Is hell real, what is its purpose, and what is it like?
Yes, Hell is real. God will never force people to love Him or to be in His presence. We have to choose to accept God’s love. We can therefore also reject it. This has eternal consequences. If we choose to accept God’s love for us through Jesus, we are “saved by grace through faith” and will enjoy eternity WITH God. However, if we reject God’s gift of salvation through Jesus, he will not force us to do so. The result of that rejection is eternal separation from God’s presence, which is Hell. We are made in God’s image, only fully alive by the presence of the Holy Spirit, only redeemed in relationship with Jesus; therefore, rejection of God’s design for our wholeness and holiness results in an experience of Hell-- perpetual suffering because of our sin and pride.
Answered by Assistant Pastor Melissa Danielson (May 5, 2021)
What's up with predestination? Is my salvation not a choice?
Scripture speaks of salvation both as something that God has predestined for those who would love him as well as something that people choose. Predestination suggests a knowledge that is beyond, or outside of time. God exists “outside” of time, as time itself was something that God CREATED. Existing outside of time, God can see what we understand as the past, the present, and the future all at once. Being able to see all of these “dimensions” at once means that God can see and steer all of history. Knowing deeply who each of us is and who we will become means that God does know, in advance, who will choose to accept Jesus and who will reject him; in this sense we are predestined. However, as humans, created to exist WITHIN time, we cannot see or know all. The best we can do is be responsive to grace and the gift of salvation. In this way, salvation is also our choice -- something we can hear, embrace, accept, and live our lives anchored upon. Different Christian denominations tend to emphasize one more than the other, but the Bible uses the language of both to talk about our salvation.
For more on the Reformed perspective on this:
Answered by Assistant Pastor Melissa Danielson (May 5, 2021)
Why would God allow someone to believe they are saved and later realize they are not? Ex. George Whitfield
George Whitefield was a great evangelist in the American Colonial period (1714-1770). It would be distressing to learn that he thought he was a saved believer and then realized he wasn’t! If he was so mistaken, or unsure, what are the chances for the rest of us?
It‘s worth commenting that I am unaware that Whitefield experienced this problem. But neither would I be surprised. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, did experience exactly this! He was an Anglican missionary to Georgia, the American colony, in the 1730s and came home very discouraged. He happened to attend an open-air meeting in a place in London called Aldersgate Street, and he wrote that it was there, after being a missionary, that he felt his heart “strangely warmed,” i.e., the experience when he came to real faith in Christ. So what shall we say about such experiences?
First, experiences in this ballpark are, unfortunately, not unusual for people broken by sin, as we all are. Reformed Christians like Presbyterians, and other Christians, have tended to be quite realistic and down-to-earth about such things. Sin damages us all, so doubts about our own faith, our salvation, about key beliefs of the faith, or about particular passages or teachings of the Bible are common among Christians. David was shocked when he felt like God abandoned him in a terrifying situation (Psalm 22). While he did not doubt God, Jesus, too, quoted David’s words when he was, at least in a particular sense, abandoned by God when he bore our sins on the cross (since God must turn away from sin) and he felt the anguish of being separated from his father by our sins. So, for example, R. C. Sproul edited a book entitled, Doubt and Assurance: Looking for Certainty when the Heart Doubts (Baker Books, 1993). But this is too general.
So, second, Scripture directly raises this issue, thus acknowledging that it raises an important question. Paul writes to members of the Corinthian congregation, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corin. 13:5). The problem was that they had fallen into some serious sins, and this makes Paul wonder if they are really believers (read 13:1-4). Since sin is inconsistent with following Christ, Jesus taught “by their fruits you will know them” Matthew 7:16, 20). All Christians sin (1 John 1:5-10; Romans 7:14-25), but continual, unrepented sin raises the question of whether the one who claims to be a Christian really is one. James also asks the same question: “If someone says he has faith but has no works, can that sort of ‘faith’ save him?” (James 2:14). All of these questions spring from what Jesus taught. So it is important that Christians understand what really makes one a Christian, since confusion about this is inevitable in a sinful world.
It is inevitable that some people will misunderstand what makes a person a Christian. In the early church, some were taught that if you obeyed the Mosaic laws, that made you a Christian, so Paul had to write, “by works of the law no human being will be justified” (Romans 3:20). Martin Luther (1483-1546) was taught that if one does one’s best, they will make it into heaven, but he could never find assurance. Reading Romans showed him that he was misled, and that faith is what brought salvation (see Genesis 15:6 and Romans 4:1-3). Some have believed that if you “believe” in Jesus you can live however you want thereafter, so Paul wrote that believers are marked by persevering in faith and obedience (e.g., Colossians 1:23). John devotes his book 1 John to a series of tests which show one is a real believer.
So, God commands us to examine Scripture so that we do not deceive ourselves. Such examination is far better than gliding comfortably toward eternity with a false assurance. But the Biblical tests are objective guidelines which do bring assurance.
Answered by Dr. Van Campbell (May 29, 2021)
As Christians we are taught to love, not hate. God loves everyone and doesn’t make mistakes. Why do some Christians (thinking especially of the Evangelical church) speak out hatefully/negatively against the LGBTQ community and believe homosexuality is “wrong”? How can we as Christians promote acceptance, tolerance and equality and embrace the belief that people are born that way, not making a choice?
I completely agree with the questioner’s first sentences about Christians being called to love and that God makes no mistakes; and also that it is not Christ-like to be speaking hatefully toward people who identify as LGBTQ+. There are many important questions about the relationship of the gospel to LGBTQ+ folks that are best addressed by lengthier personal conversations, but here’s a brief outline of what I believe to be a compassionate and biblically faithful approach:
When addressing how the gospel relates to LGBTQ+ it’s best to see ourselves not so much talking about something as we are talking to someone. Someone who either identifies as LGBTQ+ themselves or who loves people who do.
The most important biblical lenses for regarding people and their identity are a) that every person you meet has incredible value and dignity as a creature created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). And b) that while gender, racial-ethnic makeup, socio-economic status, and factors such as our sexual orientations/preferences are important aspects of how we perceive and experience the world, a far more significant marker of identity – who we most fundamentally are – is where we are with respect to being or not being a follower of Jesus, or “in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). So when we meet or talk about someone who identifies as LGBTQ+ our understanding of who this person is must begin with the fact that they are someone created in the image of God, loved by God in Jesus, and having either believed and embraced what God has done for them in Jesus, or have the potential to do so.
While the Bible does not say much about it, what little it does say about sexual activity between people of the same gender does not affirm this as being God’s will for people (see https://www.livingout.org/resources/articles/18/what-does-the-bible-say-about-homosexualityhttps://www.livingout.org/resources/articles/18/what-does-the-bible-say-about-homosexuality for a summary of the biblical witness). Attempts to interpret Scripture in ways that affirm same gender sex ultimately fail; and the silence from Jesus on this matter is best explained through his agreement with the biblical understanding of his day, not that he accepted and affirmed such practices.
While it is almost certainly true that many who identify as LGBTQ+ are, as the questioner states, “born that way”, it is also the case that our understanding of our orientations or “natural” inclinations are strongly influenced by what is and isn’t culturally acceptable. Therefore as same gender sexual activity becomes more accepted and affirmed culturally, it should not be surprising that an increasing number of people identify as LGBTQ+. This may help explain, for example, the recent exponential increase of adolescent girls identifying as bi-sexual.
We need to be careful about equating our “born that way” natural inclinations or orientations as morally good or neutral. Most of us are by nature selfish and desire revenge when someone hurts us. Most heterosexual men are by nature oriented toward polyamory, meaning they are sexually interested/aroused in the presence of any woman they find attractive. Most don’t even require a woman’s physical presence as they are easily aroused by print or digital images – i.e. pornography.
While it may be a straight man’s natural orientation, I don’t think we would want to argue that heterosexual “cheating” or objectifying women via pornography is good, healthy, or morally indifferent. There are many situations in which it is good/right to practice restraint with respect to our natural inclinations and desires, including those in the sexual realm.
Read #s 1 & 2 again. It is crucial with respect to LGBTQ+ people and issues that Christians not only believe and witness to the right biblical positions, but that they do so with the right biblical attitudes and in the right biblical ways. Churches and individual Christians have indeed been guilty of uncharitable actions, words, and attitudes toward LGBTQ+ people – the gospel demands much better from us. I encourage you to watch Preston Sprinkle’s “Dear Church – I’m Gay” a 20 minute film that exemplifies well a compassionate biblical approach. https://youtu.be/rc6NXB6TP5A
Answered by Dr. Bill Hoffman (May 25, 2021)
Do you think, if we were voting in 2021, our church would leave PC USA? Do you think our congregation is changing its mind about homosexuality? Trans issues?
The assumption here seems to be that the main reason E. Main left PCUSA for ECO was over LGBTQ+ issues; this was not the case for me nor, I hope, for most among the large majority that voted to leave. Now that we’ve been part of ECO for almost nine years, I’m more convinced than ever that this affiliation is a great fit for East Main in terms of our overall cultural and biblical-theological ethos, and in challenging us in a more missional direction.
The secular culture in which we live has a very strong influence and so it would not be surprising if the views of people in our congregation have changed somewhat in the same direction as our culture has in the past decade. And I certainly hope that we are constantly changing in the direction of greater fidelity to God as he is revealed to us in Scripture and a deeper love for people, including those who identify as LGBTQ+. (See response to the above question for comments on the wider issue of how we engage in ministry with LGBTQ+ folks.)
Answered by Dr. Bill Hoffman (May 25, 2021)
What are the sexual ethics of the Bible (sex, marriage, homosexuality, etc.)?
From the beginning, God establishes both the uniqueness of the male and female genders (Genesis 5:2, “ [He] created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them "Mankind" when they were created.”) as well as their corresponding marital relationship (Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”). Jesus later confirms this relationship with regards to divorce in Mark 10:6-9, “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Nowhere in Scripture do we see God condone any sexual relationship outside of that between a man and a woman within the bounds of marriage. Similarly, we see numerous warnings against sexual actions outside of male/female marriage (Lust: Mat. 5:28, Mrk. 7:20-23, Eph. 4:19; Premarital Sex: Ex. 20:14, Heb. 13:4; Homosexual practice: Lev. 18:22, 1 Cor. 6:9-10). It is apparent that God has intended the sacred act of sex to be within the confines of this M/F union; and this is appropriate: the relationship between a man and woman in marriage, their commitment and self-sacrificial love, is to represent Christ’s relationship with the church, his undying loyalty to it and willingness to die for it. Sex is to be used as a gift that glorifies God and points to a higher reality; but as with any good gift, we must use it in a way that God has designed.
Answered by Luke Fugate (June 16, 2021)
Recently Pastor Bill showed us a painting of Jesus working as a carpenter with the shadow of the cross in the background. He mentioned that he hesitated to show the painting because it is the image of God. Is this a reference to the commandment from Exodus? Is there a difference between images like the Pieta (Mary holding crucified Jesus) or Jesus and other figures in the nativity,? Are we to have no statues or paintings or are we not to worship statues or paintings, is there a difference?
A helpful way to think about this is to consider the differences between idols, icons, and art.
Idols are strictly forbidden in Scripture, as they distract and ultimately divide us from God.
Icons have long been regarded as art that leads to worship in the orthodox traditions of the Christian church. Icons are never created to be worshipped but rather to be a “window” that leads to worship of God.
Religious Christian art can depict Biblical characters or accounts or a painter’s religious views or perspectives.
The caution among more Reformed traditions of the Christian faith is that icons and art can easily become idols. This is based on the second commandment (Exodus 20:4) where God tells the people, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (NIV). This could be understood to include images of Jesus, too.
Most Christians who are concerned about art or icons becoming idols are mostly concerned with the purpose and content of art in worship spaces or churches. It is less of a concern regarding art in museums as those are not places of worship.
Another concern is that art shapes our perceptions, for good or for ill. For example, if you have only ever been exposed to images of a “white Jesus” you might find it hard to remember that he was actually a Middle Eastern man.
Christians have different views about the place of art in worship, but nearly all would agree that artistic talent and ability is a gift that can be used to glorify God.
Different Christian denominations have different views about the place of art in the church and as part of worship.
Art can have a very significant role in glorifying God, in pointing people to Him, in cultivating worshipful reflection, stimulating prayer, and more. The critical piece is to ensure that art never becomes an idol or an object of worship. Our worship can only ever be for God alone.
For more on the orthodox understanding of icons, check out: https://traditionalorthodoxicons.info/html_set/purpose.html
Answered by Assistant Pastor Melissa Danielson (May 5, 2021)
Why is it important that Jesus is from the line of David which leads to Joseph? Why doesn't the line of David lead us to Mary, Jesus' mother?
In answering this question, I interpret the question as asking one of two things, “What is the significance of the Gospel Genealogies?” and “How do the Genealogies reflect upon the attitude of the authors towards men and women’s roles?”
I will assume that we all agree that an interpreter must determine what the original authors meant before trying to determine what the writings mean for us. In thinking about this, I organized my thoughts into several aspects, or categories of interpretation which will be clear as I lay them out.
Aspect 1: The Literary aspect. Interestingly, there are 4 Gospels which lay out the life and ministry of Jesus. Only 2 of them, Matthew and Luke, include Genealogies. When considering the Gospels as literature, the Genealogies stand out as a source of Continuity with the Old Testament Revelation. Indeed, the Pentateuch is organized and separated into sequences by the Genealogies or “Generations” motif. (See Dr. Van Campbell's Book “Invitation to the Pentateuch”). Moses utilizes them repeatedly to organize the Salvation History of God as revealed to him, starting in Genesis 5 and continuing with each significant Epoch in Salvation History including the Flood, The Covenant with Abraham on through to Chronicles which has chapter after chapter of Genealogical records, and then continuing with the subsequent historical books of the Old Testament as well as the Prophetic Books. In other words, Matthew and Luke are identifying themselves with Old Testament Revelation, in a literary sense, and I believe this reveals their self-awareness of the significance of their Gospel writings in the Scriptural Tradition of Israel. This is all I will say about this for now, but much more could be written.
Aspect 2: The Cultural Aspect. In the Judaic community, tracking your Genealogic History was vital to your standing in the Community. The Covenant given Moses on Sinai and subsequently related to the Nation, made allowance for the integrity of the Community by means of establishing Geographic Boundaries (fulfilled later in the books of Joshua, Judges and Samuel). It was important to know your clan to know where your inheritance lies. This was the purpose of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, the place of the Davidic Clan to which Joseph belonged in order to honor the census being taken. Also, the Covenant allows for Israelites to be released from debts, bondage commitments etc during the year of Jubilee (every 50 years), laid out in Leviticus 25. Again, much more could be said, but I’ll stop here.
Aspect 3: The Theological Aspect. This consideration is much deeper than the surface appearance. After all, isn’t the Genealogy a mere list of names? Well, let’s see. First, we note that the Genealogies that appear in Matthew and Luke are different. Why is this? The answer is reasonably apparent. Their purposes are different. Matthew’s Gospel, which many scholars believe has linguistic evidences that it is a translation from Aramaic, giving rise to the conjecture that it is relatively early and may have been written early on for Jewish Christians living in Syrian Antioch. Matthew’s Genealogy provides a Genealogy linking the infant Jesus to the Davidic Dynasty through Joseph’s familial line. Matthew is trying to show that Jesus is worthy of being regarded as the Messiah, expected by the Old Testament Prophets, despite his death on a Cross, which would have been an offense to the Jewish Peoples. One of the ways of proving this is to show that He is indeed a descendent of David and fits the profile of the coming Messianic Redeemer. Matthew’s Genealogy for Jesus links him with the Dynastic Line of David and back to Abraham, to whom the Promise by God was made that a great heir would arise and that through this heir all the Earth would be blessed. Luke, on the other hand, traces the Genealogy back to David by a different line. There are several theories about this, including that this tracing goes back to David through Mary’s family, as she was born a member of the Davidic family per early church history. Dr. Alan Rice has provided a chart which shows the two Messianic lines below. Another interesting viewpoint is that Mary’s line can be traced through the Levitical family, as is related when she visits her kinswoman Elizabeth. Elizabeth is married to a priest. The fascinating thing about this is that through Mary, Jesus is related to the Priests, and through Joseph, to the Kingly line of David, making Him eligible for the Priestly and Kingly offices that He indeed assumes (see the book of Hebrews). Luke, a companion of Paul for many years, also has in mind, I believe, the Pauline teaching of the two Adams (Romans ch 5). His Genealogy goes back, not only to David, to Abraham, but all the way to the First Adam. According to early Church tradition, Luke spent some time talking to Mary and came to appreciate her life as the mother of Jesus. Could Luke be drawing a parallel? Eve, the wife of the First Adam and the mother of all living in the First Creation (per her name) gives way to Mary, the Spiritual Mother of all who are made alive In Christ in the New Creation. I think, considering the time in which these Gospels were written, that it is quite remarkable how Mary is portrayed in these accounts and I think the portrait drawn of her by Luke is fantastic. She’s no second-class citizen in these accounts. While she is a human like any other, she is portrayed as a person of tremendous faith, just as Rahab and Ruth in the OT.
Well, enough rambling, I hope this fits the bill. With Love for God our Savior and His Church.
Answered by Jeff Weinel (May 27, 2021)
Pastor Bill Hoffman addressed the below questions in Sunday sermons. Click the video button next to each question for the sermon.
Why doesn’t our church talk more about abortion? Video
How can Christians be so divided politically? If we have the same Christian beliefs, how can we not all be aligned politically? Video
How do I talk to my Catholic friends about their worship of Mary? At least as an outsider, that is how it appears. Is this an issue for their salvation? As a friend, is it my responsibility to confront them? How do I not come across as judgmental?
Roman Catholics I’ve talked with over the years who are well versed in their theology will say that Mary is to be venerated, but not worshipped; i.e. she is highly honored for her faith and character and position as Jesus’ mother, but not worshipped as divine. The more biblically astute will cite a passage like Luke 1:28, the angel Gabriel’s greeting of Mary: “Greetings you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Like you I have sometimes felt veneration looks a lot like worship as for example when Roman Catholics will say “hail Mary, full of grace ..” or seem to make Mary the object of prayer. While I disagree with my Catholic friends here, something that keeps me from becoming too judgmental or confrontational is to appreciate that the impulse behind their going to Mary instead of directly to Jesus is a sense that Jesus is too holy to approach, whereas Mary, who is a mere, though very righteous human being is more approachable. While this is ultimately misguided since Jesus is both divine and human, and therefore uniquely qualified to intercede between the holy God and sinful human beings (see Hebrews 7:25), perhaps some of us Protestants can learn from our Roman Catholic friends here something about taking the holiness of Jesus seriously, instead of a more casual ‘Jesus is my buddy’ attitude that is sometimes a blindspot for us.
As a friend to a Roman Catholic I think asking questions is often a good approach. Questions like: ‘I believe that faith in Jesus who died and rose again in history is the key to the salvation God offers. What’s the Roman Catholic position about this, & what do you believe? If you find some common ground there, wonderful! Affirm where you agree, then follow up with questions like: I don’t understand the role of Mary in your tradition; sometimes it seems like Mary is worshipped as God … can you help me with this? And throughout the discussion I think it’s helpful to keep directing the conversation back to the centrality of Jesus.
Answered by Dr. Bill Hoffman (June 8, 2021)
I love the Jesus Calling devotional, but have recently heard that the author Sarah Young came to write the book by some questionable methods/she follows some faith influencers that would be considered controversial. Recent claims have also been made about the practice of yoga and use of essential oils for Christians. How much research do we need to do into new products or authors, etc as a Christian?
While I’m not familiar with the issues you raise surrounding Sarah Young, I think it’s helpful to be aware of the methods and various streams of influence on those who teach the faith and to consider how these may impact the content of their teaching. Often, though, I think it’s very possible to “eat the meat and spit out the bones”; i.e. take what is good and helpful in terms of understanding God as He is revealed in Scripture and encouraging us to grow as followers of Jesus, and not buy into everything an author or teacher teaches and stands for. Sometimes the “meat” is very meaty: for example, orthodox Jewish scholars have taught me much about the Old Testament even though they do not, as I do, see their Scriptures as fulfilled in Jesus.
That being said, sometimes a teacher’s methods and especially underlying assumptions can be so antithetical to the core of the gospel that, while we may still learn something helpful, we ought to be very cautious about embracing their teaching. A good example would be Bible scholars who don't believe in a supernatural God - there actually are quite a few of these! Such teachers may be able to tell us much about biblical languages and historical and cultural backgrounds that can inform our understanding of the Bible, but they will reinterpret supernatural elements to fit with their presupposition that these are not real or even possible.
Some Christians won’t embrace yoga because of its roots in eastern religions and philosophy, and thus its sometimes “new agey” feel. In some yoga classes and videos participants are asked to visualize things like ‘being at one with the universe’ or to repeat words or phrases that almost seem like prayers, though not to the God revealed in Jesus. My counsel would be that if as a Christian you find it difficult not to fixate on such elements, then yoga is probably not for you; but if you can treat yoga as a helpful form of physical exercise and stretching, go for it.
Overall I’d encourage Christians to focus more on knowing and reinforcing themselves in the core of the gospel rather than putting lots of time and effort into all the new products and ideas that are constantly being introduced. The better grounded we are in the gospel the more quickly and confidently we can make decisions about various products, books, articles, podcasts, etc and how helpful they might be.
[sorry, I know nothing about essential oils … which I guess means for me anyway they’re not essential! If they help you, great; but - like baseball, walking on the beach, and lots of other things some people like - I wouldn’t be inclined to see them as “essential” in terms of knowing God or following Jesus.]Answered by Dr. Bill Hoffman, June 10, 2021