Category: heaven and hell

Of hell and hell fire: it’s not what you think

C.S. Lewis as a young man

We worship a bi-polar deity, most of us anyway.  Our God is the very definition of love . . . but, like the killer bunny in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “he’s got a vicious streak a mile wide.”

We are taught that God is love.  We are taught that God consigns the wicked to hell for eternity.  Surely both can’t be true?

C.S. Lewis (who, like Jack Kennedy, died fifty years ago today), captured this dilemma beautifully in The Pilgrim’s Regress.  It was his first crack at Christian apologetics written shortly after his conversion to Christianity in 1929.  The allegory is set in the land of Puritania where a young boy named John is taken, as all young boys eventually are, to meet the Steward.  Puritania is owned by “the Landlord”, a shadowy figure who has gone abroad and left his vast domains in the hands of a caretaker.  Lewis was always at his best writing about children, and his description of John’s visit to the Steward is so good I will give you the whole story just as he wrote it: (more…)

“Employment is essential for people who have broken the law and are trying to reenter society”

By Alan Bean

I spent last night with 15 homeless men at Broadway Baptist Church.  For the past six or seven years, a number of Fort Worth congregations open their doors to homeless people during the hottest and coldest months of the year.  This was my first time, but our guests knew the drill.  Upon arrival, they got out their mattresses and settled in.  Some of the men spent the evening playing cards and chatting with church members, but most turned in immediately after dinner.  This morning, they ate the hot breakfast we prepared, then wiped their tables, stacked the chairs and swept the floor without a word of instruction from anyone.

Some of the men shared their stories with me, others did not; but not a single man is homeless by choice.  Many of them would be working if they could, but jobs are in short supply, especially if you have a prison record.  This morning I found a message from Mark Mauer of the Sentencing Project in my inbox. (more…)

An informed conversation about the religious right, politics and dominionism

By Alan Bean

Sarah Posner and Anthea Butler understand the religious right because they attend actual religious gatherings and talk to people.  When they sit down for a conversation about dominionism, the New Apostolic Reformation and politicians like Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann you get the straight goods.

Dominionists aren’t poised to take over America.  The religious right is an exceedingly complex social phenomenon.  Most of the folks in Houston’s Reliant Stadium for Rick Perry’s The Response had never heard of dominionism.  All of this is true, but that doesn’t mean something big isn’t afoot in the world of conservative evangelicalism.  Something big is afoot and it is already impacting the political process and the way social issues are debated in the public arena.

When I was attending university in the mid-1970s, my parents, Gordon and Muriel Bean, were suddenly wrapped up in the charismatic movement.  They continued to attend McLaurin Baptist Church (then a very non-demonstrative congregation), but they were much more excited about groups like the Full Gospel Business Men International and Women Aglow (of which my mother eventually became Alberta president).  Like the dutiful son I am, I attended these meetings but was never tempted to get involved.  I saw the usual “signs and wonders”:  folks speak in tongues as if it was the most natural thing in the world, worshipers healed of chronic ailments (usually having one leg longer than the other), worshippers  “slain in the spirit” (that is, lying in ecstasy on the floor as their bodies twitched with Holy Spirit electricity).

Like I say, it wasn’t my cup of tea.  But I learned that this kind of religion can be extraordinarily powerful for those on the inside.  As Posner and Butler point out below, it is the ordinary people who attend religious conferences and buy books and DVDs that drive the movement.  The names of the preachers change from generation to generation; the spiritual hunger driving the movement abides forever.

The GOP has learned to tap into that hunger; Democrats lose elections, especially in the South, because they haven’t.

This is a long piece, but I offer this little clip as an indication of the fresh insight you will discover throughout a fascinating conversation.  This is Anthea Butler:

For the last 30 years, journalists have had an easy time reporting on the religious right, because all they did was pay attention to to white male leaders of big organizations like Focus on the Family, National Association of Evangelicals, or Family Research Council. The days when a nice soundbite from Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, or Ted Haggard would suffice are over. If journalists and others want to understand the last 10 years of the religious right movement, they will need to pay attention to the theological, religious, and ethnic diversity among evangelicals, Pentecostals, and non-denominational churches. They will at least need to recognize the old and new leaders of the religious right, and the complex network of leaders, conferences, and teachings if they want a reductionist argument they can spin out in 800 words. As someone who has studied and written about Pentecostalism for over 15 years, their lack of basic knowledge is staggering, and although I don’t expect people to get it like I do, I do expect reporters and journalists to do their homework! (more…)

The Savior of Angola

Aerial view of Angola prison, January 10, 1998.: USGSBy Alan Bean

You don’t work in the criminal justice reform world very long without running up against Burl Cain.  The man is larger than life and, like the hero of the old Kris Kristofferson song, “he’s a walking contradiction; partly truth, partly fiction.”

According to legend, Burl Cain tamed the most corrupt and violent prison in the world with the love of Jesus.  But as James Ridgeway argues in this compelling piece for Mother Jones, the story has been greatly enhanced in the telling.

Many of those who have embraced Cain’s religious regime really have turned their lives around; but what of those who maintain their independence?  That’s the story you never hear, and Ridgeway is here to tell it.

This story is personal for me.  Friends of Justice is working, individually or as part of larger coalitions, on behalf of at least six Angola prisoners who we believe to be innocent.  Burl Cain knows a lot of the folks in his prison didn’t do the crime.  He also knows the death penalty (which he personally administers) is in serious tension with Christian non-violence.  But all of that pales to insignificance compared to his primary task of claiming souls for eternity.

James Ridgeway came to Angola to talk to warden Cain, but spent his time in the company of PR whiz, Cathy Fontenot.  Cain, he learned at the end, was in Atlanta that day.  The warden was wise to decline an interview.

I have pasted a few choice highlights below, just to whet your appetite, but I encourage you to read the entire article. (more…)

Rethinking Hell

By Alan Bean

Hell has always been a hot topic in America.  Rob Bell’s Love Wins created such a pre-publication stir that the book debuted at number 2 on the New York Times best-seller list and remains on Amazon’s top 10. 

Bell’s take on heaven and hell rests on the recent scholarship of folks like NT Wright (on the evangelical side) and Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (writing from a more liberal perspective).  (Brian McLaren offers a slightly more cerebral, and original, popularization of this new scholarship.)  The big idea is that salvation isn’t about going to heaven (or hell) when you die; eternal life (for better or worse) begins now. 

In a recent chat with Welton Gaddy, Rob Bell offered this typically folksy summary of his perspective.

I start with the first century world of Jesus. Jesus spoke very clearly and forthrightly about this world: that the scriptural story and the Jewish story that he was living in was about the reclaiming of this world, the restoration and the renewal of this world. So, Jesus comes, He teaches his disciples to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The action for Jesus was here on earth, about renewing this earth, about standing in solidarity with those who are suffering in this world. And he spoke of a kingdom of God, which is here and now: upon you, among you, around you, within you.

So in the book, I talk about this urgent, immediate invitation of Jesus to trust him, that God is good, that God is generous, that God is loving, that God is forgiving… And to enter into a new kind of quality of life with God right here, right now. So let’s bring some heaven to earth, let’s work to get rid of the hells on earth right now, let’s become the kind of people who love our neighbor… And that, for Him, it was immediate and urgent about this world. What happens when you die? He talks a little bit about that, but He’s mostly talking about this world. I think, for a lot of people, the Christian faith doesn’t have, for them, much to say about this world; that it seems to be all about what happens when you die. And so, the book, in some ways, flips it around and says: “I think this is actually what Jesus was doing.” (My emphasis, along with a few quick edits) (more…)