Creative Team Building and Leadership Resources - In our Elements

Scorched Earth Salvation

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 80) transports me to a completely charred pine forest, in the springtime after a destructive late summer or early fall fire has scorched the earth and left what first appears to be barren land. Appearances can be deceiving, though, as gourmet mushroom hunters the world over have long known. Every spring, about the time the dogwoods bloom, thousands of “shroomers” descend on the scorched earth of forests decimated by fires, to gather what grows out of these burned over districts – gourmet black morels, the tasty, meaty, nutty favorite that makes the mouths of French chefs as well as hillbilly connoisseurs water (in Kentucky the black morels are called merkels, the mountain pronunciation of miracle). And miracle it does appear to be. For the refined palate, the forest fire is a refining fire, redeeming the morels from the loamy grave, so that they can bring joy and satisfaction to hunter-gatherers and gourmet diners at banquet feasts the world over.

The Psalmist, echoing the popular vision of Israel as God’s vineyard, remembers how God, the great vine dresser, transplanted the choice vine from Egypt, preparing the land of Canaan for a vineyard that would grow into a great forest, shading the mountains and producing gourmet fruit of grace. The poet laments what has happened in the intervening years, as the vines cross-pollinated with the culture of violence and greed, producing fruits of derision and shame instead of faithful love. The result of this infidelity is a destructive judgment experienced by that vineyard, with God’s smoldering anger igniting a wildfire that sweeps through and scorches the earth of the promised land. At God’s rebuke, the Psalmist says, the people perish. But, like the imagery of hellfire throughout the Hebrew scriptures, perishing isn’t the last word. The fire is a refiner’s fire, a redeeming fire. The poet’s final stanza include words of hope – Revive us, and we will call on your name. Restore us, Lord God; make your face shine upon us, and we will be saved. The smoldering fire of late summer brings about a springtime of new life emerging from the dark of earth. Israel’s story is the story of the black morels.

The early church fathers, in the first few centuries of church life (before the Roman Empire co-opted the church for its own purposes and began using the threat of hell as  way to maintain social control), did not have an “orthodox” doctrine of hell fire. Some, like Tertullian, witnessing the cruel persecution of the Christians, gained great hope and joy from the image of hell: At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness, so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians. While that might be an image to help the faithful persevere, it’s hardly a doctrine to live by. Others, like Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Clement of Alexandria, believed, like the Psalmist of old, that the fires of hell were temporal and transformative, not vengeful and eternal. Clement wrote that God’s punishments are saving and disciplinary (in Hades) leading to conversion, and choosing rather the repentance than the death of the sinner. . . and especially since souls, although darkened by passions, when released from their bodies, are able to perceive more clearly because of their being no longer obstructed by the paltry flesh. Whatever hellish consequences await those who are captive to this world’s system, whatever fires await those who have allowed their faith to cross-pollinate with the desires and discriminations of the world, it will be a fire that refines. And out of that fire, we can hear the chastised souls singing with the Psalmist, Revive us again, fill each heart with Thy love, may each soul be re-kindled with fire from above. Hallellujah! Thine the glory. The mountaineers are right; it is indeed a merkel of mercy, a gourmet feast of grace, with fruits of the Spirit springing up from hell’s kitchen, making the mouths of the finest of French chefs water.

How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.



  • September 12, 2012 at 10:59 am

    The Bible often uses the same word for “eternal” life and “eternal” punishment. If that is what you call disciplinary and saving its an interesting twist. If God’s Word on hell is accurate (and it is) could you possibly be impacting the eternity of others with this false teaching? If someone chooses to believe you and rejects Christ in this life (because you say they will be in heaven anyway) will their blood be on your hands. How will God feel about that? Is there any possibility that you are wrong and Jesus did come to save those would come to Him from eternal damnation? That is fearful indeed.

    Comment by Joey

  • September 12, 2012 at 11:23 am

    AMEN! Joey

    Comment by Bill

  • September 12, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    Joey, one of the Bible’s clear teaching is that hell is a place prepared for the devil and his angels, and it’s also clear that on the cross Jesus defeated the principalities and powers, so I gather from those teachings that the eternal part of hell gives us all hope that those captivating powers, those destructive forces of violence and greed and discrimination and hate, will one day be eternally destroyed, no more to have power or allure over us. The Psalmist’s and early church father’s understanding of the disciplinary and saving nature of hell, that is the refining fire, is that it will burn away all those destructive forces, leaving our souls free to be who we were created to be, as children of God. As for your hypothetical question about bloody hands, it can more easily be applied to the Holy Roman Empire interpretation which you adhere to (hell as a place of eternal torture and torment for the unbelievers). Since the Bible nowhere says that we must believe in a literal hell to be saved, what about all those people who would like to follow Christ, but are turned off from Christianity because of people who preach a literal hell? How many souls are lost because of that idea that they would have to believe in a God who created an eternal torture chamber for those who didn’t confess faith in his son? I’d wager that far more people have been turned away from following Christ by hellfire and brimstone theology than by a theology that focuses on the cross and its efficacy to draw all people to Christ. Fearful, indeed, when you stop to think about the fundamentalism that would trade off people following Christ for a strict adherence to the concept of eternal torture.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • September 12, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    We are living in a day when the message of the church is changing. Churches, and even whole denominations, are moving away from the old message of salvation through the blood of Jesus, and are moving toward a message of salvation through social activism and good works. The old bloody message of the cross is quickly being replaced by a bloodless message that lacks power and that lacks hope. Instead of hearing the devastating, but life changing news that men are sinners, people hear a message that tells them, “I’m OK and you’re OK!”

    Comment by Bill

  • September 12, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    We must believe in Jesus to be saved from hell. If you use the whole verse Matthew 25:41 instead of just the last part you discover that Jesus is casting those who are cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Yes, prepared for the devil and his angels. Unfortunately I think Jim is right in saying the Church is moving from the hard teachings of the cross and discipleship and becoming more seeker friendly. They are missing The Way. If you turn from the only true gospel of Jesus Christ you cease to be the Church and become a club. I wish we could erase parts of the Word that seem so harsh and bring conviction to some and damnation to others. It is certainly easier to just say it’s over and everybody made it. We would have to delete a lot of scripture to get there.

    Comment by Joey

  • September 12, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    As is so often the case, Bill, and Joey, you have greatly mis-read my posts. I have never proclaimed an easy, bloodless message or a salvation through activism and works. The works are the fruit, evidence of abiding in the root. Jesus clearly said that a diseased tree cannot bear good fruit, so if someone is bearing fruit of the Spirit, it is evidence of their heart’s acceptance of God’s grace gift. I have repeatedly proclaimed that I believe in the work of the cross is the one Way of salvation. The blood of Jesus is life-giving. I love the old blood hymns. I simply believe Jesus and take him at his word about the ultimate efficacy of the cross. I think the ones who are promoting a “club” instead of the Kingdom of God are the ones who want to fuse the gospel with violent war against enemies, with discontentment that leads the rich to want ever more riches and begrudge welfare to the hungry, with discrimination against foreigners, etc. For these folks, the hard sayings of Jesus are hardly what you would call “seeker friendly.” The narrow, difficult way is the way of loving enemies, while the broad way seeks to conquer them with violence. The narrow, difficult way is the way of contentment, while the broad way plays to a profit motive that never gets enough. The narrow, difficult way is the way of welcoming the foreigner in our midst, while the broad way wants to build higher walls and deport families without proper documentation. Yes, it would be easy to erase those parts of the Word and say that everybody is in the Kingdom. Everybody is not, at least not now. One day they will. My evangelism is based on the truth of lifting up Jesus and His Way, knowing that his promise of grace and the abundant life is all we need to draw people. He never said, “If hell be lifted up I will draw all people to myself.” No, he used hell to describe the refining fire and consequences of those addicted and captive to the world’s way, to show what it would take to bring them in. I’m always grateful for any opportunity to lead someone to Christ, to the One who can free them from that captivity, so they can enjoy the full life here and now, and won’t have to wait. The Kingdom of God is in our midst – you don’t have to wait!

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • September 12, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    What do you think about the whole verse Matthew 25:41? You didn’t mention it.

    Comment by Joey

  • September 12, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    Joey, I think that I’ve already answered your question, but I’ll give it another shot anyway. Like the Psalmist and Hebrew prophets, and like the early church fathers, I see the eternal hell fire prepared for the devil and his angels as a refiners fire for those “goats” who neglected the poor, the prisoner, the sick, the stranger. What remains in that hell fire for eternity are those captivating spirits of greed and destruction, those principalities and powers that allure people, even sincere people of faith, into lives of addiction to material comforts, into attitudes of discrimination, into violence against enemies. Once the greedy and neglectful “goats” who were blind to Jesus in their midst have experienced that refiner’s fire, then their eyes will be open, they will be able to see clearly the meaning of the cross, and will understand that the true “good life” is the one of grace and love and peace and contentment, and they will be welcome into the Kingdom, as they confess their faith in Christ on bended knee. The good news for us here and now is that we don’t have to wait on that refiner’s fire of hell prepared for the devil and his angels, we can live out our faith in the Way of Jesus now and participate in the abundant life of the Kingdom now, for it is in our midst. The life of peace and love for enemies, not being bound and captive to resentment and revenge and violence, the life of contentment with whatever material comforts we have, and not being bound and captive to the profit motive that is never satisfied, and the life of true welcome for all the strangers and foreigners in our midst, not being bound by xenophobic fear and resentment – this really is the good life, and I heartily recommend it to all! It is the Way of Jesus, made possible by his life and teaching and ministry, his death on the cross when he made captivity captive and put all the power of sin to death, and his resurrection.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • September 12, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    Stan let me understand, you think hell is only for the devil and his angles?

    Comment by Bill

  • September 12, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    “Yes, it would be easy to erase those parts of the Word and say that everybody is in the Kingdom. Everybody is not, at least not now. One day they will.”

    What do you mean?

    Comment by Bill

  • September 13, 2012 at 7:58 am

    Bill, let me attempt to clarify your understanding: It’s not about what “I think.” It’s simply that I agree with the Psalmist, the Hebrew prophets, the New Testament teaching, and the early church fathers, who understood hell fire as a refining fire, prepared for the demonic powers of destruction and deception to be destroyed forever, and used in a transformative way to burn away the dross of our humanity that has become captivated and possessed by those powers, so that all eyes will be opened and all will be able to see clearly and respond affirmatively to the grace gift of God.

    To your second question: Jesus said ALL would be drawn to him through his work on the cross, where ALL sin debt would be cancelled. Paul said “EVERY knee would bow and EVERY tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of their lives.” Many people seem to want to erase those passages, and others like them, that affirm the ultimate universality of salvation. That does not mean that everybody is participating in the work of the kingdom NOW. People are still captive to the world system, to the values of greed and violence and discrimination and hate, and Jesus rejects these people, saying in essence “to hell with you”, and it is only after experiencing the chastising consequences of being outside the kingdom, that people will have those worldly values burned away, so their eyes can see and their hearts receptive to the grace gift. Our task, as evangelists of the Kingdom Way, is to live our lives in such a way, with such joy and contentment, and speak in such a way, bearing the fruits of the Spirit, that worldly people will see that the Way of Jesus really is preferable here and now to the world system. The Way of love and peace and contentment and welcome is far superior to the world’s way of hate and violence and greed and discrimination. We do our best to share this message, and for those who have ears, let them hear. For others, it will take longer, but eventually, we know the hope of that old hymn will be realized: “may each soul be rekindled with fire.” Each heart will be filled with love, revived for the eternal work of the Kingdom. It’s Good News!

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    Luke 13:25-28

    25 Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ 26 “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’ 28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.

    Comment by Bill

  • September 13, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    Bill, that’s a great example of Jesus’ teaching about the futility of trying to enter the kingdom simply based on familiarity with Jesus, without repentance and following (the chapter begins with a treatise on the necessity of repentance, a turning away from the world’s values and turning toward God’s values). But you ended your quote too soon. The passage continues: “29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” You see Bill, while the “last” in the eyes of the powerful will be “first” in line to the kingdom, the “first” in the world’s eyes, the rich young rulers and Dives of this world, will be “last” into the kingdom – note that they are not forever shut out, they will simply be last in line, and will not get in until they have gone through their own experience of the refiner’s fire and humbled themselves, repenting and bowing their knees and confessing their evildoing. The chastisement will not be pleasant, causing weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. It leads me to believe that some today are under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and are close to the refiner’s fire without even realizing it, when you hear so much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth from those who feel their wealth is threatened, or their privileged place is under siege.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • September 13, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    Wow, Stan, your theological perspectives seem to make me appreciate Christianity more and more with each new day. Thank you for being a good and thoughtful human being and a great teacher and role model to me. Surely, these guys will continue to criticize you, but know that you ARE winning people over to the positive elements of Christ and Christianity. I think I will start looking a little closer at Scripture and trying to see beyond my prejudices related to it. Your perspectives are truly inspiring.

    Comment by Jessica

  • September 13, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    Thanks so much for the good testimony of growing faith, Jessica! I’m glad to be on the journey with you, and am grateful for the good questions you have been asking along the way. Good for you for taking that closer look – there really is a marvelous story there, filled with grace, and it doesn’t try to pass off as a pollyannish “all is ok” story; it reveals the depths of the human heart, for good and for ill, which makes the grace part even more attractive. Some of those depths are disturbing, to be sure, but they are not the end of the story.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • September 14, 2012 at 6:46 am

    Stan correct me if I am wrong but you sound like are supporting Universalism..

    Christian Universalism
    by Matt Slick

    “Christian Universalism” is the position that all of mankind will ultimately be saved through Jesus whether or not faith is professed in him in this life. It claims that God’s qualities of love, sovereignty, justice, etc., require that all people be saved and that eternal punishment is a false doctrine. Salvation is not from hell, but from sin.
    There are two main camps in Christian Universalism:

    Those who teach that the unrepentant will be punished in a future state, and that their punishment will be proportional to the degree of sin committed in the mortal state. They generally hold that the punishment is moral and not physical. There is no hell. They do not maintain that salvation is merited through these sufferings.
    Those who teach that all the punishment for sin occurs in this life and that God’s discipline in our lives is for the purpose of purifying us, though this purification is not our merit for salvation. In eternity, there will be a loss of reward for those who did not trust in Christ in this lifetime.
    Christian Universalists claim to hold many of the tenets of historic Christianity: Trinity, deity of Christ, deity of the Holy Spirit, salvation by grace, etc. As always, it is necessary to inquire and ask what is meant by the terms they use because the diversity that exists in universalist beliefs warrants further examination. Nevertheless, the Christian universalists claim to affirm:

    Comment by Bill

  • September 14, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Bill, what this author describes as “Christian Universalism” sounds to me like the positions of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, in their teachings, grounded in the Hebrew Psalms and Prophets, all of which teach of the refining fire God uses for redemptive purposes. I don’t tend to put labels on my own beliefs, that is a man-made thing. I simply try and interpret the scriptures, as I have done above, through the aid of the Holy Spirit, using the lens of the life, teaching, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • September 20, 2012 at 4:18 am

    Comment by jim munsey

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