When I was a young Christian, I had a terrible nightmare. I was in what I groggily remembered later as a Mexican jail cell reenacting a scene from a movie. (I believe it was “The Falcon and the Snowman”.) In this nightmare, the chief interrogator was supposed to be Jesus Christ and he was beating me up with a phone book asking why I was such a horrible sinner and why I had done such a terrible thing. After each accusation, two thugs would grab my head and shove it into a toilet bowl and I would struggle to breathe underwater. I awoke to a feeling of soul-crushing despair.
Later on that day, my roommate made the mistake of asking me how I was doing. A graduate student getting his PhD in geology, J.D. was a gentle Christian man and one of the nicest guys I have ever met. Because the dream had caused me such mental anguish I shared it with him. His response was exactly what I needed.
“That dream makes me extremely angry.” he said to me, “That is a lie from the pit of hell. That is not who Jesus is at all. I am going to pray for you, my brother, it is obvious that you have experienced a demonic attack.” To have such a gentle and good person get so visibly angry on my behalf was a tonic to my soul. I had never experienced the demonic before and his words and his love restored my faith and vanquished my despair. We lost track of each other shortly thereafter, but I look forward to thanking him for that restoration when we meet again.
I mention that story because I felt that same soul crushing despair this morning when a correspondent posted a link to a YouTube video on my essay on hell, “Punishment or Consequences“. The still image used to represent the link is of some poor sinner being flayed alive. The image was horrifically disgusting to me and the idea that one would use such an image as an evangelistic tool is repulsive and causes me the same kind of despair as my terrific nightmare from so long ago. I don’t know what it is, but seeing Jesus Christ depicted as a monster who makes Adolf Hitler look like Barney the Purple dinosaur causes me to lose all hope of goodness and love.
Now I need to be careful here. Hell is absolutely horrible and living with those who have rejected their need of the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ for all eternity will be unimaginably horrifying. On the other hand, there is something demonic and sick about the fetish that some “Christians” have in imagining the horrible torment that awaits those that reject Jesus Christ. Sin is sin because it causes pain to others and I fully understand anger at the horrible consequences of living a life without regard for the law of love. The Christian church is, nevertheless, supposed to be a light to the world that attracts others by the love we show one another. (John 13:35) We are not to terrify those who reject Jesus Christ with horrific images of torture and sadism.
Say this to an evangelist of hell and they will argue that Jesus Christ taught these things and that it is important for us to teach them as well. To those people, I would urge the utmost caution. Jesus taught these things as the perfect exemplar of love. Those of us who are less than He is would do well to examine our own hearts and make sure that our motivation is pure. Are we expressing God’s love to those who are rejecting him? Or are we expressing our own anger and vindictiveness at the hurt that has been done to us with the ultimate revenge fantasy?
Looking at the Bible, I think it is clear the kind of attitudes that Jesus Christ is warning about with his warnings of hell:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. (Matthew 23:29)
If you look at these hard teachings of Jesus Christ with regard to hell and the demonic, they are mostly done as a rebuke to the Pharisees. That is to say, these teachings were a specific rebuke to the most conservative, legalistically minded people in that society. These people smugly believed that they were righteous and good by their own deeds and not by faith in Jesus Christ. It was to break these people out of their smug self-righteousness that Jesus gave these teachings on hell and the demonic and this seems to me to be the only appropriate context for them.
The title of the post was two restorations and the second one occurred this evening. After feeling crushed and despondent all day long, I went to church tonight and experienced the love of God. I was given a drink of the living water of God’s word by my Pastor and Teacher Peggy Rigo. Her teaching left me crying all night long and restored my soul. I have gone too long without mentioning this dynamic woman and the tremendous effect she has had on my life. (You can find her teaching at the following link. See the message done on February 23rd.)
One of the numerous impacts that she has had on my life is that she has opened my eyes to a truth I had not seen before. When I first came to One Community Church, you understand, I had severe reservations about a female pastor. I had even expressed these reservations in my book, A Rational Faith. Justifying these reservations from the Bible, I resorted to what Paul says in his first letter to Timothy:
I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. (1 Timothy 2:12)
As I have experienced the teaching of this woman of God, my perspective on this verse has slowly changed. Notice that Paul says “I do not permit”. In his other letters, Paul is careful to distinguish between his own teaching and that which he had from the Lord. In this case, he is careful to establish that this principle comes from him and it was undoubtedly correct given the time and the culture. As I have come to understand, however, Pastor Peg is “one flesh” with Pastor Peter Rigo and they both love the Lord as those who have been joined together by God. If the Bible says they are “one flesh” (Mark 10:8), then does that not mean they speak with one unified voice? If I am to treat the words of Pastor Peter with respect, ought I not also to teach the words of Pastor Peg with that same respect? The Lord teaches us “by their fruits shall you know them”. By this standard, Pastor Peg has proven to be a true teacher and servant of God and she has changed my attitude on female teachers in the church.