Hell and the River of Fire, plus some critiques

Some readers often wish I would disassociate from certain people. (And I know that many of my friends have been pressured by others to disassociate from me. Disassociation is a frequent game in religious circles – “Prove you’re one of US by throwing THEM under the bus, or else we’ll consider you one of THEM.”) In the process of replying to a more generously expressed concern (below, with comments inserted), I wrote:

If I start disassociating from people to protect my reputation, I feel I will be betraying the example of Christ, who wasn’t afraid to be known as the friend of sinners. Since I am one of the sinners Christ has befriended, and since in the incarnation and in the crucifixion Christ wasn’t ashamed to be associated with a sinner like me, how can I, simply to protect myself from the criticism of judgmental people seeking to find fault, refuse to be associated with other sinners?

More below …

A reader writes:

I would like to add on to your Eastern Christian friend’s, originally from the Church of the Brethren, comments. I too am a convert to EO from the Church of the Brethren. Much of what I see going on in the Emergent movement feels comfortable from my Church of the Brethren days. My dad and Ron Sider are friends if that tells you anything about my family. I would however echo his sentiments that social justice can be an escape from working on important issues of bringing the kingdom of God into the heart of the believer through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Jesus never once started a social justice movement. He didn’t even really advocate for the freedom of slaves from the Roman government. I worry that the emergent church could make Bono their hero with Jesus a backseat cheerleader. Don’t get me wrong, I love Bono! However, the Church of the Brethren has become more interested in the social gospel or liberation theology and no long remembers even what it’s founds stood for.

I suppose different people have different experiences with each tradition or denomination. Nearly all my experiences with Church of the Brethren folks have been very positive, as have most of my experiences with EO folks, and among emergent folks, I’ve hardly had a bad experience. I’ve certainly never felt Jesus being demoted to a backseat cheerleader. The very opposite, actually!

I would also caution you with your alliance with Marcus Borg and others like him who have denied the tenets of the historical Christian faith. I’m generally not a bible quoter but I John 4:3 says, “every spirit which does not confess that Jesus in not of God (or not come in the flesh). This is the spirit of the antichrist.” I’m not calling Borg an antichrist but he does say that Jesus was not born of a virgin and was not resurrected. If you have heard people say they became Christians by reading him, I wonder what kind of Christian it is that doesn’t believe basic Christian believes that have been held universally by all branches of the faith. I’m sure as you said that he is a kind man. I too know many kind men that are atheist and non believers. For sure he is made in the image of God. But by promoting Borg in any way is to mislead many simple souls.

Thanks for expressing your concern. First of all, if by alliance you mean that Marcus and I agree on everything, there is no alliance. I don’t think I agree on everything with anybody – including the “me” of yesterday and the “me” of tomorrow, since my thinking is always growing and maturing. If by alliance, you mean that I don’t reject Marcus as a brother in Christ and friend, then N. T. Wright is part of that alliance too. If by alliance, you mean that Marcus and I are fellow human beings seeking (as we’re able, and according to our individual understandings and sense of calling) to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice, then I trust you’re part of that alliance too.

I believe for someone steeped in Calvin’s God or in Edwards God’s who is dangling us over the fire of hell, listening to Borg would be like water on a dry pallet. But isn’t that a pretty empty well that won’t actually quench if he doesn’t even believe that Jesus is God? How can Christ destroy our enemies of sin, death and the devil if he is just a prophet. I know you don’t believe what Borg does, but how is a simple Christian who finds life from your spring supposed to discern this?

Obviously, you as an Eastern Orthodox Christian see God and Jesus in different ways than a Calvinist Christian would. And Marcus sees God and Jesus more in the tradition of progressive Christianity. And I see God, Jesus, the gospel, etc., from my own perspective too. I can’t claim that my perspective is the universal or absolute one, nor do I think the EO perspective or the Calvinist perspective or the liberal Protestant perspective can make that claim. I think we all need to be careful about reducing anyone’s thought – mine, Marcus’s, yours – to a caricature, and I think we need to be careful about claiming anyone’s perspective is absolute and universal. As John Franke said so powerfully in Manifold Wisdom, truth is so big and deep and wonderful that no single human perspective can claim to grasp it in its entirety.

I would agree that there are many many patristic text that could be used to counter the Latin juridical views of Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm and ultimately Augustine. Why defeat Calvin with a “heretic” when you could have a Saint of the universal church. I use “heretic” in it’s most true meaning.

I certainly do rely on patristic/Eastern texts. (See, for example, my references to Gregory of Nyssa in A New Kind of Christianity.) And I also understand that the application of the “h” word is contested among Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Calvinists, etc. Each no doubt claims the “true” interpretation of the word, and each might be willing to apply that “true” definition to the other on some issues.

Here is your quote about Borg…

But I wish you could experience what I have – first, in listening to and teaching with them, hearing their passionate engagement with the Scriptures, and experiencing their gracious friendship whether or not we were in agreement on everything. I remember the first time Marcus and I stood at the front of a church after a panel discussion, with a long line of people wanting to speak to each of us. Because Marcus’ line was much longer than mine, I got to eavesdrop a bit on what people were saying to him. Person after person said, “If it weren’t for your books, I wouldn’t be a Christian today,” or “I became a Christian after reading one of your books.” This struck me, partly because I hear the same thing about my work, and partly because it suggested to me that (insert wink here) Marcus may actually be an evangelist of a certain kind, helping people find and keep faith in Christ.

I would simply ask, what Christ is he converting people to? Christ the man who wasn’t born of a virgin and didn’t die to destroy dead and grant resurrection. He may be passionate. But what is he passionate about? Not everyone who says they are a Christian is really one by definition. I love the desert story of the monk that was accused of being a murder, theft, drunkard, etc and to each he confessed he was guilty. But, when they accused him of being a heretic, he said, God forbid that I am a heretic and disbelieve the very Gospel that would save a wretch like me.

I imagine that Marcus is not trying to proclaim the Eastern Orthodox vision of Christ, or the Calvinist vision of Christ, etc. I imagine he’s trying to proclaim a vision that could be broadly held by progressive Christians – which includes a pretty broad range of people who would each differ from Marcus in some matters, I’m sure. So his understanding differs in some ways from what you would proclaim, and it differs in other ways from what a Calvinist would proclaim, and it differs in still other ways from what I proclaim … but I suppose that we can stand with Paul in Philippians on this: We can rejoice that Christ is proclaimed, even though there are differences in the various proclamations.

I am so encouraged by your work but I see that something like your association with Borg could destroy much of its credibility.

Thanks for your affirmation, and I don’t take that lightly. But try to understand my situation. If I start disassociating from people to protect my reputation, I feel I will be betraying the example of Christ, who wasn’t afraid to be known as the friend of sinners. Since I am one of the sinners Christ has befriended, and since – in the incarnation and in the crucifixion Christ wasn’t ashamed to be associated with a sinner like me – how can I, simply to protect myself from the criticism of judgmental people seeking to find fault, refuse to be associated with other sinners?

PS Here’s a link to the famous piece by Alexander Kalomiros, “The River of Fire” which speaks for the latin juridical understanding of salvation.


Thanks for the link. It’s quite an impressive article! This quote from
Richard Rohr (another friend some people wish I would disassociate from, by the way!) seems appropriate to share – also employing the metaphor of a river:

Ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?” “Does it matter?” “Will it be there anyway at the end?” “Is it worth holding on to?” We have to ask whether it is fear that keeps us from loving. I promise you, grace will lead us into those fears and voids, and grace alone will fill them up, if we are willing to stay in the void.
We mustn’t engineer an answer too quickly. We must not get too settled too fast. For it is so easy to manufacture an answer to take away the anxiety. To stay in God’s hands, to trust, means that to a certain degree I have to stop taking hold of myself. I have to hold, instead, a degree of uncertainty, fear, and tension. It takes both practice and grace.
Without an awareness of the river, without a sense that we are supported, we succumb to fear.
From Everything Belongs, pp. 143-144