Shaped by the Future: Reclaiming the Hope of Eschatology Conference

sbtfThe Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary invites you and your church to explore a reframing of eschatology at our upcoming Shaped by the Future Conference on Monday February 27, 2017.

Shaped by the Future is an engaging one-day conference experience that will explore how the church can effectively apply the Bible’s theology of the “end times.” People in ministry may wrestle with the relevance of eschatology and the fear it often invokes, overlooking its central theme: HOPE.

This event is hosted by The Hendricks Center and the Theology Department at DTS. Keynote sessions will focus on the overall shift in perception of eschatology that should occur. The workshops will narrow in on specific areas that can be practically transformed by a fresh approach to our Christian hope, such as pastoral ministry, film, world religions, history, and pop culture.

The conference will take place on Monday February 27, 2017 from 9:00AM-3:30 PM on the DTS campus. To register, please visit our Conference Website or call (214) 887-5253. We have a group rate of $60 per person for groups of 5 or more that register by 2/13/2017

Avoid the Latest Outbreak of This-Is-That Syndrome!

BloodMoonSome of the first books I read as a young believer had to do with the end times. Okay, that’s actually an understatement. I didn’t just read them. I consumed them. And they weren’t just about the end times. Those books made it sound like we were either in the tribulation itself or at the brink of that climactic world crisis that would usher in the end. Those books had red, yellow, or black covers. They usually featured atomic blasts, fire, smoke, dragons, or demons. All of them alleged that we could (and should) read the Bible alongside the newspaper because current events were fulfilling the prophecies of Revelation almost every day.

Some of the more nuanced treatments said things like, “So-and-so could be the Antichrist” or “This or that technology may be used in the Tribulation as the mark of the beast” or “These events in Europe [or the Middle East, or Russia, or China] might be setting the stage for the rise of the Antichrist’s one world government.” In short, these authors, T.V. preachers, pastors, and end-times enthusiasts sought after signs in the news or in the skies that would point to the imminent end of the world. In fact, I was once told not to waste my time at seminary because “There isn’t time.”

I began to grow weary (and distrustful) of this practice of sign-seeking when some of these teachers kept changing their identifications. First the ten-nation confederacy in Revelation 13 was the European Union . . . then it was a Mediterranean alliance that included the Middle East . . . then it was a Middle Eastern and Asian alliance. Or some suggested the Antichrist would be a New Age guru . . . others a European politician . . . others a Muslim dictator from the Middle East. And the mark of the Beast? Social Security numbers? Bar codes? GPS devices? Smart phones?

Besides looking foolish, sign-seekers can also do damage to people’s faith and to the cause of Christ. How so? When these possible “fulfillments” don’t pan out, weak believers, unbelievers, skeptics, critics, and scoffers might conclude one of two things: 1) Christianity and the Bible are utterly untrustworthy, legitimately leading to the question, “What else does the Bible teach that isn’t really true?” Or, more likely, 2) The Bible is hopelessly ambiguous, because if careful interpreters can wrongly read so many different current events into it, then Scripture can apparently be interpreted to say anything people want it to say. In either case, nothing good comes from repeatedly failed sight-seeking. Rather, those who engage in this dangerous sport make authentic, Bible-believing Christians look bad, as they lump us all together and regard us as misguided, brainless zealots.

Since those early days of my end times enthusiasm, I’ve watched countless sign-seekers, date-setters, and victims of this-is-that syndrome come and go. The latest misguided miscreants pointing at red moons in the sky aren’t the first . . . and won’t be the last. But balanced Bible-believing Christians need to be inoculated from this disease with a healthy injection of truth about the end times. We of all people need to correct, rebuke, and reject the end times hacks and quacks pointing at current events to boost their book sales while bamboozling believers.

 

[Adapted from Exploring Christian Theology, vol. 3, available here.]

Your Questions Answered: Is It Heresy to Reject a Literal Hell?

Question MarkQUESTION:

You mention in RetroChristianity that rejecting belief in hell is heterodoxy, not heresy. But why? Why wouldn’t that be heresy? Jesus spoke of hell more than heaven, we are told. And the apostle’s creed says he descended into hell.

ANSWER:

It is definitely true that the view of a literal conscious place of eternal torment for the lost is the overwhelming view of most orthodox Christians, in most places, at most times. However, it has never been the universal position, nor has it ever been dogmatically articulated in an ecumenical creed. Passages that speak of fire and smoke and darkness and “forever and ever” have been read by Christians throughout history in different ways ranging from literal and metaphorical. However, even those who have tended to read the language metaphorically have still affirmed a literal conscious torment that is indescribable. Nevertheless, some have read the language as a metaphor for universal purification by fire or as a figure for absolute irreversible annihilation as if by fire.

So, is a non-literal view of the fires of hell heresy or heterodoxy?

Part of this confusion may be how narrowly I apply the word “heresy.” When I use the term “heresy,” I mean damnable doctrine, that is, “If you believe this, you cannot be saved.” When I use the word “heterodoxy,” I mean, “If you believe this, be careful! You’re holding to something very few Christians have held and you’re standing against the vast majority of thinkers throughout history, and this view has sometimes led to more dangerous doctrines.”

So, I call the views of universalism and annihilationism “heterodoxy” rather than “heresy” because: 1) there has never been a complete agreement on how to understand those hell passages even among those who hold to eternal conscious torment; 2) there has never been a universally adopted creed that reflects a clear teaching on this matter one way or another; and 3) those errors in personal eschatology don’t necessarily and directly distort the Trinitarian creation/redemption story or the person and work of Christ.

I think rejecting eternal conscious torment of the lost fits the category of heterodoxy the best. And not a heterodoxy of the harmless kind, like whether angels have actual wings. Rather, I think those who deny a view of hell as eternal conscious torment and instead hold to annihilationism or universalism are sailing in dangerous waters. Pushing those views too hard could cause them to capsize or shipwreck, distorting other important doctrines. But if a figure in history or even today held firmly to all the other essential tenets of orthodoxy but flirted with a figurative interpretation of hell, I would not put that person in the category of a heretic. I reserve that label for those who reject the fundamentals of the faith like Arius, Pelagius, or Joseph Smith.

One more note with regard to the creedal language. The Creed states that Jesus descended to “hades,” which in the early centuries was a reference simply to “the place of the dead.” Throughout history there has been no complete consensus on what was meant by the term; all acknowledged it was a term borrowed from Greek after-life concepts, so it meant, simply, “Jesus went to the place dead people go when they die.” Some took it as referring to His physical place of burial, so “hades” = “the grave.” Others took it to mean the place of the departed righteous, thus, “hades” = “Abraham’s bosom” or “Paradise.” Others took it to refer to the place of the wicked spirits, including demons, so Christ descended there and proclaimed victory over the spirits of wickedness. In any case, there was no clear consensus on the descensus ad infernos, as it is called, and, in fact, not all of the articulations of the Regula fidei (“Rule of Faith”) and the various baptismal confessions contained that line. So, it is not a good place to go to affirm a universally binding orthodox view of a literal fiery eternal hell. The mention of Christ’s descent to hades was not intended to affirm anything about the literal fires of hell.

 

“And Now for Something Completely Different”: Exploring Christian Theology

ECTnewSoon Bethany House (a division of Baker Publishing Group) will begin releasing a trilogy of mini-theologies entitled Exploring Christian Theology edited by Dr. Nathan Holsteen and me, with significant contributions by our colleagues in the theological studies department of Dallas Theological Seminary: Dr. Douglas Blount, Dr. Scott Horrell, Dr. Lanier Burns, and Dr. Glenn Kreider. We’re starting with what is actually the third volume in the series (The Church, Spiritual Growth, and the End Times), then releasing volumes 1 and 2 in the next couple of years.

But wait a second . . . Why another “systematic theology” when the market is flooded with them? To answer this question, let me say that ECT is not another systematic theology. In fact, I can honestly say that this series is something completely different. 

Let me explain.

Like any good introduction to evangelical theology, the three volumes in ECT will present believers with much-needed introductions, overviews, and reviews of key tenets of orthodox protestant evangelical theology without getting bogged down in confusing details or distracted by mean, campy debates. These three simple and succinct books will provide accessible and convenient summaries of major themes of evangelical Christian doctrine, reorienting believers to the essential truths of the classic faith while providing vital guidebooks for a theologically illiterate church.

But isn’t that what every entry-level theological intro promises? Yes, but let give you six reasons Exploring Christian Theology really is completely different.

First, we wrote Exploring Christian Theology for a genuinely inter-denominational evangelical audience. And when we say “inter-denominational,” we don’t mean that we’re trying to get conservative Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Anglicans, and Charismatics to read our theology in order to persuade them to leave their branch of evangelicalism and climb onto ours. Not at all! Instead, we’re descriptively presenting the whole tree of evangelical orthodoxy—as dispassionately and positively as possible. This means pastors, teachers, students, lay-leaders, new believers, and mature saints of every orthodox protestant evangelical church can use these volumes without feeling like they have to constantly counter our assertions with their own views on the matter. Simply put, we’re so interdenominational that if a reader doesn’t agree with our central assertions, they’re probably not orthodox, protestant, or evangelical.

Second, the style of this series will be genuinely popular, informal, and accessible. Sometimes extremely so. Think contractions . . . illustrations . . . alliteration. You’ll see generous bullet points, charts, and graphs instead of just walls of impenetrably dense text on every page. Brace yourself for the pace of a hockey game rather than a golf tournament (sorry, golfers, but . . . YAWN). We wrote this for people who don’t necessarily carry around a large arsenal of biblical, theological, and historical facts in a side holster.

Third, you’ll find this series to be worth every penny you spend on it and, more importantly, every minute you spend reading it. Let’s face it, some mini-theologies with a broad appeal are just fancy-wrapped junk food with very little spiritually nutritional value. Yes, these volumes are intended to be “stepping stools” to the bottom shelf—brief, succinct summaries of specific areas of doctrine that can each be read quickly, consulted easily, and grasped by anybody. But at the same time you’ll find them to be comprehensive, thorough, careful, and—if you bother to explore the endnotes—well-researched and documented.

Fourth, this is a community-authored theology. Rather than presenting the perspectives and opinions of an individual teacher, tradition, or denomination, Exploring Christian Theology is planned, written, and edited by several theologians who are experts in their various fields. We hold each other accountable to avoid personal hobby horses, pet peeves, and doctrinal idiosyncrasies. In other words, you’ll never get one man’s opinion about this or that doctrine. Instead, you’ll get a clear explanation of the classic orthodox, protestant, evangelical consensus and a dispassionate presentation of points of allowable disagreement and diversity within evangelicalism. As such, these handbooks can be confidently used for discipleship, catechesis, membership training, preview or review of doctrine, or personal quick reference by any orthodox, protestant, evangelical church or Christian.

Fifth, these volumes will serve as a foyer into a broader and deeper study of the Christian tradition. We didn’t design Exploring Christian Theology to compete with other systematic theologies in the marketplace. There are a lot of great ones out there—some reflecting the views of certain confessions or traditions, others the perspectives of specific teachers or preachers. Our volumes are designed to supplement (not supplant) more detailed systematic theologies . . . to complement (not compete with) intermediate and advanced works. We promise that after thumbing through ECT, you’ll be much better prepared to read more advanced systematic theologies with informed discernment and a firm grasp on  central tenets as well as an understanding of ancillary discussions.

Finally, there are unique features in Exploring Christian Theology you’ll have a hard time finding all together anywhere else. Right up front we present a high altitude survey of the doctrine in order to set forth the unity of the faith among numerous diverse evangelical traditions. Then you’ll find no-nonsense discussions of key Scripture passages related to that volume’s specific areas of theology. You’ll also find a very helpful narrative of the history of the doctrine throughout the patristic, medieval, reformation, and modern eras. We also provide a glossary of important terms related to the doctrines as well as a feature called “Shelf Space” with recommended resources for probing deeper. By the end of each part of the volume dedicated to a particular area of doctrine, you’ll be warned about the most prominent false teachings related to the doctrine and encouraged with practical application points flowing from a right understanding of the doctrine. Besides all this and more, I’ve been told that the generous first-hand quotations from church fathers, theologians, scholars, reformers, pastors, and teachers from the whole span of church history is worth the entire volume.

In short, Exploring Christian Theology is not my theology, but our theology—the theology of the orthodox, protestant, evangelical tradition. It’s presented in a winsome (and sometimes whimsical) way. It balances biblical, theological, historical, and practical perspectives. And it’s written with the whole evangelical tradition in view.

You can pre-order Exploring Christian Theology today from these sellers:

Dallas Seminary bookstore

Amazon.com

Barnes & Noble

 

 

 

Is Cremation Really an Option for Christians?

cremation-urn-2Cremation in North America has been on the rise for decades. In 1985 the percentage of deaths cremated was only 15%. In 1995 the number shot up to about 20%. By 2005 the percentage increased to just over 32%. By 2015 the projected figure is almost 45%, and in 2025, 55%.

For centuries, however, Christians have mostly rejected cremation as an acceptable treatment of the remains of loved ones. A biblical reason for this was that the patriarchs and prophets, priests and kings, princes and peasants, were buried in graves or tombs. Cremation was seen as a punishment or curse, not a common treatment of mortal remains (Gen. 38:24; Num. 11:1; Deut. 12:31; Josh. 7:25; 2 Kings 17:17; Ps. 106:18; Isa. 33:12). A theological reason for this was a belief in the bodily resurrection, in which what remained of mortal bodies would be raised anew, glorified, and transformed immortal, never to die again (John 6:28–29; 1 Cor. 15:52; Phil. 3:21; 1 Thess. 4:16). So the burning of remains was often associated with Eastern and Pagan religious traditions that viewed the physical body as an inferior, evil substance to be escaped or overcome rather than a part of God’s original good creation and a partaker in His future redemption.

Yet today many Christians are overcoming the traditional biblical and theological gag reflex associated with cremation by embracing it as a legitimate option. A number of factors contribute to this. First, cremation is significantly cheaper: cremation costs can be between 50% to 80% less than traditional burial, depending on the kinds of services involved! Second, many point out that both decomposition and combustion eventually lead to the same thing: dust and ashes. It’s just that one takes centuries, the other minutes. Third, some insist that cremation is more “green” . . . or at least it takes up less green space. And “green” is all the rage nowadays. Fourth, some Christians regard the body as just so much trash that needs to be discarded. And since some trash is buried and other trash is incinerated, why not do the same with bodies? After all, they reason, “The real me is in heaven with the Lord; I don’t care what happens to my rotten ol’ body.”

I’ll admit, the first reason seems, well, reasonable. Or at least fiscally responsible. The second reason is true: though the chemical processes are a bit different, the end result is more or less similar. The third reason makes sense in a part of the world where land is a premium and the potential for unsanitary burial is high. The final reason, though, is absolute rubbish. The view that the body is insignificant and irrelevant is not a Christian perspective. Period. (See my essay, “Don’t Walk on Those Graves!” for a biblical, theological, and historical explanation of the Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection.)

So, what do we do? On the one had we have traditional biblical and theological reasons to favor burial . . . on the other hand we have, well, let’s be honest—financial and pragmatic reasons (plus one quasi-heretical view of the physical body). It kind of seems pretty clear that the biblical and theological should outweigh the financial and pragmatic, doesn’t it?

Well, not so fast. The truth is, Jews and Christians buried their dead primarily as an act of their belief in the nature of the material body and its future in God’s redemptive plan. They did this explicitly in contrast to religions and cultures that viewed the body as useless trash or believed the body was just borrowed matter that should become one with the physical universe, just as our spirits would be absorbed into the mindless cosmic soul. Christians distinguished themselves in their belief that God will one day raise up the material bodies that had been animated by their immaterial souls, that those bodies originally created good would one day be restored and transformed into glorious bodies that would live forever in a renewed world free of death and corruption. By burying instead of burning, Christians aligned their actions with their beliefs—by their practice they confessed that God would one day win the victory over death through resurrection.

I believe Christians can continue to confess their belief in the resurrection of the body and practice cremation, because it’s not the form in which the mortal remains are preserved that is most important but that the mortal remains are preserved. Christians can distinguish themselves from pagan pantheism and materialistic atheistic by preserving the identity of the remains, whether they are buried or cremated. By maintaining the identity of the departed saint, we confess a belief in the future physical resurrection of his or her remains.

This leads to three practical points for those who choose cremation over burial.

First, avoid any actions that would confess a pantheistic “becoming one with the universe” theology. Scattering ashes in the wind, dumping them in the sea, fertilizing a lawn or garden, or otherwise mixing them with the world is an action that says, “Joe’s body is no longer Joe. It’s just dirt.” Wrong! Joe’s body is half of Joe! One day God will take Joe’s mortal remains, reconstitute and transform them, and reunite Joe’s soul with Joe’s glorified body! So scattering ashes is probably not a good picture of our belief in the bodily resurrection.

Second, maintain the identity of the remains. Yes, name them. Preserve them. Place them in a marked grave, or label them with a name plate—something that indicates that they are of significance and value both to you and to God. By doing so, you’re saying, “This is Jill. Yes, her spirit is with the Lord, but one day God will redeem Jill’s mortal remains, reversing the curse of death, and declaring victory over it forever.” Through our actions we will confess those final lines of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe . . . in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

Finally, make your wishes—and especially the theological reasons for your wishes—clear to your loved ones. If you believe in the proper place of your physical body in God’s redemptive plan, make sure your loved ones know that you desire for your remains to continue to confess your faith in the gospel promise long after you’re gone. Don’t let your children or grandchildren dispose of your remains as if they were just emptying an ashtray!

Yes, I believe cremation is an option for Christians. God can and will raise up bones, dust, or even ashes on that Great Gettin’ Up Morning. But in the meantime, your desire to maintain the identity of your remains can communicate to others your belief that the darkness will one day give way to dawn, that the sun will break over the horizon, and you’ll answer Christ’s trumpet call to awake from your sleep.