After Hellfire & Brimstone What? Regaining Confidence in the Gospel

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I grew up with a gospel built on the pillars of love, sin, fear and certainty. I was overwhelmed by the knowledge that God loved me so much he sent Jesus to die for my sins; fearful of going to hell and anxious that my friends avoid that fate; assured that people were morally decrepit and deserving of hell and; absolutely certain about what I believed. This was a potent mix that left me with a deep-seated sense of mission. What could be more important than saving people from the torments of hell? Whenever and wherever I could I would seek to share “the gospel” – from my friends at school to strangers on the bus. I once even took to unrolling toilet rolls in public toilets and rolling them back up again with gospel tracts inserted between the sheets.

Since then my faith has changed, matured… or so I like to think. The bedrock of certainty collapsed when I realised it was not intellectually credible to pretend the tenets of my faith had the logical certitude of mathematics or the high probabilities of science. Yes, my faith was intellectually credible, but not the only intellectually credible way of understanding the world.

I also lost the hellfire and brimstone. Both my reading of Scripture and my sense of justice led me to question, and then come to reject, the notion that a just and loving God would consign people to an eternity of pitiless suffering or that human beings, simultaneously flawed but magnificently wonderful, deserved it. I also discovered that “substitutionary atonement” is a somewhat recent development in Christian thinking and not, to my mind, the most convincing interpretation of the death and resurrection of Christ.

With the pillars of certainty, fear, moral depravity and substitutionary atonement knocked out what did I have to say to the world anymore? Embarassed by the hellfire, brimstone and arrogant certainty of my past I lost confidence that I had anything meaningful to share and/or the right to share it.

Simultaneously the gospel of my childhood ceased answering the questions of my age. Asking people “if you were to die tonight where would you spend eternity?”, as one evangelism program of my youth urged, just doesn’t make sense in a culture where people are thoroughly agnostic, if not skeptical, about life after death. Likewise, a gospel of guilt in which a Saviour pays the penalty for our sins may have had great resonance to the guilt-laden-duty-focused generation of my grandparents, but to the self-actualising generation of today it speaks to a question few are asking.

Since then I have come to believe that my faith has a lot to say, that Jesus really is good news. Above all I think the gospel presents my generation with a powerful vision of what they and the world can be. In the living of Jesus I see a life lived well; one that is committed to love, grace, justice; to extending itself beyond the pursuit of money, prestige, position or power; beyond a narrow preoccupation with oneself and one’s immediate circle; to being an agent of liberation and grace to humankind and the planet. In his death I see the awful potentiality of self-interest, greed, and fear to destroy that which is good. In his resurrection I see God’s declaration that evil will not win the day, that the vision, values and way of Jesus can and will triumph, and that as I throw my lot in with this vision I discover life. And in this story I discover we are not orphans in a cold, godless universe, but children, sometimes very wayward children, of a good, wise and loving God, who longs for us and our planet to be all we were created to be.

It’s a bold and audacious story, one that I can see will not be convincing to all – in a world marked by much suffering, where God can seem spectacularly absent, and where Christians can behave abominably I can understand atheism, agnosticism and doubt. But it’s the story that rings true for me and in an age of ecological and humanitarian crisis, one that I think we need.

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Rachel
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Rachel

This is a breath of fresh air for my soul today Scott. I love your vision of Jesus and preoccupation with him, rather than a need to check boxes and have the right answers. Thank you!

Joh Archer
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Joh Archer

This presents a lovely version of God. Too bad it`s over-engineered. Why would you say “relitivly new” when people like John Calvin (1509-64), Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-74), Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), Ambrose of Milan (339-397), Justin Martyr (c.100-165) and Paul wrote distinctly about this.
Is it really hard to think that God`s wrath is perfect, as His love is perfect. When someone portrays traditional doctrine in an extremist version, alarm bells ring, but it does help to make a softer approach more palletable even if inaccurate, well alarm bells are certainly ringing on this article .

Scott
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Scott

Hi Joh, I think you’ll find that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement had its origins in the 11th century with Anselm’s notion of satisfaction for God’s offended honour, before being refined into the judicial context we know it today with the Reformers. So in historical terms I’d call that recent. Nothing controversial in this. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology article on atonement reads “None of them [ie NT writers] sets out a theory of atonement…We are left in no doubt about its efficacy and its complexity. View the human spiritual problem as you will, and the cross meets the need.… Read more »

Jaffa
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Jaffa

Scott, Christians should test their faith with scripture rather than the world. *”I also lost the hellfire and brimstone. Both my reading of Scripture and my sense of justice led me to question, and then come to reject, the notion that a just and loving God would consign people to an eternity of pitiless suffering or that human beings, simultaneously flawed but magnificently wonderful, deserved it.” Derek Flood and you have gone from one extreme to another, I just hope you don`t try and say everyone is redeemed in the end and/or seperation from God (as in Hell) is only… Read more »

scott
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scott

Hi Jaffa
The notion of eternal torment is rejected as unbiblical by many Christian scholars, including no less than the leading evangelical of the last half century, the late John Stott.

Jaffa
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Jaffa

As John Stott says, “It is impossible to forsake it (the gospel) without forsaking him (God).” And those who reject the true gospel must themselves be rejected. It is that important. Stott again: “Anybody who rejects the apostolic gospel no matter who he may be, is himself to be rejected. He may appear as ‘an angel from heaven.’ In this case we are to prefer apostles to angels. We are not to be dazzled, as many people are, by the person, gifts or office of teachers in the church. They may come to us with great dignity, authority and scholarship.… Read more »

Jaffa
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Jaffa

κόλασιν αἰώνιον = eternal punishment
ζωὴν αἰώνιον = eternal life

aion and aionos definitely can mean “age” or “period of time,” they also mean “eternal.” The word’s context helps us to determine its meaning. So if we assume that these words primarily mean “age” or “period of time,” what happens when we apply that definition to John 3:16 where aionos is used?
For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son so that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have life for a period of time.
Not as encouraging, is it?

Eric Hall
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Eric Hall

On the point of Substitutionary atonement, it isn’t a recent inclusion. It is all through the Bible. The passover lamb was a substitute for the people. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews is based on the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ for our sins. Read it again. Heb_9:28  So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation. 1Pe_3:18  For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in… Read more »

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