Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: justice

My Journey #3 – Hell

Every evangelical has to question hell eventually, unless they’ve had the humanity stripped from them. The idea of a loving God forever tormenting billions because they did not put their faith in Christ grates the teeth. Calvinism has a ready defense for hell: God is just, and when it looks like he isn’t just, it’s only because I am totally depraved and can’t see what real justice is. So even though it seems unjust to torment billions forever, it’s actually hunky-dory.

I used to do personal little theological studies. There was nothing better than opening up the Word, grabbing a pencil and notebook and working through some meaty theological problem. I picked up the study of hell a year or two after returning to Canada. To my surprise, though, I couldn’t find it.

Anywhere.

The Bible presents the two roads of a life following God and a life rebelling against him as a life / death battle, not a life / torture battle. The wages of sin is death. Those who do not believe will perish. Many verses use fire as an image of judgment, but I realized that fire is mainly used to make an end of a thing, not to torture it. A few passages in Revelation seemed to hint at something that sounded like the traditional view of hell, but Revelation is all manner of crazy, and I was not comfortable building a doctrine of hell from it alone.

I realized that if I had come to the Bible without going through the church first, I never would have come up with this idea of hell. Especially considering that the Gospels paint a picture of a God so loving that He was willing to sacrifice Himself to save (some of) humanity. I wondered if I was becoming an annihilationist. I wondered what this would do to my Calvinism.

And then Rob Bell showed up and everything went nuts.

You should have seen it.  The Internet blew up with anger over this geeky pastor who wrote an artsy book that suggested our ideas of hell were wrong. One of the most influential pastors in my own life excommunicated him on Twitter before the book even came out. It gave me a chill. Would that anger have been directed at me if I had shared some of the things Scripture was showing me? I had a realization:

My faith tradition had sacred cows–at least one of which I hadn’t noticed until now. How many more unjustifiable things did I believe?

I had to attempt a fresh look at the Scripture. And I had to do it no matter what the Internet said, because Truth was, and is, so much more important than the objections of friends.

The Nameless Crowd

     I recently gave a talk about global economics and Christianity. It’s a pretty simple topic to go on, really. All you need to do is show how mind-bogglingly screwed up the distribution of wealth and resources is, then point to the bucketful of prophets and apostles who say that if we aren’t fixing it we’re working against God’s will. I’ve given talks like this a few times in different churches.

     But something slapped me in the face this time.

     I was reading up on the story Jesus told about Dives and Lazarus. You’ve heard the story. Lazarus was a beggar who lived outside of Dives’ house. He was destitute, homeless and covered in painful sores. Dogs used to lick them. The he died. Jesus says that after he died he got carried by angels to a nice place. Then Dives died. His place wasn’t nearly so nice. Jesus suggests guilt on Dives because of Lazarus. Not necessarily because it was Dives who caused Lazarus’ destitution, but because he didn’t give a damn.

     The neatest thing, though, is that Dives didn’t really have a name. If you read the story itself, it just calls him ‘The Rich Man’. Dives is just Latin for rich man. Meanwhile the dying beggar, covered in disease, is called Lazarus. Jesus gives this character the name of one of his best buddies.

     The wealthy, influential and, likely, well-admired hard-working dude is nameless. He’s a nobody. A stat on a page. Just the rich guy.

     The beggar, dying in the streets, ignored and forgotten in his suffering, has a name. A beloved name. A name that people like Jesus care about. Suddenly, in the midst of his horrible circumstance, Jesus gives that character dignity, while subtly taking it away from the one we would have thought was important.

     If you’re reading this blog, I’d wager that you are rich. At least in the top ten percent of wage-earners in the world. And since you have the Internet, you probably know about the suffering that goes on in the world, just like the unnamed rich man did. He did nothing about it, and lost his dignity and importance.

The rich man was guilty because he ignored the poor man’s plight, did nothing about his destitution, failed to use his affluence to relieve the poor man’s need, and acquiesced in a situation of gross economic inequality which had dehumanized Lazarus and which he could have remedied. The pariah dogs who licked the poor man’s wounds showed more compassion towards him that the rich man. Dives went to hell not because he had exploited Lazarus, but because of his scandalous indifference and apathy.
– John Stott – Issues Facing Christians Today

Why I Occupy Toronto

     I was at the Occupy Toronto protest these last two days. I’ll be there a lot as the weeks go on because I think it’s an important movement.

     A lot of folks are dismissive of it. Some are downright hostile. I hear some of the arguments repeated.

     I’m told that, since I live in a wealthy country, it’s hypocritical to protest greed. Our poor, some say, are on par with the rich in many countries. I’ve heard Occupy rhetoric compared to Nazi propaganda. I’ve heard the movement dismissed as a bunch of whiny middle-class white folks who wish they could be upper-class white folks.

     All this is nothing more than a complete misunderstanding of what the Occupy movement is all about.

  • We don’t want wealth. And we don’t hate the rich, either. Our problem is with the corporate-dominated system that has created global economic inequality. Real people are starving and social mobility is a myth for many in Canada and around the world.
  • We want to start dialogue and draw people’s attention to some very pressing issues. Globally, the top 1% are using corporate power to influence governments for their own benefit. Policies are put into place that keeps the poor down and boosts the wealthy up. The few are using power in a way that abuses the many.
  • We’ve been called vague and leaderless. I suppose that’s justified because we are wildly different people. We are liberals and conservatives, libertarians and communists – all united in the realization that our current, corporately-run system is perpetuating a system of global economics that is destroying lives and pushing developing countries and the lower classes down.
  • We don’t have all the answers. We are a voice that is trying to inform people of the problem. We don’t mind if people scoff and dismiss us. We don’t mind the insulting cartoons and the people calling us lazy fools and greedy hippies. We don’t have all the answers, because our movement is about starting dialogue and asking questions. Answers will come once enough people come together and see that the problem is not that the poor don’t work hard enough or anything else so impossibly simplistic.
  • While it’s true that Canada has not been hit as hard by the recession as many other nations, there are still economic problems in our own borders. Since the 1980s, the top 20% wealthiest Canadians enjoyed a 16.4% increase in median earnings while the bottom 20% had a 20.6% drop. Nearly 5% of Canadians live at ‘Basic Needs Poverty.’ And these are, globally, good numbers.
  • The global system of corporate greed mixed with politics is against the messages of love and justice of God (Is. 10:1-3, Ez. 16:49ff).

     Now, I bet a lot of you will be disagreeing with me. I bet a lot of you are still convinced that our movement is disruptive, angry and somehow Nazi and Communist at the same time. I want to invite you, instead of posting angry things on the Internet, to come on down to St. James park and visit us. Grab some free, home-made soup and a coffee and chill in our library tent. Strike up a conversation with a stranger and ask why they are there. And ask another, too, because we’re a diverse crowd and three different people will give you three different answers. Don’t take the media’s word for what’s going on down here and don’t take mine, either. Take the time to understand us and why we’re here.

     There are three things you can do in regards to the Occupy movement, as it spreads across the world. You could ignore it, and just see what happens. You could speak out against it, calling the poor lazy and the wealthy hard-worker job creators. Or you could join the talk. Listen to us and we’ll listen to you. Because, odds are, you’re the 99%, too. And your voice is important.