Reflections on the gospel: Questions for evangelicals

The following are some questions for followers of traditional or conservative evangelical Christianity.

How would we account for our interpretation of Jesus’ words in the Bible?

For example, if we say Jesus’ words about “cutting off our hand and throwing it away rather than to have the whole body burn in hell” are metaphorical, then wouldn’t it be consistent for us to say his words about “the fire that does not quench and worm that does not die” are metaphorical as well?

Similarly, in the book of Revelation, wouldn’t it make sense to see the “lake of fire” as figurative since death and hades were thrown into the lake of fire? Otherwise, how can a non-physical entity such as death be cast into a physical lake of fire?

If you believe there is a literal hell, perhaps you may want to ask yourself honestly whether it is because you secretly want certain people you do not like to be consigned to a physical place of endless torture that you choose to believe there is such a place? If so, could it be that you are only projecting your desire for vengeance onto God?

Back then in the Old Testament times, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was considered by the Jews a fair punishment for crimes since the avenger was allowed to exact payment from the perpetrator in proportion to the severity of the crime committed against him. But by the time Jesus came on the scene, he proposed a radical love that is even more progressive – that instead of punishing the enemies who persecute them, he taught the Jews to bless them instead.

Why? I believe Jesus is after life transformation. Punishment does not change a person – on the contrary, it tends to perpetuate the cycle of revenge. Like what Mahatma Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye and we all go blind”.

On the other hand, love changes a person from the inside out. The apostle Paul was a changed man when he experienced mercy instead of vengeance when he met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus after persecuting the followers of the Way. Jesus has always been showing mercy instead of vengeance, such as to the woman caught in adultery, to Peter the disciple who denied him three times, to Zaccheus the tax collector who had swindled a number of people, to the Roman soldiers and Jewish religious leaders who crucified him, and so on. Each time mercy is shown, a heart is touched and a life is transformed by love.

How is a belief in a literal hell and endless punishment today fitting to the gospel of grace and peace? Similarly, in our society, how is death penalty and corporal punishment a solution to crimes when there are humane ways of turning lives around, such as imprisonment and rehab with counselling?

The bottom line is: what do we believe about God? I think this question is important because how we see God may be a reflection of how we see ourselves. Also, how we treat others may depend on how we think God treats us as well as them.

The above questions are based on my meditation on Rob Bell’s recent messages about his new book “What do we talk about when we talk about God?” What do you talk about when you talk about God? Is your idea of God based on love or based on fear? Has your perception of God changed over time?

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