Chapter 6 – “What if God…”
Here we come to what was inevitable with a book by Francis Chan. If I have one complaint with his teachings, it is his hold to the idea that everything which happens is orchestrated by God. This I simply cannot believe. There is far too much in Scripture which denies this teaching. Before I get into that, though, let me dive into what he says in the chapter. As I go through, I will give some critique.
Chan begins by looking at Romans 9, and talks about how in this chapter, Paul is telling the Jews about their standing with God, and how God has the right to choose or discard according to His desire. Let’s look at a few verses, and then we’ll take some time to look into them.
“Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’ But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” – Romans 9:18-21 (NIV)
Chan says this passage is teaching that God makes decisions based on His own will as to who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell. But is that what Paul is saying? Let me say three things which need to be known.
First, it is fairly certain that Paul was writing to people who believed God did predetermine everything, and this passage is actually Paul correcting some of their other theology, using their own theology against them. Okay, that might have been a confusing sentence, so let me explain. The Jews believed they were the chosen people, and as such, they would always be the people of God. Now Paul is telling them that they are not the people of God anymore, and that this designation has moved to the Church, which includes Jews and Gentiles. They were complaining about this, so Paul is using their theology, which says that God has the right to do whatever He wants, no matter what we want, and pointing it back at them. “Don’t you say God can do whatever He wants? Then you have no right to complain!”
Secondly, and in conjunction with this, remember the historical setting of the “Potter and clay” image. This comes from Jeremiah, where God sends Jeremiah to the house of the potter, and uses it as an image of Him as the Potter, and Israel as the clay. Look at Jeremiah 18:5-6: “Then the word of the LORD came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?’ declares the LORD. ‘Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.’” (NIV) At first, it certainly appears to be what Chan is saying. God is all-determining; He chooses who will and will not be destroyed. We are clay in the hands of the Potter. However, we need to read the next two verses. “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.” In fact, it seems as if we do have a part in determining our future. As Chan said earlier in the book, when looking at the passages concerning hell, it’s important to look at any verse in the context it was written, as well as the context from which it was taken if it’s quoted from the Old Testament, since that would have been the context the writer and readers understood.
The third thing which is important is to remember that Paul is not talking about salvation in individual terms. We have certainly become far too individualistic in our culture today, and it hinders our understanding of the Bible many times. In this passage, Paul is dealing with the nation of Israel, of which he is a part. As a matter of fact, almost every time the Bible talks about salvation, it is talking about a people, not a person. We are a body, a kingdom, a priesthood, a family and a community. So when Paul is talking about some destined for destruction, he is not talking about how certain individuals were chosen for destruction, but how certain groups of people were destined for hell. This is the group of people who have chosen to not follow Christ. So God does not choose individuals for heaven or hell, but instead chooses that all who follow Jesus will enter with Him into Glory.
Don’t misunderstand me; this chapter does have some good to it. A lot of the reason many seem to avoid the discussion or even belief of hell has nothing to do with what the Bible says, but about the fact that we are embarrassed to suggest God might send people there. Whatever your belief concerning whether God predetermines people to heaven and hell of not, there is danger is thinking we can understand everything God does and says. His ways and thoughts are certainly higher than ours. There are things I would look at that God allowed, commanded and did in the Bible which I question. I can point to stories and say “I’m not sure I would have done that.”
However, Chan is quick to point out that this is also true of the incarnation. If I were God, would I choose to send my Son into the world to die for people who had rejected me? Probably not. So I need to take all the things in the Bible I don’t understand, and be willing to put them into the hands of God. This doesn’t mean I don’t pursue answers, much like many in the Bible. I am allowed, and indeed encouraged, to wrestle with God and Scripture when it comes to places of confusion. However, I must be willing, even in my confusion, to confess the love of God and rejoice in Him. I will end (finally!) with a quote by Chan.
“As I have said all along, I don’t feel like believing in hell. And yet I do. Maybe someday I will stand in complete agreement with Him, but for now I attribute the discrepancy to an underdeveloped sense of justice on my part. God is perfect. And I joyfully submit to a God whose ways are much, much higher than mine.” (pg 141)