One of the hardest things about this particular blog post was coming up with the title (something of a recent theme with me: I got badly stuck the other day when I realised the title of the current chapter I’m working on in The Wings of the Dawn didn’t match the contents of that chapter, and that I had to change to something else. Inspiration deserted me for a while, but now ‘TUMBLEDOWN’ has become ‘Unrespited’. Hurrah!). In this instance, though, it wasn’t too few options that was the problem but rather too many. ‘How To Lose More Than You Think’ was an option; so too was ‘Nothing To Fear’ and ‘The Not-So-Bitter End’.
What, you enquire politely, on earth am I talking about?
As it turns out, this is one occasion on which a more robust approach to language is fully justified. You would have been far better to ask what the hell I am talking about…
There is a Methodist (ex) minister called Chad Holtz, who last month was fired from his position in a United Methodist church in North Carolina. He wrote this blog post, What I Lost Losing Hell, in which he announced his renunciation of the traditional doctrine of Hell as a place of punishment or even as a place at all. His congregation (who had apparently had difficulties beforehand: Holtz refers to this post as ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’) then dismissed him from the pastorship.
First of all, let me say that Holtz’s position seems to have been honestly come by. It was apparently the result of long years of doubt concerning the nature of Hell, followed by an epiphanic realisation after reading Rob Bell’s now-notorious book ‘Love Wins‘. Holtz lays out four primary ‘losses’ that occured following his abandonment of orthodoxy. He lost his ‘Belief in Belief’; he lost ‘Fear as a motivator’; he lost ‘the right to hate his enemy’; and he lost ‘the holy huddle’.
I want to take this blog and do two things with it. First, I want to respond to Holtz’s four losses; secondly, I want to explore the implications of ‘losing Hell’ – something Holtz does not do. And, again, I want to remind you that I have great respect for Mr Holtz. No one can doubt his sincerity (someone prepared to lose their job over their theological position clearly means it). But I do consider him to be sincerely wrong.
1.) ‘I lost my belief in belief’ – which, as Holtz paints it, means ‘I lost my belief in my own agency. I lost my belief that anything I can do ultimately affects my eternal standing with God. He is in control; therefore, what I do does not matter.’
There are – it seems to me – very fundamental questions raised here about the nature of man’s relationship with God, and I believe Mr Holtz’s position answers those questions incorrectly. He answers them in the same way that Robert Wringhim, the protagonist of James Hogg’s ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner‘, asserts his position in relation to Divine judgement: God has made his mind up on the matter, and nothing we do can change that position (since God Himself is unchanging). This – as with every other point Holtz makes – discounts what Christ had to say on the subject. (Note to atheists, postmodernists, comparative moralists and other strange creatures: all my responses will be based primarily on what Jesus had to say, rather than, say, Paul, or John the Divine – both of whom are, apparently, easier to discount as authoritative commentators). The point is reiterated more famously in the verse following this one, but since I’m keeping to what Jesus actually said, John 3:15 records Christ as saying “everyone who believes may have eternal life in [the Son of God]”. The act of believing in the Son of God is of pivotal importance. And it is an individual decision.
Where Holtz comes unstuck is, I think, in his interpretation of predestination.
The best metaphor for the answer to the tricky question of predestination vs free will that I can think of lies in the somewhat abtruse realm of particle physics. Everyone knows that light travels as a wave. Most people know that when it hits something, it does so as a particle called a photon. Now, is light a wave or a particle? Answer: both, depending on the circumstance (or, to put it another way, depending on how you look at it). Is it predestination or free will? Both, depending on how you look at it. Add to that the fact that God, in a very real and literal way, exists outside of space and time, and you realise that language itself was never really designed to have to cope with these sorts of concepts and theologians are doing their best. But to reiterate: choices matter. What I choose to do or not do matters. It’s important. It has consequences. Waving one’s hands in the air and saying God will deal with it all is not something espoused or recommended in Scripture. As the saying goes: “Pray like prayer’s the only thing that works and work like work’s the only thing that works.” So when Mr Holtz says that he has lost his ‘belief in belief’, he is also making the much more serious and far-reaching claim that he has lost his belief that it is possible to know God. That it is possible to draw near to Him just because we want to. Remember, God has promised to make himself accessible to all: Holtz’s position stands against this.
2.) ‘I lost the ability to use fear as a motivator’. Holtz splits this into two subcategories: He could no longer frighten himself into behaving better (apparently even when already a Christian); and he could no longer frighten others into accepting Christ.
On this first point I admit to confusion. Two things confuse me. Firstly, if he was a Christian, why was he worried about Hell at all? Christ on the cross had taken that option off the table. Secondly, as a Christian, why did he depend upon fear and not love as a motivation for his charitable actions? Neither of these concerns make any sense to me: perhaps someone in the comments section below could point me in the right direction?
His second point, about frightening others, is much more sensible. I dislike greatly those speakers who preach nothing but hellfire and brimstone. That was not Christ’s emphasis, nor should be theirs. Tell instead about our Father in Heaven, slow to chide and swift to bless, so loving that he encourages us to enjoy Him forever.
Don’t lose Hell completely. You mustn’t. Otherwise Salvation looks like a pretty ropy concept: what is there, exactly, that we should be ‘saved’ from? Christ talked about Hell (something all-too-frequently overlooked by the ‘Jesus was just a good moral teacher’ brigade is that all the really terrifying stuff in the New Testament is described by Him, not Paul or John). Christ was big on saving people: He talked about it all the time. Only infrequently did He mention Hell. That, I submit, is the proper pattern for these discussions.
3.) ‘I lost the right to hate my enemy’. Holtz describes the sense of smug satisfaction that he enjoyed knowing that the enemies of God and of him (apparently a single category) would suffer eternal torment. First of all, let me again applaud his honesty. For far too many Christian speakers a ‘problem’ or ‘moral failing’ is something that happens to other people. But let’s be quite clear that this attitude is a moral failing. I do not judge Mr Holtz: I merely record the attitude he held for what it is. But what strikes me as peculier is his terminology: by what possible theology does he defend his use of the word ‘right’? He had no more right to hate His enemies than I have a right to live underwater and breathe through gills. I may be pleased at the expedited removal from this world of Osama bin Laden, insofar as I believe he has earned that punishment and he can no longer seek to hurt others, but I do not have the right to dance in the streets at the news, and nor do I have the right to gloat at the prospect of his eternal judgement. Even at my worst (and I am well aware that I can have a spectacular worst) I don’t think I could find comfort in the prospect of eternal suffering for someone whom I hate. What Mr Holtz is describing here seems to me to be a remarkable failure of empathy, more than anything else. And empathy is important, not just for Christians (although “When Jesus saw her [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him [Lazarus]?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him.'”) but for good human beings. The abject failure of it here is a real problem. Even more so since ‘losing Hell’ doesn’t actually fix it. Losing Hell speaks to nothing of the attitude, merely the image that the attitude fixated upon. Losing the image just creates the opportunity for a new image to take its place.
4.) “I lost my place in a tribe”. The infamous holy huddle. Of all the things I detest in church congregations and organisations, clique-dom is probably the greatest. It is defined through exclusion, exits for isolation, sits in judgement and corrodes its way through the greater Body of which it is a part. It is nothing but poisonous, and it stands in such stark antipathy towards the Christian message that we discussed earlier (“whoever believes in me…”).
But that’s not what Mr Holtz is describing. He is describing something else entirely, although I’m not sure he knows why it is different (I will explain the difference in more depth below). People who believe what Christ explicitly tells them are not a ‘clique’. They are not a ‘huddle’. They are not a ‘coterie’. They are Christians. They are members of the body of Christ. When Mr Holtz feels rejected by that body he should not be surprised: he is like an organ from an incompatible donor. The differences are too great, and too severe, to make him capable of functioning usefully within it. This is why his church in North Carolina had no choice but to remove him from office.
So those are my responses to Holtz’s four points. Earlier I mentioned that the other thing I wanted to was explain why Hell is important, and why it is not just bathwater but the baby too. Here we go:
- If there is no punishment of wrongdoing there is no justice to be found in God.
- If there is no justice in God there is no way to determine if worshipping Him is right or wrong. You cannot tell good from bad when there is no judgement.
- If there is no Hell then Christ was a liar when He talked about it.
- If there is no Hell then no one need be saved, since there is nothing to be saved from (see above). There is no Good News. There is no News at all.
- If there is no Hell then Christ need not have been sacrificed.
- If Christ need not have been sacrificed then God His father is callous, cruel and uncaring.
- If there is no Hell then sin must be allowed to enter into the presence of God: God is not holy. God is not sacred. God is not God.
These are some of the reasons why I believe Chad Holtz to have been sincerely wrong, and some of the implications his position holds for him. I wish him luck, and pray he examines his situation clearly, but I cannot agree with him.
And now, your moment of Zen: