliminate my need to use a whiteboard, but I’m skeptical.) So on this whiteboard I’ve posted a few questions that I’ll be wrestling with over the next few months. Here are a couple of them.

What makes a kids’ environment successful? Is it the “wow” or “cool” factor? How big of a role does the environment play in the effectiveness of the program? Is it the ability for kids to do something at this environment that they can’t do anywhere else?

How do I actually get parents involved in what we’re teaching their kids? Should I rely on Sunday take-home materials? Should I fill the parents’ inboxes with review/wrap-up emails? What about a blog solely devoted to engaging parents in the mission of our program?

These are just a few of the numerous questions I’ll be asking myself as we draw closer to the launch of this program. What about you? Are there any questions that you think I should be wrestling with?

Missional (pt. 2). . .

It had been almost a year since I last connected with this friend. We met tonight at the Barnes & Noble on Rte. 10 in Morris Plains. I decided to go early so that I could do some book browsing before she arrived.

I found a book about the Apostle Paul and flipped through it a little. As I did, I began to daydream a little. What would it have been like to travel with him? Was he a somber guy, or did he have a clever sense of humor?

And what would it be like to walk alongside someone who understood that deeply what it meant to live a missional lifestyle, who understood the synergy created when cross, culture, and community meet within a life?

As I was making my way from the Religion section to the Science Fiction section, I heard my name called. It was my friend.

After barely a minute of small talk, our conversation dove right into ministry. As we shared our hearts, passions, and discoveries with each other, I couldn’t help but sense that she too was experiencing the same “dip” that I am now crawling out of.

And it’s tough.

It’s tough when God has given you a gift and placed on you a calling, and circumstances push you away from where you feel called. And it’s tough when you look within and find that your own sin, guilt, and depression are pulling you away from taking any step towards what God has called you to.

And it’s tough when that call is ministry, and you know that your ability to serve is almost completely shot.

But, like my friend said tonight, finding yourself drawn to ministry, regardless of how often you’re tossed around and pulled away from it, means that you’re meant for it. When you long for the trenches, for the spiritual battle over the souls of people who surround you. When your mind isn’t satisfied until you’ve filled it with God’s word. When your arms itch to embrace the hurting and broken soul. When your lips purse at the thought of sharing with others everything God has taught you. When your ears perk up at the cries of the youth who is lost, frightened, and alone.

You were meant to be in the trenches.

As I sipped my tea, my friend looked straight into my eyes and asked me, “How is your relationship with God?”

She was meant to be in the trenches.

She drove right to that question. Everything else in our conversation had flowed organically, but this question didn’t. No, it was purposed. Directed. Intentional.

It was as if that was the only thing she wanted to ask me. As if the night would be incomplete if she didn’t help wake me up to the realization that I was headed down the same path the led me into this dark valley I’ve been in.

She knew what was important and how to get at it.

And she opened my heart to a truth I only recently began to notice.

I’ve not been connecting with my Daddy.

And crucial to living a missional lifestyle is maintaining an unbroken, open connection with God.

Because without that connection, we can’t be like Jesus.

And being missional is being like Jesus,

(who was more human than anyone else)

which makes us more human than we were before,

so that we can better connect to the broken and hurting humans who would never listen to us unless we fully realize our own humanity.

Missional (pt. 1). . .

Last night in the basement of a house in Lake Hopatcong, NJ, our entire youth staff had fallen face down on the floor in humble adoration of the cross, of grace, and of our Saviour. It was a moment I won’t soon forget as it was the moment that could very well catalyse a new movement within the Liquid community to pour into the next generation like never before.

I won’t bore you with all the details of the changes in store for our SM program or annoy you with boastings of some of the great things we have planned as a youth ministry, but I will tell you this: never before have I felt that my journey in faith had landed somewhere until now.

I can’t pinpoint an exact moment when I placed my trust in Christ, but at some point just two years ago, I knew beyond any doubt that my life belonged to the King of the universe. And over the course of the last two years I went through so many changes and shifts that I began to lose any sense that I even remotely resembled the Nate Nakao prior to 2007.

And while I still feel like I’m in a bit of a “dip,” my future is beginning to come into focus just a little more. But even if the specifics change, I know without any lack of conviction that the rest of my life will be dictated by this sentence: I love the next generation.

I took on an interim directorial role for the children’s program at Liquid, but as I look back on my term in that position, I realize, to my shame, the lack of seriousness I had with the role. I was tasked with taking the gospel to a future generation, and I could barely stay focused long enough to complete that task Sunday to Sunday. It’s a wonder the program didn’t fall apart with me at the helm.

But the gravity of my calling hit me last night. My role as a youth leader is one of utmost importance. My task is a grave and urgent one. My Missio Dei is the same as that of all others: take the gospel to all. But in its specificity, my mission calls me to the youth culture. A culture where the idea of a Creator God who loves them enough to die for them is a foreign idea. A culture that is crying out for connection in all areas that they turn to social media—the greatest tool for and weapon against the fulfillment of their desire to connect. A culture that has found something to live for, but is longing for something to die for.

And so I go forward, taking what I’ve learned and experienced these last few years and building it into who I am going to be.

I lay for my life a foundation characterised by:
Grace – Nothing distinguishes the believer more than his/her unbounded love.
The Cross – The Chosen one of God selected death as his means to bring life to a dead world. It is the central point of history and the fabric by which all life holds together.
The Culture – The point at which I am ineffective in connecting to the culture is the point at which I cease to live out my call. Universally, the point at which any believer ceases to communicate effectively with the culture that surrounds him/her is the point at which he is no longer fulfilling the Missio Dei given directly to him/her in Matthew 28.18-20.

Today I declare my life’s mission. And every tomorrow to follow will carry with it an opportunity to live my mission. My prayer is that I will seize every one of those opportunities. I just hope I never miss one again.

Christianity’s future in America. . .

I’ve often wondered if Christianity is in need of a facelift. According to the 2008 American Religion Survey, the results of which were just released last week, mainline Christianity has suffered a significant decline.

According to David Gushee of the Associated Baptist Press (see this op-ed piece), this decline signals a winnowing process that is taking place in Christianity.

Am I discouraged by this? Not at all.

First, I believe that nominal Christians will fade away. Christianity will no longer be defined by the people who self-identify as Christians but don’t truly believe in Christ. A movement that sheds its fat will be far more effective.

Second, Christians will begin to cross denominational lines and reconsider their more controversial identifying doctrines in favor of working together to spread the Gospel and share Christ’s love.

Third, Christians will slowly move away from the culture war they’ve been waging these past few decades. They’ll soon begin to realize that a political battle is not the battle we’re meant to fight.

Sure, the [C]hurch will be smaller because of it, but a stronger and more effective group of Christ-followers will emerge.

Maybe not at Liquid?. . .

I sometimes think about what God may have for my future. And these past few days have really heightened the frequency of these thoughts. The question that often races through my mind is “What if. . .?” An email I received yesterday pushed “What if?” into a new direction.

What if God moves me away from Liquid?

What if His mission for me takes me away from the body of believers I’ve grown to love and cherish more than any group I’ve been associated with?

Honestly, the thought scares me. I ordinarily shove that thought into the back of my mind and continue doing what I’m doing. But lately the thought has been sitting in my head, unwilling to move or pass on.

Liquid is my home. My spiritual safehouse. The church welcomed me while I was in my most broken state. They were the instrument God used to heal my emotional and spiritual wounds and to get me started on a journey of faith I never dreamed possible.

I seriously do not want to leave. But maybe I have to. Maybe I’ve grown too comfortable here. Maybe my gifts are better used elsewhere. Maybe God is preparing a place for me to serve in a greater capacity.

Then again, maybe God is making me realize that it’s not about Liquid or the people there. It’s about Him. Maybe Liquid Church is my final destination, and this part of my journey is designed to show me that His Kingdom is moving quickly and powerfully in other venues as well.

But wherever He puts me, His love and presence are already there.

This month at Liquid Kids I get to teach the children about Hope. Hope is more than just a dream, a wish, or a desire. It’s a belief that at the heart of the darkest circumstance, God is working for our good. Or, for the sake of the kids’ collective minds, “Hope is believing that something good can come out of something bad.”

Separating from the people you love most is a heart-wrenching experience. But “goodbye” to one thing is always “hello” to something else.

So now I’m mentally and emotionally preparing myself to say goodbye. My desire is that I don’t have to, but if I do, I can have hope that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (emphasis added).

A sobering reality. . .

I was enjoying a tall Hyatt-prepared yogurt parfait (the Mike Leahy special) the afternoon following my return to Liquid Kids in Morristown. Overall, it was a fantastic day, and while I missed my friends and family at Liquid New Brunswick, it was such a blessing reconnecting with old friends in Morristown.

During my parfait-eating session, my friend Yuzo (Francisco to many) said to me (in his endearing broken English), “You are one most influential people at Liquid.”

Whoa. Talk about a world-rattling statement. Sure, it was a compliment, but the weight of that statement hit me like an ACME anvil.

Influence is defined as “the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others.”

That’s a lot of responsibility, if you ask me. Responsibility I never asked for, and if I had my way, I’d try my best to get rid of. I was perfectly happy just hanging out in the back of the service, enjoying the music and learning from the sermons.

But here’s where everything changed. I asked God to help me grow. And as it turns out, growth comes through stretching and expanding, and those are rarely comfortable experiences.

As I thought about what Yuzo said, I started to realize the truth in his statement. I recalled my first year attending Liquid Church, sneaking into a service and sticking close to my best friend, and then dwelled on my last month here, spending an average of 16 hours on a Sunday serving the people of this church. How did I get here?

The realization that my sphere of influence has grown dramatically over the last year and 8 months is a sobering reality to live in. Suddenly I’m entrusted with the care of people’s hearts. Suddenly I have to be careful about how I interact with people. Suddenly I have to think about every action and every word.

And if I were completely honest with myself, I’d have to say that I haven’t been very careful.

So now I stand here asking myself, Am I ready for this kind of responsibility?