A Review of Räisänen’s Beyond New Testament Theology

I meant to post this in mid-February.  It took me until March to post again, and only then did I realize that I had not finished this post.  What do you think of Räisänen?


Heikki Räisänen, Beyond New Testament Theology (London: SCM Press, 2000).

In Beyond New Testament Theology, Finnish scholar Heikki Räisänen offers “a story and a programme,”[1] beginning with a history of the discipline of New Testament theology that covers over two hundred years, and following it with his own suggested programme for the discipline.  In review of his work, we will begin with a brief summary of his “story”, before offering a critical analysis of his programme.

In 1787 J.P. Gabler proposed that biblical and dogmatic theology should be separate disciplines.  “Gabler’s address displays a clear realization that the contents of the Bible are not simply identical with the doctrine of the church.” (12)  He sought to separate the timeless, “pure” truths of scripture – which are the stuff of doctrine – and the “true”, time-bound and contextual truths of the New Testament; it is the task of biblical theology to exposit the true, and separate from it the pure, in service of dogmatic theology.  Dogmatic theology – also called “biblical theology” due to its biblical source, with Gabler adding “pure” to its title to distinguish it – is then free to interpret these timeless truths through the framework of philosophies in order to write doctrine.

“William Wrede’s lecture on ‘The Task and Method of So-called New Testament Theology’ in 1897 can be regarded as the declaration of the programme of the history-of-religions school, which was just beginning” (21).  Wrede advocated a strong separation between biblical and dogmatic theology, arguing that the purpose of NT theology is not to serve the church, but “‘like every other real science, New Testament theology has its goal simply in itself’” (21).  Wrede saw the canon as an artificial, dogmatic concept that thus had no place in NT theology; instead he drew from all texts of the period, “everything that belongs together historically” (22).  He departed from the book-by-book approach that was previously common to NT theology, instead recommending “the drawing of tradition-historical lines of development” (23); this related to his goal, which was not to develop doctrine for today but “‘what was believed, thought, taught, hoped, required, and striven for in the earliest period of Christianity’” (23).  He suggested that to treat the material theologically would involve the scholar’s personal beliefs in the study, ruining their objectivity; thus the title New Testament theology is wrong on all counts, as his study includes all writings of the period as the focus of an objective study of religion, rather than theology.  “Wrede, then, was moving toward Gabler’s ‘true New Testament theology’ in a splendid way” (25) by developing the history of thought of the New Testament period.  “In fact his view of the relation of exegesis to dogmatics is rather similar to that of Gabler: dogmatics must build on exegesis, not vice versa; the exegetical work has to be done in a strictly historical way; philosophical (dogmatic) criticism is to be used when the exegetical results are utilized by dogmatics” (26).

Räisänen uses Wrede as a comparison for everything that follows.  He notes that Wrede’s premature death prevented him from fulfilling his programme (26), and searches for a successor among the scholars of the 20th century.  Räisänen reviews these authors’ works and programmes based on their principles and methodology: “Should one write from an insider’s perspective or from that of an outsider?  Should one limit oneself to the canon or should one deal with other writings as well?  Should one do theology or Religionswissenschaft?  Scholars disagree” (147).  Other considerations include the extent to which a scholar attempts to harmonize the New Testament, emphasizing either its unity or its diversity; and the extent to which a scholar attempts to modernize the New Testament message, which in Wrede’s thought is considered tantamount to importing dogmatics into what should be a strictly historical study.  Räisänen uses these points of comparison to construct a spectrum of scholarship, sometimes using terms such as “liberal” and “conservative”; at other times placing scholars in groups or schools, particularly the Bultmannian school of thought; and almost always in a direct comparison to Wrede, using his programme as a standard by which to measure the methodologies and principles of others.

The results of Räisänen’s analysis show that only in the 1990’s have serious inroads on Wrede’s legacy been made, and that, overall, the distance between the historical and theological studies of the New Testament is shrinking as theologians become more prone to acknowledge the diversity of views within the canon (147).

Of particular interest for this reviewer was Bultmann’s desire to distinguish between “what is said” and “what is meant”: “The significance of that message for me must be clarified; one must not remain at a distance from the text as a detached observer” (48).  This brings up the important issues of the impossibility of objectivity and the fact that one cannot take the New Testament seriously on its own terms while attempting to keep a scientific distance from it, as the text itself demands a response of faith.  It also brings up the importance of the question of contextualization, something that Stendahl picked up on with his distinction between “what it meant” and “what it means”, a two-stage process of historical exegesis and present application/theologizing which, while they should be kept separate, are capable of being done by the same person; this model honours Gabler’s original distinction and Wrede’s development of it, and is the model in which this reviewer was first taught to perform biblical theology.  Räisänen notes that, though Stendahl’s programme was published in 1962 and has long been common practice among exegetes, no NT theology or synthesis had utilized it until the 1990’s (90); it was to this lack of carrying-through of programmes like that of Wrede that he wrote the first edition of this book; by the second edition (2000) he was pleased to report several attempts, the best of which was that of Theissen.  We will turn now to Räisänen’s own programme, which has undoubtedly influenced these newer works.

Räisänen begins by suggesting principles for historical interpretation.  He notes that NT theology has always implicitly been written for the Church, and compares that to another type of scholarship limiting itself to a particular nation or political party (153); this comparison misses the nature of the Church, which seeks knowledge of the creator of the universe and interacts with Him on the behalf of the greater society.  In this sense, the Church both is and is for a universal audience.  This false distinction is exacerbated by the next principle, that the goal of exegesis should be information rather than proclamation.  Räisänen asserts that in a post-Christian society, exegesis cannot be used to impose an interpretation of the Bible on society (157) – but what interpretation, other than theological, is appropriate from an overtly theological text?  Even if society no longer accepts Christianity as a normative understanding of the universe, exegesis of the NT for the purpose of historical and cultural study without theological considerations fails to take the text seriously on its own terms.

Räisänen follows Wrede in doing away with canon, which is a theological rather than a historical construct.  “The canon divorces things that have belonged together historically, and it also joins together things that have had no historical connection” (160).  This historical approach raises the question of where one begins and ends with a NT theology: is it possible to do the job without the OT, or the Fathers (179)?  A thorough exegesis of the NT will take into account all relevant materials, particularly those of the first century – but at what point can we separate such materials without being arbitrary, especially if we’ve already defined the separation of the canonical works as arbitrary?  The canonical works should not take pride of place, in spite of their greater historical impact (163).  Räisänen emphasizes the tension and diversity which exists within the canon, and gives equal weight to all texts of the same period, based on the view that a historical exegesis is to paint a picture of ancient thought without evaluating that thought.  Evaluation belongs to dogmatic theology, not exegesis.  Indeed, though the exegete cannot remove herself from her interpretation entirely, exegesis should be an entirely historical task with contextualization coming at a later or separate stage (166).  This separation of exegesis and contextualization allows for a greater influence on the part of many new approaches, including the social-scientific methods which seek to flesh out the society behind the texts (171-76).

The question of which texts to use extends to whether or not to admit reconstructions of early sources of NT works, or to stick to the finished product (181-2).  Räisänen suggests that Church-based theologians should focus on the final texts, which present Jesus as He was remembered, while a proper historical study has great interest in the historical characters and events which must necessarily be reconstructed rather than merely remembered.

For Räisänen, the attitude of the scholar is of high importance: a historical scholar must be able and willing to take the text seriously and even read it empathetically.  But we should not expect a response of faith from the scholar; a personal faith in the material may even handicap the interpreter with bias (177).  While I am in sympathy with his position in this regard, I think he is too quick to dismiss Barth’s notion that we cannot fully understand the text without such an attitude of faith.  If we do not interact with the Holy Spirit in the text, then Räisänen is right; but if God speaks to us through His Word, illuminating the text in a spiritual transaction that includes a response of faith, then we cannot separate faith from understanding.

Räisänen offers some practical principles for ordering and structuring a NT theology: whether to utilize a historical or thematic approach (suggesting thematic); where to start (eschatology); and recent emphases that deserve more attention (apocalyptic, Judaism, and implementation of new approaches), before turning to his model for historical interpretation (189-202).

Räisänen’s model can be described as a “dialectic between tradition, experience, and interpretation” (189), recognizing that we interpret our experience in light of our tradition, and to some extent our traditions are interpreted and reinterpreted in light of our experience.  Applying this understanding to our exegesis helps us to deal with the tensions and diversity of the text, as we can see how the early church went through this dialectic of interpretation.  From a historical perspective, this is helpful to trace the development of early Christian thought; from a theological perspective, this reminds us that scripture was not inspired in a vacuum, and development is not evidence of error.  Räisänen also reminds us of the impact of our symbols on our experience, and how we tend to experience the things that we have symbols to describe (194), a particularly potent insight.  He finishes with a final argument for a two-stage process, with contemporization (i.e. theologizing) only following a thorough and strictly historical exegesis, with the latter informing our theology rather than becoming mixed with it.

Räisänen’s programme is very good, for a historian.  I wholeheartedly agree that there should be a two-stage process, with exegesis and historical work painting as vivid of a picture of the ancient world as possible before theologians analyze the material in light of that picture.  What is confusing is the attempt to do strictly historical work that ignores the New Testament canon, under the rubric of New Testament Theology.  Räisänen attempts to correct the less cautious work of many scholars who have, to some extent, mixed the work of historians and theologians; he merely insists on the work being done as cautiously and objectively as is humanly possible – something all scholars agree with.  The way he has emphasized the historical task over the theological, insisting on neutrality in the interpreter, reveals his own presupposition: how can a Christian historian, much less a theologian, hold God at arm’s length while examining His self-revelation?  This is a flaw in the scholar, more than the programme.

[1] The book’s original subtitle was “A story and a programme.”

On Being Human

What does it mean to be human?  I am to answer this question in 6 pages based on course readings and class notes and discussions, in a theological reflection on the subject.

There are many metaphors that describe what it means to be human, but the strongest of these (and the one that serves as the foundation for our class) is the notion of “participation.”  I have no “being” that is intrinsic to myself, because my continued existence is a gift from God.  I receive my existence, my sustenance, and all of my qualities as a gift from God, and so rather than “being”, I am “receiving” humanity.  God mediates all of His gifts to us through the Mediator, Jesus Christ – so that even if we had not sinned and lived in a perfect world, Christ would still become incarnate as He mediates humanity to us from God.  The Church Fathers interpreted the Tree of Life in the garden to be Christ, because it is through Him that we receive life from God, as a gift.  In this way, receiving is participating in what God is doing: He creates life, and we continue to receive that life from Him, living it with Him in relationship.  In choosing to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam did not receive knowledge from God, but tried to take it.  He tried to take not just knowledge of good and evil, but the authority to declare for himself what is good and evil, which is not just taking from God but attempting to refuse what God would freely give.  So in our refusal to receive the gifts of God, we have cut ourselves off from the Tree of Life – which is why the wages of sin is death.  It cuts us off from the source of Life, because we refuse to receive that Life, and so will ultimately die.  Life and being are not intrinsic to us, but are gifts that come from God through Christ, through a relationship between God and us through Christ.  Without relationship with God, there is no life.

But there is more to the image of God in us than just receiving being: we also participate as co-creators with God.  We are to fill and subdue the earth, not as overlords but as stewards, tending the garden and caring for it.  God rules the world through human beings; we are His representatives, the image of Him set here to remind all of Creation who the true ruler is, continuing to create with what God has already created.  As we receive from God our Creator, we give to creation in continuing to co-create.  From creation we receive our sustenance, which God has caused to grow, so that as the earth receives from God, so it gives to us.  And as we receive from the earth, we give back to God; this is the significance of the tithes and offerings that we offer to God in a ritual sense in Church.  We receive from God and give to creation; creation receives from God and gives to us; what we receive from creation we give back to God; and in what creation receives from us (co-creation, creating from what God has already created, tending the garden) creation gives glory to God its Creator.  We exist in a continual relationsihp of giving and receiving, of participation.

We also participate with each other, as individuals and as communities, as genders and as races.  The Image of God in us includes an aspect of sexual polarity: it is only as male and female, together, that we reflect the image of God.  Sexual difference is inherently good, and does not damage the unity of all humanity; indeed, that unity is expressed best in the giving and receiving that occurs between the sexes in marriage.  Just as God lives eternally in an economy of giving and receiving in the Trinity, so humans were created to live in a constant relationship of giving and receiving, which is expressed in marriage.  In this sense, marriage is a part of creation and a reflection of God.  Jesus and Paul both put celibacy on a level with marriage, but they did so not to deny the created order, but in anticipation of the world to come, in which we will experience the giving and receiving of participation with God more directly and will no longer require the inferior reflection of it.  In this in-between time, we are free to live in the participation of marriage in order to reflect the participation of God, or as celibate in anticipation of the full experience of that participation, but in either case we live as gendered beings in relationship and participation.  Marriage is a central form of this, but other relationships also reflect this participation, perhaps most especially and most completely the relationship between parents and children, but to lesser extents the relationships of extended families, communities, tribes and nations.  Just as these primary relationships reflect the ultimate participation (in God), they also form the foundation for all social institutions, cultures, and governments.  Just as our existence comes from relationship, the way we live is governed by relationships.  Our society is defined by how we participate: with God, with creation, and with each other.

Culture is what we do with what God has created.  Cultures are thus not intrinsically good or evil, but reflect us as we reflect (or fail to reflect) God.  “Culture is the sum social response to being human in the world,” or “our response to the reception of the gifts of time, space, and life.”  Religion is at the heart of culture because it attempts to answer the central questions about existence: who are we, what are we, and why are we?  Culture – including Religion – is a social construct.  There is no single culture that is to be commended above others, as all cultures are flawed in the way that they participate with God; the same cannot be said about religions, however, because religions make claims about who God is and how to participate with Him, and some claims are more true than others.  This, however, does not mean that our religious observances are always correct, that they are somehow perfect examples of participation with God, because they are still fallen human attempts at participation that fail to participate fully whenever we as fallen human beings fail to participate fully.

This serves as an example for why we cannot talk about being human without talking about Christ.  Not only does Christ mediate to us our life and our humanity, but He does so in a way that restores the relationship of participation that was broken at the Fall.  Being human is defined by our relationship to, our participation with, God; in the Fall, that relationship was broken, and subsequently we are actually less human than we were created to be.  In taking on humanity, Christ shows the perfection that we are to grow into: as we become more like Christ, we become more human.  As we identify with Christ, who is in perfect participation and communion with God, our relationship with God is restored.  We are still incapable of participating with God appropriately on our own, which is why union with Christ is central to the Christian life: “united to Him, Christ lives in us.”  Because humans were created to participate with God, and stopped doing so, God became a human being in order to fulfill that relationship on our behalf; though we still receive (to some extent) from God, and give (to some extent) to God (well, some of us try to, anyways),  Christ does so perfectly on our behalf, as our representative before God.  Christ participates with God, and we participate with Christ.  Our participation with Christ involves receiving the gift of grace from Him, and giving Him all glory and allegiance, which is evidenced in repentance and Christian witness.

An interesting thing happens with our participation in/union with Christ: He represents us to God, the perfect representing the imperfect in order to restore and mediate our relationship with God.  Yet, having left us an example for how to better participate in God’s economy of gift, He left Earth and continues to participate with God on our behalf.  Yet our union with Him is still there, made deeply true by the intimate nature of the union of the Holy Spirit with us: we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, the ontological reality of our union with Christ, allowing us to participate with Him in a very real and powerful sense.  So while Christ is representing all humanity in His perfect participation with God, the Holy Spirit indwells Christ’s followers so that we can participate with the rest of humanity and creation on behalf of Christ!  It is not that the Church mediates Christ to humanity and creation, but that the Church participates in Christ’s mediation through the indwelling and sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit!  Just as in creation we represented God as the bearers of His image, which was a way of describing our participation in Him, so now we represent Christ in creation because we are united to Him and indwelt with the Holy Spirit, just as Christ also represents us as He has taken on human nature.  Humanity itself is mediated by Christ: without Christ, there is no image, no participation, and thus no humanity.

If humanity is defined by participation, then it is not about being so much as it is about receiving and giving, about being-in-relation.  There is no such thing as being a passive human, then, because participation is active.  This gives us a greater foundation for ethics, because ethics are not based on some arbitrary sense of duty, but about who we really are.  The questions of religion, as noted above, were: who are we, what are we, and why are we; because the answer to all of those comes in active participation in God, ethics is an essential part of religion.  We act ethically because that is what God created human beings to do: when we participate in God by participating in our families, communities, and creation, we are acting ethically.

I’m not sure if he had the same foundational understanding of “participation” as I’ve tried to sketch above, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his book Ethics by saying that when it comes to ethics we should not ask “what is good” or “how can I be good”; instead, we must ask What Christ is doing, and how we can participate in that.  If we try to discover “the good”, we are faced with the dilemma of trying to define good, and then of building a hierarchy of “goods” when one “good” conflicts with another; this is not a valid foundation for Christian action or Christian life.  Just as our life, our bodies, our qualities and abilities, and our purpose are gifts to us from God, so should our actions be the gift that we give back to Him, all through the mediation of, and for the glory of, Jesus Christ.  It is as we become what we are, becoming like Christ and thus becoming more human, that we see the evidence of this process in our actions, which increasingly participate in what Christ is doing and thus are suitable offerings to God: the fruit of truly being human.


A Theology of James

Enough controversy, it’s time to get back to work.  I had four assignments to do this week: I have completed 0 assignments, and 4 unrelated blog posts, and it’s thursday.  Distracted much?  Anyways, I have been charged with the task of writing the theology of James in less than 1200 words, but as I read through it I find that getting to 1200 might be a challenge.  I’m good at either summarizing big ideas simply, or expanding on them at length; this one fits somewhere in between.

The central theme of James is maturity, which is explained through ethical instructions focusing on saying and doing.  In fact, on a close reading I find very little theological instruction in James; it is amostly completely ethical, and focused on showing what it means to be a mature Christian.  This is described in both positive and negative terms: positively, we are to ask God for wisdom; negatively, we should not question God’s answer or we will be double-minded.  Positively, we are to be quick to listen and slow to anger; negatively, we cannot tame the tongue, so we ought not claim to be teachers or to speak our plans boastfully.  And on it goes, giving both instructions and warnings that cumulatively describe the difference between a mature Christian and a double-minded hypocrite.

Perhaps the strongest term to describe the mature person is “integrity”, though James himself doesn’t use the term.  Wise, patient, pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere (3:17) – all of these terms describe the mature Christian that James urges his audience to become, but the words he uses to describe the opposite – perhaps what his audience was, and should not be – tend to imply a lack of integrity.  For example, in the first exhortation to ask God for wisdom, wisdom is not contrasted by ignorance, but by being “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind…he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (1:6, 8).  The warning is that “when he asks, he must believe and not doubt…” – but doubting here is not referring to wondering in your heart about God’s character or nature, but about whether or not God has actually given you wisdom.  What that implies is that you’ve asked God to help you make a wise decision, and then you second-guess the wise answer He has given you and go your own way anyway.  The problem is not that you doubt, but that you, though you ask for wisdom, ignore it and act foolishly anyways.  The problem is double-mindedness.

This gets even clearer as we go along.  1:13-18 expands on this notion of doubting God’s wisdom by talking about temptation and good gifts.  We Christians cannot say that God is tempting us, nor can we say that good gifts come from anyone but Him.  Can we follow Christ, and yet blame Him for our temptations?  Can we claim to receive all that we have from Him, but then claim that our good gifts are not from Him?  These claims are troublesome on their own, but they reveal double-mindedness, a lack of integrity.  1:19-21 contrasts quick tempers with the righteous life God desires, and moral filth with “the word planted in you, which can save you”; our actions should conform to our creeds.  1:22-25 is even more clearly about this integrity: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.  Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”  The person who does the opposite, actually living out the law that gives freedom, will be blessed in what they do.  Empty talk is worthless religion, but religion that God accepts involves taking care of God’s people and maintaining moral purity (1:26ff).

Half of chapter 2 is taken up with a warning against showing favouritism, and how that practice is not only against the law and the gospel, but (in this James is very polite, and avoids the word) makes one a hypocrite, a law-breaker who claims to keep the law.  Breaking one law, no matter which law it is, still makes one a lawbreaker!  The second half of the chapter cuts away any other excuses a person might have for hypocrisy: it removes the claim of faith as validation for lack of deeds.  Faith without works is dead, and those who were commended for their faith in scripture were not commended for their belief, but for the actions that such belief inspired (2:14ff).  Claiming to be faithful, while lacking the deeds to prove it, shows a lack of integrity.

Chapter three begins with a relatively lengthy description of the impossibility of taming the tongue, using vivid imagery to describe how difficult it is to watch what we say.  However, the last paragraph of the section (3:9-12) shows the thing that James is really warning against: lack of integrity in our speech!  “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers, this should not be.” (3:10)  In the second half of this chapter, James goes on to contrast wisdom from below (3:14-16)  and above (3:17-18): the former is “earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.  For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice”; the latter contains almost every positive adjective in the book of James.  What is interesting is that James does not warn against just having “bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts”, but his instruction is specifically that if you do have such in your heart, “do not boast about it or deny the truth” (3:14).  Once again, James calls for integrity between what we believe and what we do and say.  Though a Christian is not immune to envy and selfish ambition, we should continue to act like a Christian by not spreading it around.

In chapter 4, James notes that the quarrels among the people are because they don’t get what they want.  But they don’t get what they want because they don’t ask God for it (showing a lack of belief, or even a failure to even think to ask God for their desires), and when they do think to ask God, they do so with selfish motives, which of course is the opposite of the humble stance that prayer implies.  There is no real relationship with God here, even among these so-called Christians, so James urges repentance.  “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (4:8).  To James, a sinner is one who is double-minded, lacking integrity.  The response to sin is to humble yourself before God; but what other cure is there for double-mindedness, except humility?  James goes on to warn against judging one another, because in so doing we judge the law – and the Lawgiver.  “But you – who are you to judge your neighbour?” (4:12).  Judging others is hypocrisy, as Christ Himself made very clear, because none of us are perfect enough to judge another.  James finishes the chapter with a warning about boasting, which amounts to the same thing: how can a finite human know what we will be able to do tomorrow, let alone a year from now?  Boasting shows a lack of humility and maturity, surely, but James says “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (4:17).  It is a sign of hypocrisy.

Chapter 5 contains James’ harshest words, directed at landowners who have not paid their workers fair wages, or perhaps have not paid them at all.  James implies, by saying that they have failed to pay, that they had promised to do so.  Their hoarded wealth is a testimony against their lack of integrity.  James goes on with an apparently general comment, but by using a farming metaphor and warning against grumbling against others, it is at least implied that he’s speaking to those workers, reminding them that the Judge – Christ – will return soon, and it is not up to them to judge others.  Patience and perseverance are virtues to be practiced – and as we saw in 1:2-4, trials build perseverance, and perseverance builds maturity, which James goes on to describe in terms of integrity in our Christian words and deeds.  He drives it home with a final word about integrity: “Above all, my brothers, do not swear – not by heaven or by earth or by anything else.  Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned” (5:12).  When I was a kid, I didn’t realize what this meant; I immediately stopped saying “Hell yeah!”, because I wasn’t supposed to swear – my “yes” had to be just a plain “yes”.  Now of course I realize that James is talking about integrity: a person’s word ought to be good enough to act as a guarantee, without an appeal to some higher authority.

James ends his letter with exhortations about prayer, which are not at all foreign to his primary topic of Christian maturity and integrity.  He began by urging his audience to ask God for wisdom, rebuked them for improper prayers in chapter 4, and now gives them an example of a proper response to God.  In the rest of the book, James tells them how they ought not to respond to the trials they face; now he tells them how they ought to, in prayer for themselves and for each other.  This is the Christian life of a mature believer: prayer.  Anyone who turns someone back to prayer from the other way of life, saves them.

In short, the theology of James is that God opposes the double-minded, in all of the forms that that takes, and the proper response to Him is patient, humble prayer, and action that corresponds to Christian ethical teaching.

Well, I’m over 1500 words; now to cut it down.  Any thoughts on this paper are appreciated; my brain is dulled by my cold, which kept me from sleeping much last night.

The Wrath of God is Useful?

Thank God this controversy came up on reading week, so I have the time to blog out all of this turmoil.  If you haven’t been in the blogosphere for the past week or so, Rob Bell’s new book (which, I think, has yet to be released) has people claiming that he’s a universalist who denies the existence of Hell – and with that, perhaps the authority of scripture and even the existence of God, at least according to some people.  While this has been soundly debunked here by someone who’s actually read the book, it still has a lot of people talking.  I was directed to an article that compiled several of the more conservative responses to Bell, and found this quote to be somewhat positive and interesting:

This conversation should lead Christians to redouble their prayers and evangelistic efforts, Harris stressed. Also joining the discussion, Pastor Kevin DeYoung East Lansing, Michigan, reminded the public of why God’s wrath is necessary. “We need God’s wrath to keep us honest about evangelism,” he said. “We need God’s wrath in order to: forgive our enemies; risk our lives for Jesus’ sake; live holy lives; understand what mercy means; grasp how wonderful heaven will be; be motivated to care for our impoverished brothers and sisters; and be ready for the Lord’s return. “Believing in God’s judgment actually helps us look more like Jesus. In short, we need the doctrine of the wrath of God.”

My first thought on reading this response is that it is very mature in the midst of flung accusations and condemnations, seeing the potential of discussions like this to spur us on to greater response to God.  Amen, and amen!  But something about Kevin DeYoung’s comment rubbed me the wrong way.  Does anything about his comment jump out at you as somehow wrong?  Let’s look at it again:

“We need God’s wrath to keep us honest about evangelism,” he said. “We need God’s wrath in order to: forgive our enemies; risk our lives for Jesus’ sake; live holy lives; understand what mercy means; grasp how wonderful heaven will be; be motivated to care for our impoverished brothers and sisters; and be ready for the Lord’s return. “Believing in God’s judgment actually helps us look more like Jesus. In short, we need the doctrine of the wrath of God.”

What he’s saying is that the wrath of God is useful.  I’ve never thought of wrath as useful before, but I suppose he’s right.  What bothers me is that he seems to be implying that fearing the wrath of God is why we do everything that we do as Christians.  We are Christians because we’re afraid that God will get mad and send us to Hell to be forever tortured.  By this logic, God’s primary tool to show us His love and bring us into relationship with Him, and help the world, is negative reinforcement.  Even the prison-happy folk behind the American (and increasingly, the Canadian) justice system don’t use negative reinforcement to enforce positive behaviour.  It’s one thing to say that we’ll send to you prison (or Hell) for doing something terrible; it’s quite another to send someone to prison (or Hell) for not doing something nice.

But hang on: that’s exactly what Jesus did. (Thanks Ryan for pointing this out):

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. (Matthew 25:41-43)

But did Jesus say this as a primary motivating factor?  Deterrence works some of the time, but it really is the lowest, most basic way to correct behaviour.  This speech comes to us at the end of Jesus’ ministry, shortly before he was arrested and killed by people who refused to believe anything he said.  When you contrast this speech with one from the beginning of the gospel (Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount), you don’t find it to be a repetitive threat – “follow me, or else” – but rather a long series of ethical teachings based on nothing but His authority from God and the plain truth of it.  We do good not because we’re afraid of being punished, but because it is good.  Though we are inclined to evil selfishness, our evil is more like a knee-jerk, default reaction; I don’t struggle with my sinful nature because I am afraid of what will happen if I don’t manage to get it under control (I can’t, and me and God both know it), but because I know that what is good is better than what is evil; because I love and serve a God who is good, and I try to emulate Him.

Am I off base here?  Can we really say that we need a wrathful God watching over our shoulder in order to perform the most basic Christian tasks?  DeYoung emphasizes the stick in this article, but perhaps he emphasizes the carrot elsewhere.  But in my experience, when you motivate someone with the stick, the relationship between you and that person is damaged.  There’s a reason we look down on, or pity, someone who is “whipped”.  God rescues His people from oppression, and it seems that using oppression (the constant fear of eternal conscious torment) to do so is illogical and counter-productive.

Any thoughts?

Do Evangelicals Hate Jesus? American Folk Religion

In a week of provocative articles about Christianity, comes this one (I’ll quote it throughout, so don’t feel you need to read it).  The gist of it is that a recent poll shows that Christians who self-identify as “Evangelicals” are the most likely of all Americans to oppose many of the things that Jesus preached and commanded.  They tend to approve of guns, wars, and the death penalty in spite of Jesus’ command to love your enemies; and they tend to oppose social programs that care for the poor, widows, orphans, etc., in spite of Jesus command to take care of these particular groups of vulnerable people.  You might say that this is a generalization, and you’re right; keep in mind that I’m summarizing a summary of a poll, so it’s actually a generalization of a generalization of a generalization, but the point remains that there is a real trend here behind the data.

If you’re a regular reader, you might recall that over Christmas I attempted to summarize a book called Empire and Evangelicals in three very long posts.  The book deals with the question of whether and how American Evangelicals are connected to “Empire”, the concept of Imperialism that is no longer tied to any particular nation-state as much as it is to capitalism (and thus is still best represented in America).  Are Evangelicals the biggest supporters of cultural and economic imperialism?  If so, why?  Why is there such a large correlation between these concepts?

Before attempting an answer, allow a quick clarification. Evangelicals don’t exactly hate Jesus — as we’ve provocatively asserted in the title of this piece. They do love him dearly. But not because of what he tried to teach humanity. Rather, Evangelicals love Jesus for what he does for them. Through his magical grace, and by shedding his precious blood, Jesus saves Evangelicals from everlasting torture in hell, and guarantees them a premium, luxury villa in heaven. For this, and this only, they love him. They can’t stop thanking him. And yet, as for Jesus himself — his core values of peace, his core teachings of social justice, his core commandments of goodwill — most Evangelicals seem to have nothing but disdain.

This quote from Phil Zuckerman’s article “Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus”, as generalizing as it is (a friend called it “akin to bigotry” in its generalization) hits on a very important element of religion: folk religion.  Folk religion is a very general category that describes religion when it has filtered down from the leaders and theologians to the realm of everyday living for normal folk.  Religions themselves involve complex connections of doctrines that form a cohesive framework through which we see and interact with the world.  Because most people do not devote their lives to the understanding and clarification of that system, the religious worldview and practices of most people do not entirely reflect the actual religious framework to which they subscribe.  Basically, we learn enough of our religion that it makes sense to us, and we incorporate it into what we already know so that it is useful.

For example, Christianity in India often looks very different from Christianity in, say, Europe.  In India, Christianity as a monotheistic religion doesn’t seem to clash with the age-old belief in animism.  Though Indian Christians believe in God the Father Almighty and Jesus Christ the Son, and though many Indian Christians are properly monotheistic or trinitarian, many Christians, particularly in rural areas, still believe that there are spirits or little gods all over the place that they must continue to appease in order to avoid sickness, crop failure, etc.  They have adapted their Christianity to leave room for these rituals, because these rituals are useful for their everyday lives.

Another example is in Korea, where honouring one’s ancestors is not just a part of family structure (i.e. honouring your parents and elders), but a part of life on every level.  Traditional Korean religion, therefore, makes much of honouring the spirits of your departed ancestors.  Us good Western monotheists usually are scandalized by the notion of making an offering for the spirit of your grandparents, or even bowing to a representation of them, seeing this as worshipping idols – but in Korea, it is simply showing proper respect.  Korean Christians who do not do so often feel that they are not properly respecting their ancestors, and are often rejected by their families for failing in this important duty.  While there has long been debate about how a Christian is to approach this practice, many Korean Christians have accommodated this practice; many have never thought to do otherwise, and it is probably only because Western missionaries once insisted on it that it became an issue at all.  At the folk religion level, we tend to integrate beliefs rather than make radical shifts from one worldview to another, and what is useful often decides how beliefs are to be integrated.

In North America, there is a common definition of salvation that is very useful for us.  Zuckerman describes its rise:

And this is nothing new. At the end of World War I, the more rabid, and often less educated Evangelicals decried the influence of the Social Gospel amongst liberal churches. According to these self-proclaimed torch-bearers of a religion born in the Middle East, progressive church-goers had been infected by foreign ideas such as German Rationalism, Soviet-style Communism, and, of course, atheistic Darwinism. In the 1950s, the anti-Social Gospel message piggybacked the rhetoric of anti-communism, which slashed and burned its way through the Old South and onward through the Sunbelt, turning liberal churches into vacant lots along the way. It was here that the spirit and the body collided, leaving us with a prototypical Christian nationalist, hell-bent on prosperity. Charity was thus rebranded as collectivism and self-denial gave way to the gospel of accumulation. Church-to-church, sermon-to-sermon, evangelical preachers grew less comfortable with the fish and loaves Jesus who lived on earth, and more committed to the angry Jesus of the future. By the 1990s, this divine Terminator gained “most-favored Jesus status” among America’s mega churches; and with that, even the mention of the former “social justice” Messiah drove the socially conscious from their larger, meaner flock.

American conservative Christianity has developed in a largely negative way over the past century or so, often developing in reaction to other trends and developments.  “Fundamentalism” appeared just over a hundred years ago as the belief in the inspiration of scripture – particularly, a very conservative view of the inspiration of scripture that involved the complete and total infallibility of the original writings – in response to the growing movement of theological liberals who were influenced by the rise of textual criticism (which suggested that the Bible was written – and redacted or edited – by many people, at a much later date than we once thought; this lost much of the mystery and sense of the authority of the Bible, which the fundamentalists sought to preserve).  The liberal movement made much of Jesus’ social teachings, and so for many fundamentalists the connection between social teachings and theological liberalism was forged: to reject one was to reject both, for some.  When you add in the strong sense of Christian identity in America, and then contrast it to the imposed atheism of Communist USSR, it’s easy to see how Christianity could be associated with the good guys, and thus capitalism, while communism belonged to the bad guys, the atheists.

The clash of worldviews that was the cold war had a lot of religious attachments, which undoubtedly contributed to the notion that America is the home of the righteous remnant, the persecuted people of God.  Historically, people who consider themselves to be a “righteous remnant” write apocalyptic books that show how God will destroy their enemies, and in so doing, return peace to the world for those righteous ones who remain faithful to Him.  Unfortunately, somewhere along the way American Christians confused a political, ideological struggle with a religious or theological one – meaning that whether or not we believe the message of Jesus, we also believe that God has not only come to save us from sin, but also from the godless communists!

Zuckerman goes on to provide a version of the folk-religion argument:

In addition to such historical developments, there may very well simply be an underlying, all-too-human social-psychological process at root, one that probably plays itself out among all religious individuals: they see in their religion what they want to see, and deny or despise the rest. That is, religion is one big Rorschach test. People look at the content of their religious tradition — its teachings, its creeds, its prophet’s proclamations — and they basically pick and choose what suits their own secular outlook. They see in their faith what they want to see as they live their daily lives, and simultaneously ignore the rest. And as is the case for most White Evangelical Christians, what they are ignoring is actually the very heart and soul of Jesus’s message — a message that emphasizes sharing, not greed. Peace-making, not war-mongering. Love, not violence.

Again, in spite of his over-generalizations, there is a true point to be found here: in folk religion, we believe what is useful to us, often giving mental assent to the rest of our doctrine while, in practical terms, giving precedent to cultural ideas and practices.  No Christian, even the most vehemently opposed to all social teachings, would ever deny that the Bible tells us to take care of the widows and orphans.  But in spite of that belief, when faced with a public policy that proposes to do just that, take care of the poor, they might even suggest that such a policy goes against their religion.  This is because their Christianity has been melded together with their cultural beliefs, and it is easier and more useful to them to default to their cultural beliefs.  If they are self-reflective (or have been challenged on it enough times), a person may have justified this contradiction somehow; often, we don’t even think of such things, we just continue to believe both sides (our religion and our culture) and practice what is easiest and most useful, and never even notice the contradiction.

I was going to finish with Zuckerman’s last line, but it’s a bit too polemical for what I want to say in this post.  The gist is, a conservative American has the right to support and oppose whatever it is that a conservative American would support and oppose, but the claim that Christianity supports them in this is completely unfounded.  I agree, and I think it’s a distinction that we should strive to make, not only for the sake of our politics but most importantly for the sake of our understanding of Christianity, which cannot be reduced to political conservatism or liberalism.

So for God’s sake (and, much moreso, our own), let’s be aware of what we believe (folk religion, or a mix of religion, ideology, culture, etc.) and how it relates to what we claim to believe (what Jesus taught).  The width and depth of this gap in our understanding, on such a large scale, suggests a pretty big failure of the Church to do our job in teaching and applying Jesus’ message.  Be self-critical, because we aren’t always right, or even consistent.  And read Scripture regularly; may we see in Jesus’ teachings the things that we’ve ignored or failed at, and try again.

Sanctification and Progress

Today in class we were discussing the issue of stewardship as an act of co-creation with God, and the issue of technological development to manipulate creation came up.  Technology is not evil, we are told, nor can we draw a neat line between what is good and what is bad technology; rather, all human endeavours are shot through with both the glory of God and fallen human sinfulness.  I get that, and it makes sense to me; I don’t believe that we will be perfect this side of the eschaton.  But what doesn’t sit well with me is the notion that we have not, and will not, and cannot make moral progress.

What is progress?  Getting better.  We make scientific and technological progress at extremely rapid rates, and our new science and technology, while not being morally neutral, is always morally ambiguous; there’s always some good and some bad.  Genetically modifying crops to produce more is good; wiping out heirloom varieties in the process, or making terminator genes, is bad.  Uses of technology can be morally good or bad, and some technology is more bad than good or more good than bad, but there’s no escape from our fallen human sinfulness.  Even the best technologies can be used for evil.  In this sense, there is no moral progress, just morality as evidenced in our scientific or technological progress.

What about cultural progress?  Is there even such a thing?  That would imply that there are some cultures that are better than others – and since many believe that morality is itself a cultural term and construct, any effort to say that one culture is more moral than another is like saying that an apple is more apple-y than an orange.  Yet, assuming for a moment that God really exists and has established some moral and ethical principles and norms that he has revealed to his culture-bound people, I think we can say that we’ve made cultural progress.  For example, we no longer accept slavery as a cultural practice, nor patriarchy (for the most part), which were immoral in that they denied the dignity that God has given to human beings.  But the question of whether or not we’ve progressed morally will hinge not on the evidence that we’ve made some moral improvements to our entire society, but whether or not we’ve just replaced slavery and patriarchy with some other evil.  Have we made any net gains?  I’ve been told that we have not, and part of me is inclined to believe that.  But.

Sanctification.  What is it, except God working in us as individuals and (hopefully) as Christian communities to make us into His image in a fuller sense – we are becoming human, in its fullest sense, as we become more like Christ.  While I agree that we should not identify progress (any of the above forms) as sanctification, surely we can see sanctification as a type of progress – either I am progressively becoming more like Christ, or I am not.  If I am not, then what is the purpose of the Holy Spirit in me?  Am I empowered to do good in this world for the glory of God, or not?  And if not, then why am I even here?  I might as well just give up.

Yes, I was told today, I should.  That would be a good Lutheran thing to do, because it would remove any notion of self-justification and I would have to rely on God.  But if nothing is going to change in this world, then I must ask, rely on God to do WHAT?  I don’t do good in the world, I don’t seek after moral progress in my life and my community, because I want to justify myself, but because Christ gave me an example to follow.  Because I actually desire to see and embody God’s goodness.  Because I want to embody Christ, as we are called to do together in unity as the Body of Christ.  It’s one thing to say that nothing will be perfect until the eschaton, but it’s quite another to say that nothing will get any better until then; that would imply that God isn’t working.  We always talk about the “already-not-yet”, and that we can see only glimpses of God’s glory in the world now and it will all be completed when Christ returns, but if none of us are really getting any better at all then there’s no already.  And if we only have the “not-yet”, then we might as well seek to escape this fallen world, because God isn’t working here – something that class today rightly concluded by saying that this is precisely what we should not do, because God IS working here.  If God is working here, then should see him at work; to say that we haven’t been changed for the better by the Holy Spirit, to say that we are just as sinful and wrong as we ever were, is a cop-out that ignores much of scripture.  I can only guess that it does so in order to emphasize a Lutheran notion of grace, or to try to reconcile the level of sin that still exists in the world.

My professor is a very smart man, and I respect him very much; I can only assume that we’ve miscommunicated somehow.  Marc, Joel, you were there; have I missed what he was saying completely?  It got awful quiet when I asked the question.  I apologize for the tone of this post; I’m somewhere between utter hopelessness and righteous indignation.

Judgment As Consequence

I know it’s been forever, but Rob Bell has people all stirred up and talking about universalism and Hell, topics that inevitably lead to defining what salvation is, what sin is, and what heaven and hell are.  It’s sad that it takes controversy to get me blogging, but it is what it is.  Let’s talk about judgment!

There seem to be two streams or types of judgment in scripture.  In the OT, particularly in the Wisdom lit but also in other places, there’s a very strong notion that when you sow the wind you’ll reap the whirlwind – or in the language of Proverbs, the wicked fall into their own traps.  The natural consequences of sin is death, destruction, and dischord.  This is, of course, all worldly or earthly punishment, as there was little concept in the OT of hell or any place of eternal justice.  By the same token, salvation was thought of in physical, earthly terms (and usually communally too, rather than our emphasis on individuality).  I’m very comfortable with this doctrine; it’s really more of an observation, and some even call it a universal law.  Some call it karma.  The point is, it’s easy to say that there are negative consequences for doing evil, even if they don’t catch up with you right away.  We make our bed, and then we have to sleep in it.

My friend and overwhelming intellectual Rick has noted in a recent facebook debate that this alone isn’t good enough, that Scripture portrays God as being actively against the unjust.  I certainly can’t argue with that: any reading of the Prophets couldn’t miss the sermons against the injustice of Israel and her neighbours, and God’s promise to deal with their sins rather thoroughly.  But what we must note is His method: God deals with these sins in very earthly ways, by bringing invading armies against them.  Looking even closer, we can see that there is still an element of natural consequence involved: God didn’t fabricate armies out of midair to punish Israel for their injustice and idolatry.  Looking at Isaiah, we see that God judged them for their reliance on foreign armies by…yup, bringing in a foreign army that wiped out their allies and left them beseiged.  Looking closely at the politics that Israel got themselves messed up in, we can see that it was in their fear of Assyria that they became allied with Egypt (rather than depending on God) – but Egypt was Assyria’s ultimate target, so that by allying themselves with Egypt Israel actually brought the invading army upon themselves.  That’s not to say that God was not active in that judgment – not at all!  What it does, is provides a theological interpretation for the ruin they brought on themselves – i.e. God is actively involved when we get our deserved comeuppance.

This is very much in line with the sages of the Wisdom literature, whose doctrine of providence sees the hand of God in all events, good and bad, that we experience.  Our task is to live wisely (i.e. as God directs us to) so that we can do good and avoid evil, though we recognize and accept both as coming from the hand of God.

Somewhere along the line, people figured that that wasn’t good enough, that there were enough evil people getting away with it that, if God were to remain just, then he must have some extra source or form of justice.  In the last few books of the OT and in much inter-testamental literature we see Jewish writers developing the concept of Sheol (the place of the dead) and in some ways adapting the Greek notion of Hades, which we call Hell.  The idea is that, since justice isn’t always done on earth, it must be done somewhere – so that everyone, in the end, will get their just desserts.  This, when combined with the notion of a resurrection (which appeared around the same time), is where we get our Christian notion of heaven and hell as places of eternal reward for good deeds, or eternal punishment for evil deeds.  When you combine that notion of heaven and hell with our Christian notion that Christ has paid the price of our sin if we only believe in Him, heaven becomes the place of eternal reward for those who believe in Jesus while hell is a place of eternal punishment for those who, having rejected (or not having heard of) Jesus, lack that protection from God’s just wrath and will thus be punished for their sins.  Since God is an infinite being, and sin is ultimately against God, then it requires an infinite punishment, i.e. eternal conscious torment.

There is some warrant for this in reading the New Testament.  It has been commented several times recently that Jesus talked about Hell more than anyone else (which is true), so I’ll stick with what he said, but let’s be clear: even Jesus only talked about it a few times.  He referred to it in terms of images, comparing it to a burning garbage dump (Gehenna, or the valley of Hinnom, where people used to sacrifice their children to false gods and where people in Jesus’ day dumped their garbage and burned it).  In this dump, “their worm does not die and their flame is not quenched.”  He called it “the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” and called himself the person who puts people out into that darkness when they do not respond to his invitation properly, or are not prepared for his coming.  We get a very clear image that the alternative to the eternal life that Jesus promises to his followers is a horrible experience, and that Jesus himself will put us there if we respond to him inappropriately, but beyond that he says very little, and nothing clearly.  Can we make the jump to saying that he’s talking about eternal conscious torment at the hands of God in punishment for sins?  Not from what Jesus says.

The notion of eternal conscious torment shows up most clearly in Revelation 20:10: “and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”  It goes on to say that, after being resurrected and judged, all of the people whose names were not found in the book of life were also thrown into the lake of fire.  While the difficulties with taking the image of the lake of fire literally are somewhat obvious (and dealt with in an earlier post), from this we can see that those people are cast out (presumably by God) and tormented forever (again, presumably by God, but certainly not explicitly by God, and not necessarily by torture).

So what does it mean to be tormented?  In today’s language, torment is often paired with “inner” and used to describe romantic teenage goths and vampires who can also be described as “angsty”.  It refers to an ordeal, of great pain and struggle.  The reason we usually talk of “inner torment” is because it is usually speaking of something that is self-inflicted, or else relational.  In the same vein, we often speak of “self-torture”, e.g. “quit torturing yourself, she’ll never go out with you.”  That’s not to say that it doesn’t also refer to waterboarding and crucifixion, or even that the writer of Revelation wasn’t referring to literal, physical torture, but only that we must note that we often use these terms metaphorically: we call our mournful pining away after some lost love “torture” or “torment” because we want to use that image of awful physical pain to describe our emotional situation, or some other situation that is extremely painful, destructive, and even deadly.

Sin, and its consequences, are torment – of this there is no doubt.  In one sense, as we saw above, we do it to ourselves, yet at the same time we recognize God’s hand when we receive our just reward – whether good deeds or evil deeds, we almost always receive a fitting reward, and this from God.  The New Testament makes this more explicit: God hands us over to punishment for sin.  Jesus puts us out into the burning garbage dump, or puts us outside the gates into the outer darkness; He throws those whose names are not in the book of Life into the lake of fire; but it doesn’t go further than that.  Paul says it another way in Romans 1:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity…For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions…and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error….And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Here, the wrath of God is that God gives people over to the sins that they were already committing.  This is not passive by any means, but it surely does not involve God personally picking up the whip with which to torture people forever and ever, lighting fires that will never go out and keeping people from being completely consumed so that they can suffer the burning pain forever.

Consider the love of God, by which He loves us so deeply and desperately that He’s willing to suffer the worst degradation and death that we had to offer in order to reconcile us to Himself.  In so doing, He showed us the way to live with Him and with each other so that we can continue in relationship with Him.  God is the One Who Saves: saving people is His default.  It is allowing people to go their own stubborn way and suffer the due consequences of that choice that is his active response to sin.

I’m going to close by mixing metaphors.  I know that it’s bad hermeneutical form, but I don’t do it as exegesis, but merely as an image.  Jesus described Hell as being thrown outside the gates, into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Revelation describes Heaven as a city that descends from Heaven to Earth, in which God lives among us and there is no more sun because God himself is our light.  Inside the gates is peace and light; outside the gates is darkness and torment.  But the gates of the heavenly city are never closed!  Though God puts out those who refuse to live responsibly with Him and us, the gates remain open – they can come into the city to worship God, if they so choose.  But sin is us choosing our way over God’s way, and God’s wrath is that we are allowed to do so, to our own detriment, now and forever.  Those who reject God completely, though they are welcomed into the city when they repent, refuse to do so – and are tormented (by their own existence apart from God) forever.

Please, poke holes in this theory.  My main point here is that sin is something that we do to ourselves, and God doesn’t need to use hot needles and whips and chains to punish us for it – nor does Scripture’s revelation of Him require that we believe that He does.