Having made some more general comments, now in part 3 I want to consider the first ‘Big Question’ that gets raised in Episode 4 of this StartUp: the question of Hell.
When asked about his view on hell, church planter AJ Smith gives a typical soft, Tim Keller-type description about hell as God handing us over to our rejection of him. It’s the hell-as-separation idea, that is a true, but incomplete description of the Bible’s teaching. On its own it removes the concept of hell-as-punishment and hell-as-wrath. It can run the risk of reducing hell to ‘God respecting our personal choice and giving us what we want, in a way that makes him sad, and might make us miss out on some lovely spiritual things, but isn’t all that bad’.
There are two legitimate parts of an apologetic on hell:
- To explain how sin is much much worse than we think it is.
- To explain how hell is not bad in the particular caricatured way we think it is.
Both have a place, but #1 is extremely important, and skews theology a great deal if it is left out. I think AJ makes this mistake. Nevertheless I don’t think he’s entirely wrong in what he does say.
But the way journalist Eric Mennel summarises AJ’s teaching is quite odd in its misinterpretation: ‘Ooh baby, hell is a place on Earth’. I find it hard to see how he could have come to this interpretation from what AJ said. All I can think is that AJ was sufficiently vague and ambiguous in his care not to sound like a hellfire preacher, that Eric kind of tuned out and drew his own conclusion. Or perhaps, this is a case where Eric’s own opinions trumped a fair representation of what AJ actually said?
The other odd thing in this part of the discussion was how inadequately and clumsily Eric described and assessed various Christian concepts of predestination. For someone who is stepping in deep to important matters of theology, and is presuming to speak as something of an insider, this was really lame. Important distinctions between Calvinism, hyper-Calvinism, double predestination, infralapsarianism were fudged badly.
Eric claimed that by AJ believing in genuine human responsibility, that somehow the idea of predestination was being denied or eroded. He didn’t have to explain all the finer points, nor even understand every detail. But a bit more care in research, and running his summaries by others, might have possibly avoided the fogginess of this section.
I am so thankful again for all the good points about this season, and the way Eric Mennel has put it together, so I don’t want to be a pedant. It’s a tricky thing to get right — and to package it all so it remains interesting to a total outsider listening in.
But I’m just reflecting as an evangelical Christian pastor on how it could have been even better still. Because on some of these points these Big Questions are not really handled well.