A Promo Video Proposal

Close up shot of black and white photographs from the Second World War. Background somber but progressive piano music.

PETER – VOICE OVER : A few months ago my local museum had a show of photographs from the second world war, focussing on some of the atrocities performed by the SS. It was challenging and provocative and moved many people to tears.

Cut to shot of me walking along a beach in bright sunshine.

One photo in particular, of Josef Mengele, the so-called “Angel of Death” doctor, about to experiment on a Jewish child was particularly poignant and made people respond in anger and grief. People would walk away mumbling, “He deserves to burns in hell”. All except one person, who’d stuck a post-it note on the photo which read, “Reality check – Josef Mengele went to heaven in the end”.

Poignant pause whilst focussing on a pineapple. Back to me on a sunny beach, having come to a stop. Straight look at camera.

Mengele’s in heaven? Really? And someone knows this for sure and felt the need to let the rest of us know?

Will only a few select people actually end up in hell for all eternity and will billions and billions of people, despite their rebellion against God and their gross sin, live perfected forever? If that’s the case, how do you end up being one of the few? Does it really not matter in the slightest what you do or say or believe? Is it irrelevant what happens in your heart? Are baptism and conversion totally pointless? And really how despicably evil and loathsome do you have to be to become one of those who will actually have to pay the price for their sin? Is there a list somewhere that can tell me what I can get away with in this life and still get into heaven?

Cut to coconut on beach. Back to Peter

And then there’s the question behind the question, the real question. What is God like? Millions and millions of people have been taught that God’ll take you in the end despite anything you do and regardless of your repentance (or otherwise) in this life. What gets taught is that it really doesn’t matter what you think about Jesus and God and how many people you’ve murdered, because in the end God is really, really, really nice and all that stuff about sin and wrath and judgement and holiness is rubbish.

Cut to cute kid opening can of Lilt. Back to Peter.

How is it that you could possibly think this kind of God is good? How could we possibly ever trust a God who lets people get away with the most abominable crimes? How can we ever trust a God who says one thing in the Bible and then does the exact opposite? Is the “good news” the fact that it doesn’t matter what you do, that you can be as despicable a sinner as you like, a child abusing, murdering, raping, torturing, hedonistic bastard and in the end you’ll get into heaven. And might this explain why loads of people read this rubbish, see how unjust and unholy such a God would be and then say, “Why would I ever want to be a part of that?”

Cut to museum staff talking down photos from exhibition and throwing them into a fire. Pause. Back to Peter.

You see, what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like. What we discover in the Bible is more unexpected and surprising and beautiful than whatever we’ve been told and taught by populist preachers. The good news is that God is a God who will judge evil and sin and will not let his creation get away with the most despicable of acts, but at the same time he has sent his Son to die for those who realise that they are also the worst of sinners and could never ever in any possible fictitious scenario deserve to go to heaven. We don’t have to choose between a God of love or a God of justice – we can have both in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that God is vindicated as a God of justice and holiness in judging evil and sin and he is also vindicated as a God of love and holiness in graciously saving all who call on the name of Christ.

The good news is that God wins.


Right – Who’s got a publishing contract, a film camera and two tickets to the Bahamas?


19 Comments on “A Promo Video Proposal

  1. Were there not shockwaves in even the overly-theocratic USA when Jeffrey Dahmer (IIRC) accepted Christ in prison, meaning that he was Heaven-bound in a way not true of any of his (say) atheistic victims?

    People object to Penal Substitution because they do not, in fact, think it accords with Justice and Holiness – not because they reject the importance of those values per se. Islamic countries that chop off the hands of thieves and stone adulterers have a lower tolerance of 'sin' or 'evil' than western democracies but I'd argue that the latter are more, not less, Just and Fair than the former.

    • Were there not shockwaves in even the overly-theocratic USA when Jeffrey Dahmer (IIRC) accepted Christ in prison, meaning that he was Heaven-bound in a way not true of any of his (say) atheistic victims?

      Do you think he deserves hell? Do you think Christ couldn't die for him?

      • Me personally? Clearly, even as a liberal, there's something a bit self-aggrandising about talk on who 'deserves' Hell and the logic of "annihalationism, except for the REALLY bad" is a nonsense. Terrorists might 'deserve' torture but torture is still wrong.

        And of course Christ could die for Dahmner, or Hannibal Lecter, or Count Dracula or anyone else. The wider point is that Bell is being portrayed as a heretic for going against the alleged universal Christendom consensus on Hellfire. I think that many who are being roped in as de facto believers in the evangelical model of Hell in fact have different views, and the republican press response to Dahmner's conversion is a good example of this.

        • I think the heresy of Bell is not rejecting eternal damnation (plenty of Evangelicals are open to the concept of annihilation) but rather his teaching that you get a "second chance" in hell. That's just unscriptural nonsense.

  2. Thanks Peter. Your proposed video exposes the nonsense that Rob Bell is preaching. I have been praying for him since I came across his Nooma videos a number of years ago!

  3. Peter

    Thanks for this wonderful contribution which explains the orthodox Christian view of God's justice and love so clearly. I've been contributing to the Guardian CiF Belief question: 'What is Hell?' quite alot over the last week, under the username 'nansikom'. You say so much more clearly what I have been traying to say. But then I guess that's why you're a vicar, and I'm not! :-)

  4. Peter, I haven't got to Universalism yet in my studies, but it strikes me that the whole problem with Rob Bell is that he is anticipating what God is going to do…..1 Corinthians 2:16 For who has known the mind of the Lord?…We cannot possibly judge what God is going to do to those people who didn't answer his call. Speaking from my personal experience I find it hard to understand how heaven could be perfect if "good" people who were very dear to me but were "agnostic" aren't there too. So. All we can do is follow Jesus' commands for ourselves, and worry and pray like hell (forgive the pun) for those who don't.

  5. Good news if you are one of the elected to salvation. Not such good news if Calvin was right and the many are elected to damnation…

    "By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.

    As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected . . . are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power. through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

    The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as He pleaseth, for the glory of His Sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice." (Westminster Confession: Chap. III — Articles I, III, VI and VII)

    I think a film explaining this (or challenging it) would also make good television (what you leave out in the spaces, Peter? More of a challenge than just stating God wins. Over whom, for instance, the Devil? Looks a tiny bit dualistic, doesn't it? Blake said Milton was of the Devil's party without knowing it and that's what made him a great poet – Paradise Lost is infinitely better than its lame sequel Paradise Regained. Albeit Milton was an Arian he still thought he had to try to defend the orthodox account but his heart simply wasn't in it. He was for the Devil and the Republic of Heaven, no monarchist he).

    The trouble with so many TV productions is that they promote as new stuff what scholars have known for a long time. For example last night's programme about God' wife the Asherah has been known about a long time and has been accessible to the reading public since the publication of The Hebrew Goddess by Raphael Patai in 1990. The trouble is most people in the pews are kept in ignorance by their pastors who do not want to challenge their simple faith that what they read in the Bible is necessarily historically so.

    • I think the more serious question Tom is whether you are saved. Are you? If you don't think you need to be, what's the big issue? Just let us poor, deluded folks carry on.

    • Tom

      Good points! I personally struggle more with the idea of predistination than of hell. Hell, for me at least, is the logical consequence of our choices to reject God. If through life, though he is calling us, we continually reject him then hell is a perfectly just end result.

      I find predestination more difficult as it implies that God has chosen people for eternal damnation, as the articles that you cite from the Westminster Confession state. But, whether I like it or not, I have to address the issue of predestination as it is clearly stated in scripture.

      I believe that the Bible shows that God is continually calling us. His desire is that not one be lost. But the first mark of his divine image in us is free will, stamped in us at our creation. God will not overrule or choices – we are not His automatons. So while He clearly knows in advance who will respond to his grace, and hence in that sense predestines some for salvation, He is also continually calling each one of us knowing in advance who will respond. But we always have a choice!

      Incidently, don't you love the sheer poetry of the Westminster Confession and its clarity in the exposition of the hallmarks of faith! They don't write them like that anymore!

      • Hi Philip

        Beautiful language, I agree but the problem with trying to describe the attributes of the Supreme Being – omniscience in particular – is bound to get the human mind into knots. That's where Calvin turns it all into something hideous. I personally believe there are aspects of natural reality, let alone supernatural, the human mind cannot readily imagine – even leaving aside M-theory -e.g. how electrons moving through the shells around the nucleus change the nature of an element, and so on. As far as God's grace is concerned there seem to be two ideas that have to be held together as antonyms – the foreknowledge of God and Human free will, without one encroaching on the other – otherwise we are mere robots doomed to fulfil some plan into which we have no meaningful input. This is where I believe Calvin's logic leads him to define such a cruel and arbitrary deity, that Christ saving grace only applied to some – and surely that must be wrong. Just my view, of course, but if I were you I wouldn't try to second-guess who is saved and who is not. Calvin thought it was unchangeable but I know of people who were certain they were saved but later became atheists. Such a one is the ex-preacher Dan Barker

        Calvin would have an answer, of course, that Dan was deluded when he thought he was saved. But I think it shows no one really knows, not even people who think with greatest certainty today they are saved. Tomorrow who knows. I think "by their fruits ye shall know them" is a safer guide to a person's moral goodness than what they claim is their salvation status. The Catholic position is that no one can claim to be saved until they show final perseverance. Isn't that why Thomas à Kempis was never canonised? When they exhumed his coffin they found scratch marks on the underside of the lid, showing that he had been buried in a catatonic state and awoken in the grave. The scratch marks show he might have fallen into ultimate despair trying to get out of the coffin six feet under. A horrible story I know, but I read somewhere that it was not too uncommon in the days of hasty burials.

  6. I am glad that I didn't respond right away to this, because when I read it early this morning I was deeply unsettled by it. Reading it again now, though it remains a bit snarky (and who can really blame a blog for being snarky?), I don't think there's anything written here that I think is necessarily incorrect. In fact, some of it sounds awfully similar to things I've recently preached.

    I think what puts me on edge is the way in which many Reformed writers describe the atonement as primarily an escape from the wrath of God rather than a response to sin and death. Certainly, we are saved from the wrath of God by the cross, but that wrath is directed at sin and is at its core a loving response. Yet so much Reformed theology seems to paint a picture of an angry Father who must be appeased by beating up His Son. It's deeply disturbing and, in my opinion, unwarranted by scripture. What saves us from the wrath of God is the righteousness of Jesus. His righteousness in death wipes out the effects of sin, which cools the wrath of God towards us. At least, that's how I read Romans.

    But, again, Peter, I don't think that what you've said negates any of that. A loving God is a just God. And we certainly don't want a God who is indifferent to sin.

    • FR.J, Perhaps unintentionally but it sounds like you aren't hip with penal substitutionary atonement? Asking gently. Wanting to understand your position more clearly.

      • Danny, you would be mostly correct. Atonement, yes. Penal substitutionary atonement, doubtful. There are, perhaps, ways of thinking about or describing PSA that I would find more helpful than others, at least in as much as they square with the witness of scripture. But by and large, I think PSA has more to do with Anselm of Canterbury and a particular brand of Reformed theology than with what the Bible actually says about salvation.

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