Archive for the ‘Christian’ Category

Review of A More Christlike Way, by Bradley Jersak

Monday, July 27th, 2020

A More Christlike Way

A More Beautiful Faith

by Bradley Jersak

CWRpress, 2019. 252 pages.
Review written July 27, 2020, from my own copy
Starred Review

A sequel to his wonderful book, A More Christlike God, here Bradley Jersak takes a look at how Christians live out their faith – and how they can be more like Jesus as they do.

This work rests on the foundation that God is a God of love, and that Jesus displayed that. Within that, he looks at some counterfeit ways of doing Christianity, and then seven facets of a more beautiful faith: Radical self-giving, radical hospitality, radical unity, radical recovery, radical peacemaking with radical forgiveness, radical surrender, and radical compassion with radical justice.

He presents the Jesus Way as a journey – not something anyone will ever accomplish perfectly. This means that every Christian can find something to work on in this book.

I love his Finale. He took passages from Isaiah, from Micah, and from Jesus’ words to tell us about the dreams our Abba dreams for us.

Our focus is to be single-minded and clear-eyed on Abba’s dream for our world as our first agenda. Our now agenda.

It has nothing to do with grandiose claims of outer-galactic revivals or “the next big move of God.” It’s about watching the mustard seed grow by Grace and participating in what Grace is up to . . .

One poor person at a time,
One naked person at a time,
One prisoner at a time,
One stranger at a time,
One hospital visit at a time.

ptm.org

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Defying Gravity, by Tom Berlin

Sunday, June 21st, 2020

Defying Gravity

Break Free from the Culture of More

by Tom Berlin

Abingdon Press, 2016. 108 pages.
Review written January 9, 2020, from my own copy

This little book was given to me when I joined Floris United Methodist Church, where the author is the lead pastor. It’s a book about giving generously, which might make you suspicious coming from a pastor. However, Tom Berlin tells a personal story of how giving changed his life – and he expresses that he hopes that others will find the same joy.

He told the story when I went to the membership information night of how his young bride insisted that they give a tenth of their income – much to his dismay. But as the years went by, her example eventually changed his attitude, and he discovered that an attitude of generosity can set you free from the gravity of this world and this culture, that you need to hoard and you always need more.

The book is short, with only four chapters. They talk about the pull of money in our lives, and how to break free of financial gravity and realize that we are stewards of God’s money.

So it may be short, but these are big lessons. I’m still absorbing if there are some changes I can make to be more generous.

All of us can defy gravity. It doesn’t take lots of money. It does take time. It takes sacrifice. It takes a shift in our view of the world. We must learn to see our lives as belonging to God and trust that God will direct our lives in a generous way that will bring us joy and significance.

God longs for us to experience a life in Christ that will make us generous in all ways, with our kindness, compassion, and love as evidenced in the use of our time and money. Such a life enables us to break free of the world’s gravity and enjoy the pull of God’s kingdom so that the Spirit of God will be evident in our own.

abingdonpress.com

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Review of Waking Up in Heaven, by Crystal McVea and Alex Tresniowski

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

Waking Up in Heaven

A True Story of Brokenness, Heaven, and Life Again

by Crystal McVea
and Alex Tresniowski

Howard Books (Simon & Schuster), 2013. 245 pages.
Review written February 1, 2020, from a library book

In December 2009, Crystal McVea died in a hospital room and spent time in the presence of God. While there, he showed her his unconditional, overwhelming love for her.

To show us how significant and earth-shaking that revelation was, Crystal tells her life story. She was abused in her childhood beginning at three years old. As a teen, she had an abortion. She didn’t feel remotely lovable or forgivable.

But in heaven, Crystal saw a beautiful little girl and her heart filled with love for her. Then God showed her that girl was herself.

And then another understanding passed between God and me, and I knew this is what He’d been trying to show me all my life. He’d been trying to show me how very much He loved me.

I knew God was allowing me to see myself as He saw me. And in His eyes I was an absolutely perfect creation, and I always would be. All the things that happened to me on Earth, all the bad decisions that caused me to hate myself – none of it mattered. I had believed God couldn’t possibly love me, not after what had been done to me, not after what I had done. But this belief was a lie, and God blasted the lie by showing me the intensity of His love for me.

I believe intellectually that God loves each of us like that. But this story put it into emotions, helped visualize that kind of love.

Since then, Crystal has been telling her story and letting other people know how much God loves them.

I read this book slowly, a little bit at a time, as I do with most nonfiction. I think I might have enjoyed it more and kept the thread of the story better if I had read it more quickly. But the overall message is powerful – that God has His hand on our lives, and God loves us.

SimonandSchuster.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Saturday, May 9th, 2020

Living Buddha, Living Christ

by Thich Nhat Hanh

Riverhead Books, 1995. 208 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 17, 2019, from a library book

A big thank you to my friend who recommended this book to me. (Actually, he mentioned it as if I would have read it. I checked it out.) It ended up fitting nicely with another book I was reading, The Universal Christ, by Richard Rohr.

In this book, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, looks at the wisdom that Christians and Buddhists can get from each other’s traditions and teachings.

He talks about his own encounters with Christians who embody the teachings of Jesus. He sees the coming together of people from different religions as the work of peace. This book explains many of the things we have in common.

Here are some thoughts from the first chapter:

When you touch someone who authentically represents a tradition, you not only touch his or her tradition, you also touch your own. This quality is essential for dialogue. When participants are willing to learn from each other, dialogue takes place just by their being together. When those who represent a spiritual tradition embody the essence of their tradition, just the way they walk, sit, and smile speaks volumes about the tradition.

In fact, sometimes it is more difficult to have a dialogue with people in our own tradition than with those of another tradition. Most of us have suffered from feeling misunderstood or even betrayed by those of our own tradition. But if brothers and sisters in the same tradition cannot understand and communicate with each other, how can they communicate with those outside their tradition? For dialogue to be fruitful, we need to live deeply our own tradition and, at the same time, listen deeply to others. Through the practice of deep looking and deep listening, we become free, able to see the beauty and values in our own and others’ tradition.

To be honest, I’m not sure I understood a lot of what was said in this book. But I was challenged, and some new ideas were presented to me. I do believe that some of these ideas can deepen my own faith.

Here’s an example of a section that challenges me to live out what I believe in community:

The church is the vehicle that allows us to realize those teachings. The church is the hope of Jesus, just as the Sangha is the hope of the Buddha. It is through the practice of the church and the Sangha that the teachings come alive. Communities of practice, with all their shortcomings, are the best way to make the teachings available to people. The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit need the church in order to be manifested. (“Wherever two or three are gathered in My Name, there I am.”) People can touch the Father and the Son through the church. That is why we say that the church is the mystical body of Christ. Jesus was very clear about the need to practice the teaching and to do so in community. He told His disciples to be the light of the world. For a Buddhist, that means mindfulness. The Buddha said that we must each be our own torch. Jesus also told His disciples to be the salt of the world, to be real salt. His teaching was clear and strong. If the church practices well the teachings of Jesus, the Trinity will always be present and the church will have a healing power to transform all that it touches.

It was good for me to admit and realize that I can learn spiritual truths from a Buddhist. And there’s much to learn in this book.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Inventing Hell, by Jon M. Sweeney

Saturday, April 25th, 2020

Inventing Hell

Dante, the Bible, and Eternal Torment

by Jon M. Sweeney

ACTA Publications, second edition, 2017. First edition published in 2014. 206 pages.
Review written 02/02/2020 from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com

This book is about Dante’s Inferno, the book that more than any other – much more than the Bible, according to Jon Sweeney – shaped our current ideas about Hell. And he makes a strong case.

In the Prologue, the author describes what you’ll find in this book, so I’m going to copy his summary here.

Full of the mysteries of Greek mythology, philosophy, and ancient religions, Inventing Hell will:

— Show you that there was little agreement among Christians, before Dante, about the nature and extent of what we call Hell.

— Illuminate for you the concepts of afterlife that existed before Dante, from ancient Judaism, Virgil and Plato, the teachings of Jesus, the early church, Islam, and medieval theologians.

— Demonstrate that Dante had various medieval apocalyptic sources to help him create the elaborate architecture of Hell that most people know today.

— Shine a clearer light on the sort of Hell that Dante created.

— And reveal that Hell has nine descending circles (in the same way that the devil has hooves and a tail)!

Before we’re done, you may be shocked to realize that for seven hundred years we’ve simply taken Dante’s word for it….

My hope is that you will begin to see the many sources of this complex picture of the afterlife and how Dante’s Hell is a patchwork creation. You should become better able to dissect and appreciate what a magnificent and fantastic world Dante creates, and why it made sense to the people of the late Middle Ages. The world of his Inferno is revealed to be mythical not because Dante made it up. He didn’t. It’s mythical because it was intricately woven in the imagination of a great poet, using a variety of sources, replete with legend, upon which Western civilization once built its most basic understandings of itself. With any luck, you will also find that it does not ring true in the twenty-first century.

This book is especially fascinating in its look at what the ancients thought about the afterlife – even as reflected in the Hebrew Scriptures, but particularly Greek mythology and other sources. I would have liked a little more about what the Bible actually says about judgment after death.

The author does point out that Gehenna, which is translated “hell” in many English Bibles, referred to the Valley of Hinnom, a place outside the city where trash was incinerated. But he neglects to mention that the word translated “eternal” was aeonian and means “of the ages,” not “without end.” So he tends to downplay verses suggesting any kind of punishment after death as borrowing from pagan sources.

Here’s a section at the end of the book:

I haven’t had much to say about God in this book because God is almost beside the point of Dante’s Inferno. Hell is mostly about God’s absence. But one of the things I’ve learned as I’ve grown older is that there is no single image or description of God that is the unvarnished truth. There isn’t even one single image of God in the Bible, and each religious tradition contains a variety of images for the divine. I’ve also come to accept that Christianity holds what seem to be contradictory images of God almost simultaneously. That’s why I’m convinced that each of us has to choose.

There is, for instance, the God that Jesus preaches about in the Sermon on the Mount, who blesses the humble, rewards the meek, and promises the Earth to those who make peace instead of war. This is the Good Shepherd who will expend every effort to save a lost sheep from danger. This is the God that Saint Paul writes about when he beautifully says, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

But then there is also the God of Jesus’ parable of the Great Banquet (in Matthew 22 and Luke 14), in which the kingdom of Heaven is compared to a rich king putting on a wedding feast for his son. When none of the invited guests show up, he tells his servants to invite others to come; when they don’t come either, he tells the servants to go out to the road and tell every passing stranger that they are invited to a feast. Yet when one man among these last invited guests shows up wearing the wrong clothing, the king is furious. Jesus says, “Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen” (Mt. 22:13-14). This is the God who is compared to a king who rules his subjects, and who regards them as being like sheep and goats. This is the God we also encounter in Revelation, who seems to be looking forward to war and apocalypse, punishment, and the ultimate outpouring of divine fury.

The Inferno offers only one of these images of God, and it isn’t the one that I choose. All we have is a vivid, sad vision of a God who judges, punishes, tortures, and abandons. That doesn’t make sense to me, and although those who have used Dante to preach Hell over the centuries have been able to point to a few biblical passages to support their ideas, they’d still be better stewards of the material to pull out a lexicon of Greek mythology. Ultimately, I choose not Dante’s vengeful, predatory God who is anxious to tally faults, to reward and to punish. Instead I choose the God who creates and sustains us, who is incarnate and wants to be with and among us, and the God who inspires and comforts us. That God is the real one, the one I have come to know and understand and love, and that God has nothing to do with medieval Hell.

The problem I have with the above is that I think the Bible teaches there will be a reckoning after death. I think he’s mischaracterizing that judgment and mischaracterizing the God of Matthew and Revelation. I think the judgment after death will not be permanent and will be for correction and restoration.

But I am completely and totally in agreement with him in rejecting the God of Dante’s Inferno. I do not believe that God engages in gratuitous torture. I do not believe that God has anything to do with Dante’s horrible imaginations of human suffering. This book points out that more of our ideas of Hell came from Dante than from the Bible. Whatever judgment there will be after death, I agree with this author that God has nothing to do with medieval Hell.

This book is worth reading to help you realize how much of our common conception of Hell is was either invented by Dante or popularized by him from stories common in his day.

I don’t mind trusting in an old book when it’s the Bible. But I certainly don’t want to trust in a picture of a place of torture invented seven hundred years ago by a poet. This eye-opening book was full of things I didn’t know about the sources Dante used to create his epic poetry. It all makes for great fiction but questionable theology.

actapublications.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Resurrecting Easter, by John Dominic Crossan & Sarah Sexton Crossan

Sunday, April 12th, 2020

Resurrecting Easter

How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision

by John Dominic Crossan & Sarah Sexton Crossan

HarperOne, 2018. 213 pages.
Review written March 3, 2020, from a library book

I’d originally checked this book out and tried to read it in 2018, but eventually gave up. (I was busy with Newbery reading, anyway.) But after Richard Rohr referred to it in The Universal Christ, I checked it out again and this time made a concentrated effort to read the whole thing.

It’s a very academic work, so that’s why it’s hard to get through, but becomes fascinating the more you pay attention to what the authors are saying. It’s a book about early Christian art portraying the Resurrection of Christ – and how it developed in two different directions.

But instead of just talking about it, the authors show you exactly what they’re talking about. They have traveled the world to collect photos of the art, and they’re on display in color on the large pages of this beautiful book. The authors also tell about their travels to old churches with mosaics and to monasteries with old manuscripts. We come to understand the timeline as they carefully date each picture and show how the iconography progressed.

As they lay out the two categories of images of Christ’s Resurrection – Individual and Universal, they also show us the different types within each category, and show how the types developed.

Here’s how the authors explain the Universal Resurrection Tradition in their Prologue:

Instead of arising alone, Christ raises all of humanity with him. He reaches out toward Adam and Eve, the biblical parents and symbols for humanity itself, raises them up, and leads them out of Hades, the prison of death.

This is presented in contrast to the Individual Resurrection Tradition, where Christ is pictured rising alone in splendor and triumph. The authors give two reasons for spending more time on the Universal Resurrection Tradition:

One is that the individual version becomes, by the second millennium, the official Easter icon of Western Christianity. As such, it is the one we know best as Westerners, and we may even presume, mistaking part for whole, that it is the only one present throughout Christian history. In this book, therefore, the emphasis is on universal over individual iconography for Christ’s Resurrection as remedial education for Western Christians. During the last fifteen years, it has been precisely that for us.

Another – and much more important – reason for emphasizing the universal resurrection tradition is based on these two final questions as the fourth and fifth themes of Resurrecting Easter. We emphasize them here and now, and we ask you to keep them in mind throughout the book, but we will only answer them at the very end of the book.

First, is the individual or universal vision in closer continuity with the New Testament’s understanding of “Resurrection” and in better conformity with the Gospels’ conception of Easter? For example, when Paul speaks of Christ’s Resurrection, is he imagining it as individual or universal? Or again, when 1 Corinthians 15:20 and Matthew 27:52 refer, using the same Greek term, to the resurrection of “those who have fallen asleep,” who exactly are those sleepers?

Second, whether you understand Christ’s Resurrection as a historical event or a theological interpretation; whether you accept it as myth or parable, symbol or metaphor; and whether you accept it religiously or reject it absolutely, what does it claim and what does that mean? How can someone or something that happens once at a certain time and in a specific place influence or change the whole human race – not just forward to the end of time, but backward to its start?…

What does it mean, whether or not it is credible, to depict Christ’s Resurrection as humanity’s liberation from death – all humanity, past, present and future?

So that gives you a feel for what’s explored in this book. Besides being a beautifully photographed book, it’s a major work of scholarship, gathering images made of Christ’s Resurrection from as early as the 700s, and placing them in chronological order and historical context.

As a universalist myself, I wouldn’t have minded if the authors had drawn more conclusions. But I personally took comfort in this confirmation that my belief that Christ redeemed all of humanity and “as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” — that this belief is bolstered by Christian art created centuries ago. Beautiful and inspiring.

ResurrectingEasterBook.com
harperone.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Shameless, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Saturday, April 11th, 2020

Shameless

A Case for Not Feeling Bad About Feeling Good (About Sex)

by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Convergent Books, 2019. 200 pages.
Review written March 29, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

I wasn’t sure about this book. It’s a book about sexuality and spirituality and how the church’s teachings on sexuality have harmed people.

I saved sex for marriage and married my first boyfriend. I was proud of that. So pleased that we did it “right” and followed God’s best plan. I even thought that the fact we waited for marriage proved the guy had self-control and wouldn’t ever have an affair. Well, that didn’t work out; he had an affair, left me, and now I’m divorced. And there are some who read the Bible to say that means God doesn’t want me to ever have sex again. What do I do with that?

Here’s a bit from the Introduction:

In the ten years I’ve been pastor at HFASS, I’ve known young married couples who did what the church told them and “waited,” only to discover that they could not, on the day of their wedding, flip a switch in their brains and in their bodies and suddenly go from relating to sex as sinful and dirty and dangerous to relating to sex as joyful and natural and God-given. I’ve known single women who didn’t have sex until they were forty and now have absolutely no idea how to manage the emotional aspect of a sexual relationship. I’ve heard middle-aged women admit that they still can’t make themselves wear a V-neck because as teenagers they were told female modesty was the best protection from unwanted male sexual advances. I’ve seen gay men who never reported the sexual abuse they experienced in the church because the church told them being gay was a sin. I’ve heard stories from women who experienced marital rape after getting married at twenty years old (because if you have to wait until marriage to have sex, then you hurry that shit up) but got the message from their church that because there is a verse in the Bible that says women should be subject to their husbands, it was not actually rape.

It doesn’t feel very difficult to draw a direct line between the messages many of us received from the church and the harm we’ve experienced in our bodies and spirits as a result. So my argument in this book is this: we should not be more loyal to an idea, a doctrine, or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people. If the teachings of the church are harming the bodies and spirits of people, we should rethink those teachings.

So I wasn’t sure what I’d think about this book – but what I found was a message of grace. And insights I’d never thought about before.

She talks about purity systems – rules and regulations to keep us pure. She says it’s natural for us to make them, because we want to be holy.

But no matter how much we strive for purity in our minds, bodies, spirits, or ideologies, purity is not the same as holiness. It’s just easier to define what is pure than what is holy, so we pretend they are interchangeable….

The desire to live a holy life that is pleasing to God is understandable, but this desire is also fraught with pitfalls.

Our purity systems, even those established with the best of intentions, do not make us holy. They only create insiders and outsiders. They are mechanisms for delivering our drug of choice: self-righteousness, as juice from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil runs down our chins. And these purity systems affect far more than our relationship to sex and booze: they show up in political ideology, in the way people shame each other on social media, in the way we obsess about “eating clean.” Purity most often leads to pride or to despair, not to holiness. Because holiness is about union with, and purity is about separation from.

She explores lots of ideas here, and they surprised me by how lovely these ideas were. She’s not just questioning rules and systems and teachings, she’s also talking about what does healthy sexuality look like? One fascinating insight is that sexuality and spirituality have much in common.

She doesn’t give us a list of new rules in this book. She explores and she asks questions and she gets us thinking about the bodies God gave us, what pleases Him and what pleases us.

The point is, it all calls for attention. Does something enhance my life and relationships, or does it take it over? Is my behavior compulsive? When I or my partner experience this pleasure, is it bringing me or my partner more deeply into the moment, into the sacred, into our bodies, or is it separating one or both of us from these things?

Here’s another insight:

Jesus, we know, was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton, a friend of prostitutes and tax collectors. His first miracle was to keep the wine flowing at a party he was attending. So the guy was not afraid of pleasure. But he also fasted for forty days in the desert and would often go to a mountain to pray alone. He seemed to live an integrated life of feasting and fasting.

I like so much in this book, and it’s hard to describe and hard to explain. I like the connection she makes that good sexual connection comes when we can put aside our shame. When we can see each other as we truly are and reveal ourselves with all our scars.

Too often, the diagram that religion draws up for explaining sex takes the snake’s-eye view – it names only the physics of fear, threat, and control, but none of the magic. Likewise, media and advertising thrust the commodification of sex our way, and sex becomes either something to trade in or just another aspect of life in which we are judged and found lacking. But neither of these approaches is enough. Neither points to the whole truth. Because there is also magic.

This magic is what God placed in us at creation. It is the spark of divine creativity, the desire to be known, body and soul, and to connect deeply to God and to another person. This magic is the juiciest part of us, and the most hurtable. This magic was breathed into us when God emptied God’s lungs to give us life, saying, “Take what I have and who I am.” This magic is what snakes seek to darken with shame. This magic was what was sanctified for all time and all people when Jesus took on human form and gave of himself, saying, “Take and eat, this is my body given for you.”

This book isn’t about rules and regulations. It’s about finding shamelessness, magic, and a closer connection with God and others. It took me by surprise.

nadiabolzweber.com
convergentbooks.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of That All Shall Be Saved, by David Bentley Hart

Sunday, December 29th, 2019

That All Shall Be Saved

Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation

by David Bentley Hart

Yale University Press, 2019. 222 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 26, 2019, from my own copy purchased via Amazon.com

My cousin Keith mentioned on Facebook that this book was coming out, a book on the same topic as Rob Bell’s Love Wins. He mentioned it with concern, but it gave me great delight, and I ordered the book on Amazon. It makes a nice addition to my collection of books supporting universalism.

This one takes a very academic perspective. The book is written in academic language, and I’m ashamed to admit that some of the language went right over my head. He also takes a primarily philosophical approach, arguing about the nature of God and goodness and free will. (No wonder my cousin knew of this author – my cousin is a professor of philosophy.)

One thing I love about this book is that there’s not a trace of wishy-washiness in his opinions. Now, when I first started reading about universalism, I’m glad I encountered writers with more humility, more willing to concede they might be mistaken. But the more I’ve read, the more universalism seems to make everything make sense, and for me at this point, it feels refreshing to read an author who’s sure about what he’s teaching. Here’s how he puts it in the Introduction:

If Christianity taken as a whole is indeed an entirely coherent and credible system of belief, then the universalist understanding of its message is the only one possible. And, quite imprudently, I say that without the least hesitation or qualification.

And he adds to that in the end of the book:

To say that, on the one hand, God is infinitely good, perfectly just, and inexhaustibly loving, and that, on the other, he has created a world under such terms as oblige him either to impose, or to permit the imposition of, eternal misery on finite rational beings, is simply to embrace a complete contradiction. And, no matter how ingenious the rhetorical tricks one devises to convince oneself that the claim is in fact logically coherent, morally elevating, and spiritually enlivening, the contradiction remains unresolved. All becomes mystery, but only in the sense that it requires a very mysterious ability to believe impossible things.

The book begins by looking at the question of an eternal hell, and then four meditations looking at four questions: “Who is God?” “What Is Judgment?” “What Is a Person?” and “What Is Freedom?”

In the section on the question of an eternal hell, he says that he is okay with the view that suffering in hell is essentially self-imposed.

A hardened heart is already its own punishment; the refusal to love or be loved makes the love of others – or even just their presence – a source of suffering and a goad to wrath. At the very least, this is a psychological fact that just about any of us can confirm from experience.

His problem with the common teaching on hell is strictly with the idea that hell is never-ending.

Once one has had time to think about it for a little while, one should notice that, when all is said and done, this very rational and psychologically plausible understanding of hell still in no significant way improves the larger picture of God as creator and redeemer – at least, not if one insists upon adding the qualification “eternal” or “final” to the condition of self-imposed misery that it describes. At that point, we find that our two questions remain as gallingly unaddressed as ever: the secondary question of whether this defiant rejection of God for all of eternity is really logically possible for any rational being; and the primary question of whether the God who creates a reality in which the eternal suffering of any being is possible – even if it should be a self-induced suffering – can in fact be the infinitely good God of love that Christianity says he is.

David Bentley Hart goes into great detail looking at these questions. He gives a preview of where he’s going:

One argument that I shall make in this book is that the very notion that a rational agent in full possession of his or her faculties could, in any meaningful sense, freely reject God absolutely and forever is a logically incoherent one. Another is that, for this and other reasons, a final state of eternal torment could be neither a just sentence pronounced upon nor a just fate suffered by a finite being, no matter how depraved that being might have become. Still another is that, even if that fate were in some purely abstract sense “just,” the God who would permit it to become anyone’s actual fate could never be perfectly good – or, rather, as Christian metaphysical tradition obliges us to phrase it, could never be absolute Goodness as such – but could be at most only a relative calculable good in relation to other relative calculable goods. And yet another is that the traditional doctrine of hell’s perpetuity renders other aspects of the tradition, such as orthodox Christology or the eschatological claims of the Apostle Paul, ultimately meaningless. If all of this seems obscure, which at this point it should, I hope it will have become clear by the end of the book.

By this time, you understand what I mean when I say this book is primarily philosophical and written in academic language. This book isn’t for every reader, but if these quotations make you wonder or want to argue, you know where to find more.

Now, please don’t think that his arguments are merely philosophical and apart from Scripture. No, as with every book on universalism, an important part of his argument is the assertion that our modern day infernalist view of eternal hell comes from mistranslations of Greek and Hebrew Scripture.

This author has already published his own translation of the New Testament. So that either means that he has a thorough knowledge of the Greek language used or it means that he’s translating to please himself. Since his conclusions match what so many other authors have told me about the meaning of significant Greek words, and since he looks at the historical use of key terms outside the Bible, including their use by Plato as well as by the early church fathers, I’m going with the view that he’s got a thorough knowledge of the Greek.

He covers the writings of the New Testament most closely in his meditation “What Is Judgment?” Here’s a little bit from that section:

There is a general sense among most Christians that the notion of an eternal hell is explicitly and unremittingly advanced in the New Testament; and yet, when we go looking for it in the actual pages of the text, it proves remarkably elusive. The whole idea is, for instance, entirely absent from the Pauline corpus, as even the thinnest shadow of a hint. Nor is it anywhere patently present in any of the other epistolary texts. There is one verse in the gospels, Matthew 25:46, that – at least, as traditionally understood – offers what seems the strongest evidence for the idea (though even there, as I shall explain below, the wording leaves room for considerable doubt regarding its true significance); and then there are perhaps a couple of verses from Revelation (though, as ever when dealing with that particular book, caveat lector). Beyond that, nothing is clear. What in fact the New Testament provides us with are a number of fragmentary and fantastic images that can be taken in any number of ways, arranged according to our prejudices and expectations, and declared literal or figural or hyperbolic as our desires dictate. True, Jesus speaks of a final judgment, and uses many metaphors to describe the unhappy lot of the condemned. Many of these are metaphors of destruction, like the annihilation of chaff or brambles in ovens, or the final death of body and soul in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). Others are metaphors of exclusion, like the sealed doors of wedding feasts. A few, a very few, are images of imprisonment and torture; but, even then, in the relevant verses, those punishments are depicted as having only a limited term (Matthew 5:36; 18:34; Luke 12:47-48, 59). Nowhere is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan, as though he were a kind of chthonian god.

On the other hand, however, there are a remarkable number of passages in the New Testament, several of them from Paul’s writings, that appear instead to promise a final salvation of all persons and all things, and in the most unqualified terms. I imagine some or most of these latter could be explained away as rhetorical exaggeration; but then, presumably, the same could be said of those verses that appear to presage an everlasting division between the redeemed and the reprobate. To me it is surpassingly strange that, down the centuries, most Christians have come to believe that one class of claims – all of which are allegorical, pictorial, vague, and metaphorical in form – must be regarded as providing the “literal” content of the New Testament’s teaching regarding the world to come, while another class – all of which are invariably straightforward doctrinal statements – must be regarded as mere hyperbole.

But this book especially stands out in tackling head-on the argument that God has to respect mankind’s “free will” and allow people to choose eternity away from God. Even C. S. Lewis had this view. But is someone who acts irrationally truly free?

A choice made without rationale is a contradiction in terms. At the same time, any movement of the will prompted by an entirely perverse rationale would be, by definition, wholly irrational – insane, that is to say – and therefore no more truly free than a psychotic episode. The more one is in one’s right mind – the more, that is, that one is conscious of God as the Goodness that fulfills all beings, and the more one recognizes that one’s own nature can have its true completion and joy nowhere but in him, and the more one is unfettered by distorting misperceptions, deranged passions, and the encumbrances of past mistakes – the more inevitable is one’s surrender to God. Liberated from all ignorance, emancipated from all adverse conditions of this life, the rational soul could freely will only its own union with God, and thereby its own supreme beatitude. We are, as it were, doomed to happiness, so long as our natures follow their healthiest impulses unhindered; we cannot not will the satisfaction of our beings in our true final end, a transcendent Good lying behind and beyond all the proximate ends we might be moved to pursue. This is no constraint upon the freedom of the will, coherently conceived; it is simply the consequence of possessing a nature produced by and for the transcendent Good: a nature whose proper end has been fashioned in harmony with a supernatural purpose. God has made us for himself, as Augustine would say, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him. A rational nature seeks a rational end: Truth, which is God himself. The irresistibility of God for any soul that has truly been set free is no more a constraint placed upon its liberty than is the irresistible attraction of a flowing spring of fresh water in a desert place to a man who is dying of thirst; to choose not to drink in that circumstance would be not an act of freedom on his part, but only a manifestation of the delusions that enslave him and force him to inflict violence upon himself, contrary to his nature. A woman who chooses to run into a burning building not to save another’s life, but only because she can imagine no greater joy than burning to death, may be exercising a kind of “liberty,” but in the end she is captive to a far profounder poverty of rational freedom.

He’s also very clear about the injustice of applying eternal punishment to finite creatures.

None of this should need saying, to be honest. We should all already know that whenever the terms “justice” and “eternal punishment” are set side by side as if they were logically compatible, the boundaries of the rational have been violated. If we were not so stupefied by the hoary and venerable myth that eternal damnation is an essential element of the original Christian message (which, not to spoil later plot developments here, it is not), we would not even waste our time on so preposterous a conjunction. From the perspective of Christian belief, the very notion of a punishment that is not intended ultimately to be remedial is morally dubious (and, I submit, anyone who doubts this has never understood Christian teaching at all); but, even if one believes that Christianity makes room for the condign imposition of purely retributive punishments, it remains the case that a retribution consisting in unending suffering, imposed as recompense for the actions of a finite intellect and will, must be by any sound definition disproportionate, unjust, and at the last nothing more than an expression of sheer pointless cruelty.

So that gives you the idea. There’s much more in this book. I hope there are people out there who are intrigued by this (to me) refreshing logic. Here’s where the author leaves us at the end of the meditation on freedom:

Freedom consists in the soul’s journey through this interior world of constantly shifting conditions and perspectives, toward the only home that can ultimately liberate the wanderer from the exile of sin and illusion. And God, as the transcendent end that draws every rational will into actuality, never ceases setting every soul free, ever and again, until it finds that home. To the inevitable God, every soul is bound by its freedom. In the end, if God is God and spirit is spirit, and if there really is an inextinguishable rational freedom in every soul, evil itself must disappear in every intellect and will, and hell must be no more. Only then will God, both as the end of history and as that eternal source and end of beings who transcends history, be all in all. For God, as scripture says, is a consuming fire, and he must finally consume everything.

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Review of The Rapture Exposed, by Barbara R. Rossing

Sunday, November 17th, 2019

The Rapture Exposed

The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation

by Barbara R. Rossing

Westview Press, 2004. 212 pages.
Starred Review
Reviewed November 16, 2019, from a library book

When I was only in elementary school and junior high, I was already an expert on the End Times. That is, the End Times as defined by dispensationalists. (Dispensationalists believe that God deals with humans in different ways during different time periods or dispensations.) The church my family attended had a chart on the wall in the library where my Sunday School class met showing all the dispensations of human history, including the Church Age (when we are now), the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, the Millennium, the Second Coming, and the New Heaven and New Earth. It was all charted out in that order. Many books were being published about biblical prophecy, including Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. My family purchased many of them, and I read them, fascinated. Our church held some conferences on biblical prophecy where some of the authors spoke. I read Tim LaHaye’s books on the End Times a couple decades before he ever became a best-selling author with the Left Behind novel series.

When I got to college, I attended a Christian university. As it happened, I took a class on “The Church and Last Things” at the same time I was memorizing the Book of Revelation. I couldn’t help but notice that the Book of Revelation has no chart. And that the things I’d been taught might be something of a stretch to actually find in the Bible.

I’d already noticed that when Jesus came the first time, he did not meet the expectations of religious leaders. I have a feeling that prophecy isn’t usually given so we’ll be able to predict the future, but more so that we’ll be able to recognize God’s hand when He moves. I also noticed that Revelation is about telling us who’s going to win. Almost every chapter has a significant section of praise to God.

Things certainly don’t seem to be strictly chronological in Revelation. And a lot of the imagery to me doesn’t seem to quite fit what I was told it represented. When I did read the first several Left Behind books, I thought it was silly how they took some things literally – like locusts with human faces – and others figuratively.

I also clearly disagreed with some theology in the books, but I still had pretty ingrained in me that Revelation would happen basically the way they predicted. I am thankful to this book for showing me another way to look at Revelation, and a way that makes more sense and to me seems to follow more easily from what you read.

Now, I did know from my class at Biola University that not all Christians believe in a “pre-tribulation rapture.” But almost everything I’d read about end times – except the Bible itself – was from that perspective. Barbara Rossing begins her book this way:

The rapture is a racket. Whether prescribing a violent script for Israel or survivalism in the United States, this theology distorts God’s vision for the world. In place of healing, the Rapture proclaims escape. In place of Jesus’ blessing of peacemakers, the Rapture voyeuristically glorifies violence and war. In place of Revelation’s vision of the Lamb’s vulnerable self-giving love, the Rapture celebrates the lion-like wrath of the Lamb. This theology is not biblical. We are not Raptured off the earth, nor is God. No, God has come to live in the world through Jesus. God created the world, God loves the world, and God will never leave the world behind!

Most of this book is about going through the book of Revelation and looking at the things it actually tells us, but the author begins by giving us the history of the idea of the “Rapture.” She explains that it began about two hundred years ago when a girl in Scotland had a vision that the second coming of Jesus Christ would happen in two stages. The word “Rapture” does not occur in Scripture, but comes from the Latin word raptio, a translation of the Greek word for “caught up” from I Thessalonians 4:17 about what will happen when Jesus returns. But the two-stage return idea was new, and the idea of dispensations was developed to make it fit.

Dispensationalists admit that they pull things together from different parts of the Bible to make their teachings and their charts. Even the idea of seven years of tribulation has to be pieced together within the book of Revelation.

So you can read all this – where the Rapture came from and how the whole theory is pieced together, and it’s all very interesting, sounding much less coherent than when I read the theories from the authors themselves when I was a child.

But what I especially love about this book is the way she looks at Revelation and helps me to look at it with new eyes. She talks about how Revelation fit with other apocalyptic writings of the time and followed a similar format. Here’s an overarching view of the message of the book:

In the first of his apocalyptic journeys (Rev 4-5) John travels up to heaven. There he sees a beautiful vision of God’s throne, revealed to be the true power behind the universe. Angels and animals are worshiping God and singing songs of praise to Jesus, the Lamb. Revelation’s subsequent visions pull back the curtain to “unveil” the Roman empire for what it really is: Rome is not the great eternal power it claims to be, but a demonic beast that oppresses the world. God’s people must undertake a spiritual exodus out of the empire, led by the Lamb. God threatens evil Babylon/Rome with plagues like the plagues of the Exodus story. We must not put our trust in Roman security or power, nor that of any other empire. We are to give allegiance to God alone.

She reminds us of how the book came across to its original recipients:

Revelation was originally written for those whom South African theologian Allan Boesak calls “God’s little people” – communities of people who struggled under oppression – not for people with access to airplanes or money or the latest technology. The best way to understand Revelation’s message for today is to put ourselves in the place of the audience for whom it was originally written. Imagine Revelation as a message from the underside, written to comfort beleaguered churches struggling under Roman imperial violence and power. Revelation has spoken powerfully to oppressed people throughout history. Its voice of protest is heard in spirituals as well as gospel songs and hymns.

I do love that she points out something that struck me hard when I memorized the book of Revelation: the book is packed with praise.

Revelation is full of songs – heavenly choruses praising God and encouraging us to sing in the midst of tribulation. Just when the book begins to sound hopeless or despairing, a host of witnesses in heaven break into song. Even animals join the Lamb’s chorus, singing along with a cacophony of “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea.” No other book of the Bible has shaped Christian hymns and music as much as Revelation, from Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” African American spirituals, and even reggae (“Let’s get together to fight this Holy Armageddon,” from Bob Marley’s “One Love”). Revelation’s songs are not intended to be literalistic. Indeed, the metaphorical dimension is precisely what gives Revelation’s songs their power. Songs connect us to something deeper: they evoke our capacity for solidarity and resistance, they give us hope.

Or as she puts it later:

Singing and worship are central to Revelation, a fact often overlooked by people who see the book only as a system of end-times predictions and timetables. In Revelation we sing our way into God’s new vision for our world, more than in any other book of the Bible.

The author urges us to relish the metaphors of Revelation:

Revelation’s world of vision is like that of a Magic Eye picture. It is an “Aha” kind of vision that draws us in to see the deeper picture. God invites us to let go of the flat page, to stop trying to figure out each literal detail of Revelation, and instead to enter further into the larger picture. As we read and meditate on the images of Revelation, we find whole new levels of God’s vision for our world unveiled to us: We taste water that is not just water – it is living water, the river of life. We follow Jesus, the shepherding Lamb, who invites us to drink from springs of that living water. We hear God’s lament for our world that is oppressed, and we witness the trial and judgment of oppressors in a suspense-filled courtroom. Finally, most wonderfully, we see God coming to earth to live with us in a beloved city – to wipe away all the world’s tears.

But I especially love the chapter called “Lamb Power,” where Barbara Rossing explains the subversive heart of the book of Revelation. She points out that just when you expect Rome’s images of power and victory is when the Lamb comes out.

Seated on the throne in heaven, God holds a scroll sealed shut with seven seals that must be opened. But who is worthy to open this scroll? God’s voice from the throne tells John in chapter 5, “Do not weep, for the lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Two words in this admonition – “lion” and “conquer” (nike in Greek) – lead us to expect that a fierce animal will appear to open the scroll with its claws, like the conquering lions in gladiatorial spectacles. A lion would be typical for an apocalypse; such fierce animals are often introduced to advance the plot. In Second Esdras, for example, the Messiah is portrayed as a roaring lion prophesying judgment against the Roman eagle and its violence.

But Revelation pulls an amazing surprise. In place of the lion that we expect, comes a Lamb: “Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (Rev 5:6). It is a complete reversal. Actually the Greek word John uses is not just “lamb,” but the diminutive form, a word like “lambkin,” “lamby,” or “little lamb” (arnion in Greek) – “Fluffy,” as Pastor Daniel Erlander calls it. The only other place this word arnion is used in the New Testament is where Jesus says he is sending his disciples out into the world “as lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3). No other apocalypse ever pictures the divine hero as a Lamb – Revelation is unique among apocalyptic writings in this image. The depiction of Jesus as a Lamb shows him in the most vulnerable way possible, as a victim who is slaughtered by standing – that is, crucified but risen to life.

Reminiscent of the servant-lamb of Isaiah 53, who “is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep to the shearer is silent,” the Lamb of Revelation became the victor not by militaristic power and slaughter but rather by being slaughtered. From beginning to end, Revelation’s vision of the Lamb teaches a “theology of the cross,” of God’s power made manifest in weakness, similar to Paul’s theology of the cross in First Corinthians. Lamb theology is the whole message of Revelation. Evil is defeated not by overwhelming force or violence but by the Lamb’s suffering love on the cross. The victim becomes the victor.

Lamb theology is what true victory or true nike is. For we, too, are “victors” or followers of the Lamb on whom the term nike or conquering is bestowed. This is one of the amazing features of the book. Much of Revelation can sound so violent, but we have to look at the subversive heart of the book — the redefinition of victory and “conquering” — to understand how Revelation subverts violence itself. Just like the Lamb, God’s people are called to conquer not by fighting but by remaining faithful, by testifying to God’s victory in self-giving love.

Another point that I love comes when the author talks about the centrality of the final two chapters of Revelation – chapters that dispensationalists gloss over as for a far distant day.

Contrary to the dispensationalist view, there is no rapture in the story of Revelation, no snatching of people off the earth up to heaven. Look at it this way: it is God who is raptured down to earth to take up residence and dwell with us – a rapture in reverse….

The word “dwell” in Revelation [21] is the same word as used to describe Jesus’ coming to earth in the Gospel of John, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The whole message of the Bible is that God loves the world so much that God comes to earth to dwell with us. The Gospel of Matthew calls Jesus “Emmanuel,” which means in Hebrew “God is with us.” Revelation proclaims that same message of God’s dwelling in our world. It is the message that God’s home is no longer up in heaven, but here in our midst, incarnate on earth. In Revelation 21-22 God’s throne moves down out of heaven, where it was in chapter 4, and is now located in the midst of the city – in the city descended down out of heaven, down to earth.

There’s lots more in this book. I highly recommend it. I admit that I am still will freak out if someone suggests everyone get a chip embedded in their right hand or on their forehead in order to buy and sell. But for the most part, this has enabled me to look at revelation with eyes of hope instead of fear and terror.

The hope of Revelation centers around the slain-yet-standing Lamb who has conquered – and around everything that that Lamb represents in God’s vision for us and for the world. The Lamb who replaces the expected lion in Revelation’s storyline continues to dwell with us and to overturn all the structures of war and injustice. In the face of empire, Revelation teaches us a way of life that is “Lamb power” – the power of nonviolent love to change the world. The hope of Revleation is simply this: that the Lamb has conquered the beast and that a wondrous river of life now flows out from the Lamb’s throne to bring healing water to every corner of our wounded world.

I also appreciate how she leaves us in the Epilogue:

To read the Bible’s hardest passages is like wrestling with God, much like Jacob who wrestled through the night at the river Jabbok. You grapple to make sense of the words, you hold on, you struggle for clarity, you seek to wrest answers for all your questions. What God gives you instead of a system of answers is a blessing, a new name — a living relationship. You are forever changed by the encounter. You have seen the face of God.

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Review of Raising Hell, by Julie Ferwerda

Thursday, October 31st, 2019

Raising Hell

Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire

by Julie Ferwerda

Vagabond Group, 2014. 293 pages.
Starred Review

I first came to believe that God really will save everyone, that it’s literally true that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow” and that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive” from reading writings of George MacDonald in the 1990s and then checking with Scripture. Since that time, I’ve discovered many more books by people who believe the same thing, and I’ve reviewed them on my website. Each one has something new to offer, and together they bolster my picture of a great big triumphant God of love.

Raising Hell is the first book I’ve read about universalism that’s written by a woman. (About time!) This book is for laypeople and brings an emphasis on how you can study the Bible for yourself – how you can check for yourself on whether these things are true. She references many Bible study tools available to anyone with internet access. She says in the Introduction, “Raising Hell is intended to be the starting place, the opening of a most important conversation that I hope continues well beyond this book. One of my goals within these pages is to teach the reader how to do their own research by using a large variety of scholarly, historical, and informative resources that are easily accessed by anyone and everyone.”

Before I get into this, let me mention that, like all the books I’ve read on universalism, she has great arguments for universalism. Let me pull out some quotations I like:

This one’s from the Introduction:

Universal Reconciliation is the belief that all people for all time will eventually be reconciled to God – that this lifetime is not the “only chance” to be saved – but that there is only one way to God, through Jesus Christ.

Through a very intentional plan that reaches into future ages, I believe the true Gospel is that all people for all time will be willingly and joyfully drawn by the unconditional, irresistible, compelling love of a Father into a relationship with Him through His Son. In the end, every knee will have bowed, and every tongue will have confessed Jesus as Lord, giving praise to God (see Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10).

Like most universalist authors, she makes good points about the character of God, particularly looking at the parables in Luke 15 of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son:

Throughout this book, we are going to explore how understanding the message of these parables and learning the heart of the Father will deliver the fatal blow to any such notion of an everlasting hell, or even the more palatable version of “eternal separation from God.” As we piece together a remarkable story, we’ll find that it can’t be possible that He would turn away even one son or daughter, and that every person, given enough time to “starve among the swine,” will come to the realization that home is where they belong. Even before they can round the bend for home, they will be welcomed with the happy reassurance that the eyes of their true Father never stopped searching the horizon, ready to run to them with loving, open arms. If Jesus’ words are to be our instruction in the matters of life, then we can have assurance that love is the healer of all things. Our Father will ultimately never give up on nor ever reject – ever!

She talks about how her own quest began by noticing significant translation differences between different versions of the Bible, in many cases contradicting one another. This helped her realize that the English Bible we read – whatever version we choose – is not going to perfectly translate the original language. And the first word she looks at which is very suspiciously translated is hell.

The notion of hell is suspiciously missing from the OT as the destiny for most of mankind, unless you read the KJV or TM (The Message), both of which include the word hell over thirty times. Do KJV and TM know something others don’t? Why the inconsistency? . . .

In the rest of the popular modern versions, the literal translations, and the Hebrew and Greek texts, there are NO references to hell in the OT, or of the concept of everlasting tormenting flames – not one.

Then she looks at the New Testament.

Red flag alert. There are essentially three different Greek words that translators inconsistently pick and choose to translate as “hell” — Hades, Gehenna, and Tartaroo, but not one conveys hell as we know it and teach it today.

She looks in detail at the references where these are mentioned and how they can easily – and more naturally – be translated differently.

She also looks at where the idea of eternal hell came from. It wasn’t prevalent in the church until Augustine popularized it. He spoke Latin instead of Greek, and our early English translations were translated from the Latin rather than from the original Greek, so our understanding has drifted from what the original writers were talking about.

After looking at teachings on hell in the first part of the book, the second part looks at the character of God and the important teaching of the Bible that love never fails. The focus on fire is over and over combined with talk of a refining, purifying fire.

Is it not the same with our own children, each their own yet fully out of us? When I think of the bond earthly parents have with our children, I know it is utterly impossible that God would ever ask us to lose a part of ourselves forever, any more than He would ever intend to give up a part of Himself. His answer is not damnation, but regeneration of all His children into purified sparks!

Jesus always esteemed children because He came to show the heart of the Father toward His children. A true father’s love cannot be earned, and it cannot be done away with. Just as we would never give up on our children, God will never give up on His children; His love will not fail them.

The third part of this book looks at Hebrew themes carried throughout both the Old and New Testaments. This is where she covers the word that all universalist authors bring up, aion, which is incorrectly translated “eternity” in many English versions.

Eternity had no place in the mind of the early Hebrews, probably because neither their Scriptures nor their dealings with God included any such concept. In fact, the Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek were solely written with the perspective of generations or long periods of time (eons or ages), unfolding like a chapter book. About the closest you get in the Scriptures to the concept of never-ending is the word for “immortality,” (athanasia) which literally means “un-death.”

Julie Ferwerda has lots to say about the mistranslation of aion for “eternity” or “forever,” or actually many other words that are used. But I do love it when she points out something I noticed when I did my blog series, A Universalist Looks at the New Testament: Very often, eonian life is talked about in the present tense, as something we are receiving right now. After a list of many verses like this, she says:

There are many more such verses you can look up, correcting them with eonian life and the proper verb tense to experience the greater truth that Jesus came to give us life right now — not just later – and that people’s lives are markedly improved when they believe, understand, and live the true Gospel message.

She does talk about the specific ages and covenants and harvests she sees in Scripture. I’m not sure I would get so specific, though her application of some Old Testament concepts of harvests and the Jubilee is fascinating. I am sure that I do agree with this:

We are living in a plan of ages, but the purpose of these ages – at least the ages we know about – is going to come to an end, as will all of the eonian (temporary) elements in them. The Scriptures do not provide detail as to what happens after the Story of the ages is complete, when all prodigals have been reconciled to their true Father, but we do know that all forms of death will have been destroyed and God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

Her perspective also sheds great light on the problem of evil. With her big picture view, she is able to bring me where I can see it like she does:

I have come to regard the problem of evil like a tension in a compelling novel, juxtaposed to the ultimate, euphoric resolution. In any good novel, the reader longs to find resolve, but has to wait until the final chapter to see how it is accomplished. In our Story, I believe God’s expression of love is exponentially expanded, not diminished, through the necessity of evil. Evil does not reign supreme or have the final say, but is only a limited, temporary tool or a means to an end of a great, full circle, happily ever after.

She sums up so nicely the effect believing in universalism has had on my own life:

When you realize that God fills everything and nothing is outside of Him, suddenly life around you becomes less dangerous, more hopeful, promising, and beautiful. The skies look bluer, the trees look greener, every single person you meet is more valued – even the filth and pollution is less oppressive, and darkness is less suffocating.

Thank goodness I don’t have to try to play God anymore. I can completely trust Him with my kids, my marriage, my finances, my health, and my future. I can simply trust Him in all things because His unchangeable plan has already determined that everything will work out in the end. In other words, if it hasn’t worked out yet, it’s not the end.

Like her, I find this teaching is full of joy:

This is the kind of Gospel – where no one is a throw away – that breeds life, and joy, and continuous wonder. This Gospel births a sincere, deep love for people, and the excitement to share the truly unconditional love of God with everyone. It is so gratifying to know that every single kind word or deed offered will someday result in the growing of a seedling or the bearing of fruit from a person created in the image of God. No effort will ever be wasted or insignificant. The joy and energy this realization has brought into my life is positively captivating and simply impossible to fully articulate.

The final section of the book contains resources – resources so the reader can study these things for themselves and figure out if these ideas are true. She lists several online resources, gives a chapter called “Simple Steps for Identifying Mistranslations,” and another chapter that looks at commonly misunderstood concepts in Scripture – with their Strong’s number so you can look up the original Greek word involved.

Several more resources are offered. One that especially gratified me is the final list, titled “Modern, Well-Known Commentaries of Aion and its Derivatives.” She gives quotations from nine different commentaries that agree that aion does not carry the meaning “unending.” These begin with Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Lange’s Commentary American Edition, and six more.

Why does this gratify me? Well, not long ago two different people – one a stranger on Facebook and the other my former pastor – pointed me to one particular Greek dictionary that said that aion can be translated “eternal,” and they said that was the final word on the subject. I didn’t have a resource those arguing with me would recognize as equally authoritative. Now I have nine.

I always hesitate to write a long review about a book that makes a persuasive case for something – lest you think that reading my brief summary of the argument is as good as reading the book itself. But in this case I wanted to give you a taste of the good things contained in this book. And like Julie Ferwerda, I challenge you to examine these ideas yourself. This book offers a wonderful jumping-off point.

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