Sunday, 7 January 2018

Did the wise men going to the bad place? (Epiphany sermon series)

Today we are starting our Epiphany sermon series, which is based on questions that have been submitted by members of our congregation. I once heard The scholar and bishop N.T. Wright say that 25% of what he says is wrong, but he's not sure which bits those are. I feel that same as we enter into this series. It's likely we are going to disagree at points and I might very well be wrong in some of the things I'm going to say, but this is the best I can come up with right now. You are allowed to disagree with me. I will probably offend everyone at some point during this series, so I ask for your grace and patience especially during these sermons.  Please know you can disagree with me. 

Did the wise men going to the bad place?

 The first thing I want to do is explain that question a bit. … These wise men come to see and give homage to the child born in Bethlehem. They saw a star that foretold his arrival and they brought three gifts for the child. The wise men don’t seem to be Jewish, which means they were probably gentiles. The Greek word Matthew uses for them is Magi. Magos can be translated as “wise”, but it is also translated as “sorcerer”, or “wizard”. It is from this Greek word that we get the word “magician”. It refers to someone who claims to have magical powers, or someone who practices witchcraft.[1] The Magician might examine the stars as they look for omens in the sky- we usually call that astrology. … 

We see other Magi in the New Testament as well. For example, there was a man who practiced magic in Acts chapter 8. He is called Simon Magus, or Simon the magician. … Generally, the Bible is quite negative regarding those who practice magic. Deuteronomy 18:10 says 
“There shall not be found among you anyone who … practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer”.
 So not only are they not Jewish, but their beliefs also seem to be against the Jewish law.

These magicians come to honour Jesus as a baby, but they don’t seem to stick around to hear the teachings of Jesus when he is grown. They don’t learn about the cross or the resurrection. These wizards from a (probably) polytheistic religion died not knowing much of anything about Jesus, except that he was born. 

What happened to them when they died? Did they go to the good place, or the bad place?

We’re using this as a bit of a case study to consider all religions. What about people of the many different religions out there in the world?

We are dealing with two of the questions submitted by members of the congregation. The first question is, 
“Is everyone not a believer going to hell?”
 And the second question is, 
“’In my Father’s house there are many mansions’ could this be translated to mean that there is a place in heaven for people of different faiths? If that is so and we acknowledge that other faiths worship the one God how can we justify Jesus’ saying that no one comes to the Father but by me?”

I would like to look at our understanding of other religions briefly, then we will look at how we understand hell. We are dealing with a lot so we won’t really be able to go into a lot of depth.

First, what are we to make of other religions? I spent 4 years of university studying world religions. My first degree was in religious studies.  Mainly, I studied Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. 
I was in classes with believers of a variety of religions. I can honestly say there are beautiful things in the world’s religions and there are also things that I disagree with in those belief systems. 

We find a similar kind of reaction in the Bible. For example, in Acts 17 Paul says this to a group of Pagan polytheists, 
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (22-23).
 He seems to be saying that their instinct to worship is good. Paul even quotes from some of their own respected authors. He says God 
“is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; [Probably from Epimenides of Crete] as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” [From Aratus' poem “Phainomena”] (Acts 17:27-28). 
Paul finds a common point in their own beliefs in order to talk about Jesus. He doesn’t seem to wholly reject their religious instinct and even quotes from their own writings.

At other times though, Paul has sharp disagreement with those other religions. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul is speaking about their pagan neighbours and says, 
“I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Cor 10:20).
 That sounds incredibly harsh until we look at what the city of Corinth was like. The theologian Peter Kreeft has said that 2/3rds of the citizens of Corinth were slaves and that much of what was bought and sold in the city was human flesh in the form of slavery and prostitution. There were many places of pagan worship in the city of Corinth, but the major center of worship was the temple of Aphrodite. It is said that her temple had 1000 prostitutes.[2] To say that a belief system that can enslave and abuse and destroy human beings like that is demonically influenced isn’t as harsh as it sounds at first.

I think if we are honest this is how we all really feel. Some of us might want to say that all religions are equal so long as you are sincere because that’s the nice thing to say. But, I’m sure the men that flew planes into the World Trade Centre were very sincere in their belief that this was their service to God. (Please don't think I'm saying anything about Islam by mentioning that.) I’m sure none of us want to recognize that as a valid way of serving God. Not all religious actions and beliefs are equal. We need some way of discerning the good from the bad.

(I’m not saying that we Christians are innocent either- we have followed negative instincts as well.)

I think we have to recognize that we have points of agreement and points of disagreement with other religions. Often these disagreements are about how the world works. They are philosophical differences. 
Is reincarnation true or not? Christians would generally disagree with Hindus on this. 
Is it important for human beings to serve God? Christians would disagree with Buddhists on this. 
Is God triune- Father, Son, Holy Spirit? 
Is Jesus Christ the most accurate image of the invisible God (Col 1:15)? 
Is Jesus God come to us in the flesh, or is he just a prophet, or what? 
We are going to disagree about these things.

There are plenty of things we can agree on. We agree on a lot in terms of morality. If someone is about to get hit by a bus we will all hopefully pull the person out of the way. We also have a lot of similarity when we compare mystical experiences. There is a lot of overlap when it comes to human beings trying to be good and trying to reach out to “the ground of being”, or that “something more”. We have to just recognize that we have similarities and differences and we don’t do anyone any favors by pretending that’s not the case.

As Christians we have to be true to who we are and how we function within our worldview. That means we have to take Jesus’ words seriously when he says in John 14:6, 
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”.
If someone is saved, it is because of Jesus. Being saved- being a part of the kingdom- being in a healthy relationship with the Father- means more than just the afterlife, but today we are going to look at what that means for the afterlife. Since the question had to do with hell, I’ll focus on that aspect of the afterlife.

 When we say “hell” most of us have an image pop into our minds. I found it helpful to know that the word in the New Testament that Jesus used was “Gehenna” which was a garbage dump outside Jerusalem. 

(Present day Gehenna- the Valley of Hinnom)

It had fires that burned the garbage and animals picking through and fighting over scraps. It was also a dumping ground for executed criminals, whose bodies weren't claimed. So the language Jesus uses is very metaphorical, but he does say there are spiritual consequences after this life. There will be judgement against evil.

What is hell like? Some theologians think hell is a place of everlasting pain. Others think it is a kind of emptiness where you are at a distance from God. So if God is the source of all joy and peace and you are separated from God in hell you would be left with sadness and anxiety. … Some think people experience that pain for all eternity, and others think it is a place of destruction where a person is destroyed and then no longer exists.

There are 3 basic views about hell-

The first is called the Exclusive view (Exclusivism). In this view humanity has so walked away from the Holy God that we all deserve hell. Only those who call on Jesus to save them and have their character renewed by him are saved. Everyone else is lost to hell. This means that people of other religions are lost. Atheists are lost. Even Christians who say all the right things, but don’t really mean it might be lost. This view takes Jesus’ words seriously when he says, that the way to eternal life is narrow and the way to destruction is wide (Matt 7:13). St. Augustine (354-430 AD) leans this direction.

The second view is called the Universalist view (Universalism). In this view everyone is saved and hell is empty. God’s love overcomes everyone and, whether they want it or not, they are forced into God’s presence. No one can ultimately resist God’s goodness and everyone is eventually won over by God’s goodness and love. God is merciful and gracious and can’t stand for any aspect of what He has created to be lost. Origen (184/185- 253/254 AD) taught this, but the early church condemned that particular teaching. The modern theologian Karl Barth has been said to lean this direction as well.

The third view is called the Inclusive view (Inclusivism), which is the view I find most convincing. The idea here is that, yes, it is through Jesus that people are rescued from going to hell, but he rescues more than those who explicitly call on his name. He might rescue those whose characters are in line with who he is. So in addition to saving faithful disciples of Jesus, Jesus might in his grace and mercy save a Buddhist who focuses on loving-compassion. This person might, in some ways, be in line with who Jesus is. That person has responded to truth that is in accord with the character of Jesus. They might never have heard the name of Jesus, but they sense that a deep love for other beings is a very important thing, and they might focus a substantial part of their life on developing that.  Is the character of the person pointed toward or away from Christ- his character, and the ways of his kingdom? This view gives Jesus the freedom to decide without us placing theological constraints on him saying who's "in" or "out".

An example of this view is found in C.S. Lewis’ book The Last Battle.  It is generally a very interesting metaphorical exploration of heaven and hell and the book of Revelation. There is a young warrior who was born in another country and served a god called “Tash” rather than the lion Aslan (who is the Christ character). He dies and finds out that Aslan was the true God and Tash was a false god. The warrior says, 

“the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, ‘Son, thou art welcome’. But I said, ‘Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash’. He answered, ‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me’. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, ‘Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?’ The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, ‘It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?’ I said, 'Lord, though knowest how much I understand.’ But I said also (for the truth constrained me), 'Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days'. 'Beloved', said the Glorious One, 'unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek'.”
It is an interesting possibility Lewis imagines. ... Jesus is a free person, and he has complete freedom to save whoever he likes, even if they don’t fit the formula we usually use to say when someone is “saved”. We are told in the Gospels that the grace of God will be so generous it will be shocking and scandalous. So in this view the wise men have a chance of being saved even though they might not know about the cross and resurrection. In this view God wants to save everyone who can be saved. He doesn’t want any good to be lost that can be saved.

Personally, I lean towards the Inclusivist position because I think it makes the most sense of the character of Jesus we see in the Gospels. It recognizes the freedom of a human being to reject God, but it also recognized Jesus’ freedom to save whoever he wants. Though I still think we should not make assumptions as if we can presume on his grace. 

So, are the wise men in the bad place? I hope not. Ultimately it is all up to God and I trust in God’s goodness, justice, and mercy. I think that although the wise men don’t fit the model of what we usually call “saved” that they responded to Christ and showed him honour in the way they thought best. They endured danger and incredible person cost to show Christ honour, and I think Jesus honours that. Amen.

If you want to explore this topic more I recommend the following:

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
This is sort of like theology done through story. What might hell be like? What kinds of people might be there? what might heaven be like? what kinds of people might be there? How are those two realities related? Lewis imagines that those in Hell don't necessarily want to be in heaven, in fact they prefer hell over heaven because of the kinds of people they've become. They refuse to enjoy heaven.  

Love Wins by Rob Bell
In this Book Bell explores the issue of hell and heaven and what scriptures says about the matter. Bell has received a lot of heat for this book. It has led many conservative and fundamentalist folks to reject him as a Universalist (a claim he rejects). It is a very accessible book. 

The Last Word and the Word After That by Brian McLaren
McLaren writes a fictional account of a pastor wrestling with the issue of hell and salvation and arrives in a very similar place as Bell.  McLaren has been rejected by the same folks as Rob Bell. In my opinion their views would mostly fix well within Anglican circles.

Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle
This book is a response to Rob Bell's book Love Wins. They think Bell has gone too far and no longer represents a historically Orthodox position. While Bell and McLaren represent an Inclusivism that leans towards Universalism, Chan and Sprinkle lean towards Exclusivism. 

The First & the Last by George Sumner
This is a more academic book about how Christians can have meaningful dialogue with those of other religions without resorting to a secular pluralistic "everybody's right" kind of view. Sumner wants to retain the exclusive truth claims of Jesus (I am the way, the truth and the life), but he also wants to consider how God may work graciously even within those other religious systems.

[1] Magos in W.E Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words
[2][2] “You Can Understand the Bible” by Peter Kreeft

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