Friday, October 24, 2014

Pendulum Swings

“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.  Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.  How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?  For we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:26-31 NIV)

Pendulums of popular thought swing widely over the years and through generations.  That’s why they are referred to as “pendulum swings” because they swing way to one side and then back to the other. Science is a perfect example of this.  In the 70’s, it was thought the earth was cooling and we were headed for another Ice Age.  Beginning in the 90’s, the thinking of scientists started back toward the alarming news of the earth’s precipitous warming and picked up momentum at the start of this century, to the point one was considered an idiot to deny the “facts” of global warming.  But in the last year, there has begun to appear research indicating perhaps the earth is not warming as much or as quick as was thought. (Google “global cooling 2014”)

The ancient practice of using leeches in medicine had long been abandoned by the modern medical community as a barbaric procedure, but guess what, it’s back! (See this article.)  And, of course, in the areas of health and nutrition the pendulum swings so fast, one can get dizzy. Saturated fat, once the ogre of the diet, is now getting a second look and it’s being seen as perhaps not so bad after all.  Low fat everything is now being questioned as the answer to combatting heart disease.  

So it is no surprise that the same pendulum swings are common when it comes to talking about the Scriptures.  For most of church history, “pre-millennialism” (Jesus returning at the Rapture, followed by the Tribulation) was not the common view.  It wasn’t until the early 20th Century that this view began to be more common.  Today, it is the prevailing view, with the majority of believers unaware of any other.  A focus on sound doctrine was also an emphasis for the Church throughout its history, to the point of people being persecuted and even executed if they held to doctrines different from those believed to be the true ones (Martin Luther was an example of this.)  But in this century, emphasis on sound doctrine has lessened in favor of the feel of the church.  Is the pastor an entertaining speaker?  Is the music contemporary and the worship band good?  The majority of churchgoers have little idea upon what doctrines their churches operate around.  It is no longer a major concern.

Hell and eternal punishment were also common teachings of the Church for centuries.  The 18th Century preacher and theologian, Jonathan Edwards, gave a famous sermon on this passage in Hebrews. But today, the pendulum has swung away from the wrath of God to the grace of God.  Several years ago, Rob Bell, in his book, “Love Wins,” suggested there is no eternal punishment.  In today’s church, Hell and wrath have gone out of fashion.  

Of course, the danger of pendulum swings is that we miss the truth that is so often found in the middle.  When we read the Scriptures, we often tend to focus on the ones that resonate most with us, that are the most appealing.  In earlier times, people were brought up to do things the right way, to be disciplined, and the view was that punishment and the fear of it were the best ways to make sure people lived correctly.  So naturally, the believers of those times focused on the Scriptures that dealt with fear and punishment, like this passage in Hebrews, often to the exclusion of passages referring to God’s love and grace.  

But when the cultural shifts of the 1960’s-70’s happened, slowly fear and punishment gave way to positive reinforcement.  Spankings were replaced by time-outs as discipline for kids.  The raising of self-esteem became more important than discipline and doing things correctly.  And the Church followed this swing.  God’s wrath fell out of favor and was replaced by God’s grace and mercy.  Sermons focused less and less on eternal punishment and much more on eternal life, eventually reaching the point of practically, as Francis Chan entitled his book, erasing hell.

The truth is, Scripture must be read and interpreted in its entirety.  One cannot, as Thomas Jefferson famously did, only select the parts of the Bible we really like or agree with and leave the rest untouched.  And if we do this, we find the truth that God is love and full of mercy.  But He is also a God of wrath for those who refuse His offer of grace and insist on being lords of their own lives.  Love is a wonderful motivator, but as any parent will tell you, it isn’t always enough to motivate a child to do what is right.  Sometimes the fear of punishment has to be employed.  

Today, has your view of God swung so far toward viewing Him as a God of love and mercy that these words of the Hebrew writer strike you as extreme and unloving?  If so, realize you are missing a central biblical truth that punishment awaits those who do not accept God’s gift of grace and live their lives under His Lordship. The truth once again is found in the middle.

© Jim Musser 2014

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