Theological rants
of a liberal Christian

Book review: The History of Hell

Thursday, December 30, 2010 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: The History of Hell

by Alice K. Turner


This is not a new book; I dug it from my shelves just to write this review. It’s not a scholarly-looking book; the oversize cover, glossy pages, and color pictures on every other page make it look more like a children’s book than a theological treatise. It’s not the work of a notable scholar; Ms. Turner is better known for her fiction and as an editor for Playboy. So what is this review doing on my blog today?

Against all odds, this is an important book about an important topic. Is it Alice’s fault that she manages to turn it into a fun read as well?

The History of Hell begins at the beginning, with the earliest religious beliefs of an underworld. You’ll explore the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Zoroastrianism. You’ll move forward in time to the Greek understanding of Hades, the Platonic description of Hell, and the Hebrew teachings of Sheol. As these ideas merge into one, you begin to see glimpses of today’s Christian version of Hell emerging.

In time, Purgatory arrives. Christian ideas continue to evolve through the centuries, giving birth to artwork and stories like Dante’s Inferno, as imaginations let loose. Satan, once destined to chains in a dark netherworld transforms before your eyes into an evil taskmaster. Now, trident in hand, he gleefully tortures lost souls in a lake of fire forever and ever, amen.

You continue to travel through the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, through the 19th century, and on into today’s time, as Hell continues to evolve. Why is this journey important? Why put yourself through Hell? Because, as Christians, it’s vitally important to our spiritual well-being to understand that we have made our own version of Hell. Ideas have evolved from the beginning of religion, and understanding this, knowing the “history of Hell,” can set you free from the undertow of today’s spiritually-damaging teachings.

And if you’re going to take this frightful journey, you may as well make it an entertaining one. Pick up Alice’s book.

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Revelation 21:24, Where is the New Jerusalem?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

Speaking of the New Jerusalem, Revelation says,

The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.

This is one of many verses that make it clear Revelation speaks of the New Jerusalem as residing on earth; not in some spiritual realm we call heaven. Revelation actually never does speak of heaven! All of its promises are for an everlasting life and kingdom on earth (if you don’t believe me, take time to actually read the book).

What exactly does this mean that Revelation never promises life in heaven? It means that Revelation’s author subscribed to the contemporary Jewish belief of a physical resurrection and a political redemption; Jews expected God to lift them above the other nations, to restore their rightful, God-given place as rulers of the earth. Regardless of the clear Christian bent behind Revelation, this expectation shines through clearly.

Is this your dream for everlasting life? Probably not, unless you’re a Jehovah’s Witness. But if you’re quick to disregard this portion of Revelation’s teachings, is it not possible to disregard also its dreams of a vengeful Messiah arriving to slaughter 200 million people? Leaving rivers of blood in his wake?

Revelation is not a pretty book, if read half-literally. Please, either read it as a spiritual lesson only, or don’t go halfway on the “literal” scale; read it for exactly what it says and promises, and recognize within its pages long-held Jewish dreams that we no longer wish to see fulfilled.

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Book review: Revelation, Four Views–A Parallel Commentary

Tuesday, December 28, 2010 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: Revelation, Four Views–A Parallel Commentary

by Steve Gregg


If you begin with the premise that Revelation is inspired scripture, and wish to understand or choose from the four primary interpretations, then you won’t find a better book out there than this one. This was definitely a favorite during my research. Dare I say so myself: if you couple my book, which takes a historical look at Revelation and does not presume it’s inspired, with this book, which details the various ways believers read Revelation, you’ll get a well-rounded picture.

Gregg goes verse-by-verse through Revelation and, with four columns side-by-side, describes how proponents of the four interpretive methods read the scripture. These four types are as follows:

The Historicist approach sees Revelation as surveying the entire church history, from Christ through today and beyond. Events described in Revelation reach fulfillment gradually, through the centuries.

The Preterist approach assumes fulfillment in the first century, and usually assumes an early writing of Revelation (before the war of 70 AD.) Revelation prophecies this “war to end of wars” in which Jerusalem is overrun and the Temple destroyed. This is closest to my own treatment, though a better label for my perspective would be contemporary-historical.

The Futurist approach awaits fulfillment in the future. This needs no further introduction; among today’s Christians, this is by far the most popular interpretation, though it wasn’t necessarily so throughout Christian history.

The Spiritual approach is Gregg’s label for those who do not look for a literal interpretation, but rather see spiritual lessons and principles in the symbolism that runs rampant through this mysterious scripture.

All four interpretations are illuminating, and many readers, upon completion of this study, conclude that Revelation must be a complex combination of the above. Certainly, Revelation is revealed to be a book of deep meaning, seldom contemplated in its entirety by most Christians.

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Genesis 2:7, Adam is Formed

Monday, December 27, 2010 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Many Christians continue to hold to the idea of a young earth, and of God creating Adam and Eve at the beginning of creation. That is, I suppose, alright. But what is not alright is for these well-meaning Christians to push this understanding upon their children, as if rejecting evolution is somehow a necessary prerequisite to being a Christian. You do both yourself and your child a disservice by insisting he or she continue to embrace such antiquated bible interpretations, for at least two reasons:

1. You severely restrict the growth of your child in the sciences, even preventing certain fields of study. For example, it’s nearly impossible to acquire even a basic understanding of biology or the medical sciences without embracing what we have learned in the last 150 years about DNA and the development of species.

2. You are likely to steer your child away from Christianity, because the day will likely come when he or she cannot any longer believe your interpretation of Genesis.

For this reason, I present the above verse, and a simple reconciliation that does not require discarding all that we have learned about this 5-billion-year-old earth. This does not necessarily describe my own beliefs, but merely the beliefs of many Christians who have been forced to reconcile science with their religion.

First, accept that when the Bible says man was formed “of the dust of the ground,” perhaps it describes the development of life from single-celled beings to the unimaginatively complex beings we humans have become. Second, do not imagine that there were no hominoids before “man”; thus when the day finally arrived when God breathed His breath into His creation, implanting within hominoids a living soul, in that moment Adam and mankind were born.

You may even find it easier to answer embarrasing questions such as, “where did Cain find a wife?”

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Book review: How God Changes Your Brain

Sunday, December 26, 2010 in Book Reviews | 1 comment

Book review: How God Changes Your Brain

by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman


I see this as two books in one: first, a basic look at the malleability of our brain and how it can be trained–specifically, how spiritual practices rebuild neural paths within our brain–and second, a practical guide to basic meditation.

I give the first half five stars. I didn’t read all of the second half. Guess that means I should drop my rating one star. It’s not that I’m not interested in meditation, because I’m thoroughly convinced of its spiritual and mental value; it’s that, like 95% of the rest of you, I ignore what’s good for me in favor of what I enjoy. And I enjoy learning about the brain.

This isn’t an evangelical book. It won’t direct you to Christianity or Eastern religions or any other belief system. Nor is it ragging on the evils of religion, as the title might make you think. It’s a very positive-minded book about the value of prayer, meditation, and belief. “God” does change your brain, because repeated mental exercise and directed thinking rebuilds neural paths for a healthier, happier life. If–as is my observation–Christians in general live happier, healthier lives than non-believers, there is a solid, scientific reason for that. The Christian brain is wired for spiritual well-being.

I emphasize Christians only because Christianity is my heritage. This book is written for skeptics and believers alike, and definitely worth reading.

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Luke 1:47-55, The First Christmas

Saturday, December 25, 2010 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

And Mary said,

I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.

–The Message Bible

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Book review: Jesus of Nazareth

Friday, December 24, 2010 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: Jesus of Nazareth

by Paul Verhoeven


Question: What happens when an accomplished film maker delves into the realm of historical Jesus scholarship?

Answer: Fresh insight.

Paul Verhoeven is the only non-theologian admitted to the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars dedicated to uncovering the historical Jesus. While his book will not be recognized for the depth of research that goes into the books of more noted scholars, it’s still an interesting read.

Verhoeven digs into the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, the sin of riches, exorcisms, and much more to paint Jesus in human terms. Jesus is not an ideal for Verhoeven, but a living, breathing person, with fears and failures alongside his accomplishments. Jesus is a hunted criminal who masterfully escapes the long arm of the law…until an apostate disciple masquerading as a Zealot (not likely one of the twelve, nor even named Judas, according to Verhoeven) leads the authorities to him.

After Jesus’ crucifixion, his disciples believed he returned from the dead. But if the whole of the Jesus story were wrapped up in this miracle of overcoming death, Christianity could not have survived for 2,000 years. Jesus created powerful parables and devised a new code of ethics; regardless of his false understanding that the kingdom of God was imminent, he indeed transformed the world. Verhoeven closes his book with this paradox: Jesus’ mistaken view of reality led to the most significant ethical revival in the past two thousand years.

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John 4:24, God is Spirit

Thursday, December 23, 2010 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.

These are the words of Jesus, to the woman of Samaria. She was asking whether it was correct to worship God at the holy place of the Jews or of the Samaritans. Jesus’ reply made it clear God would not be found “in” a place.

The above verse is from the NIV translation; let me give it to you again in our familiar King James version:

God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

See the difference? How the KJV made assumptions about the nature of God, which the NIV corrected by retranslating the original Greek? God is not “a Spirit” (capital S), God is “spirit.” You don’t worship “him” in spirit, you merely worship in spirit. John’s Gospel, we all realize, is the most esoteric or spiritual of the four, and this is critical to understanding the Johannine writings.

God is not “a” love. God is love. God is not “a” light, or “a” life,” or “a” spirit, or “a” anything. God just is. Give up trying to point to him, because there is no “him” to point to. As The Shack would say, God is a verb.

In my opinion, grasping this basic difference will take you a long way to understanding John’s point of view.

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Book review: God and Sex

Wednesday, December 22, 2010 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

Book review: God and Sex

by Michael Coogan


If you’re hoping for a biblical Harlequin, look elsewhere. This is a heavy little book, even a little overwhelming, as it delves into the sexual inequalities of biblical times. I found the book rather dark in places; an obvious agenda of the author is to extol how grateful we should be to have outgrown the biblical view of women as property. Indeed there are multiple horror stories of how women were treated in the Bible, but is it healthy to overdose on this topic? Coogan touches only briefly on the other side of the coin–the radical change in treatment encouraged by Jesus and his earliest followers. Even Paul, says Coogan, suppressed women, as he argues against current scholarship that many of the suppressive teachings recorded by “Paul” were actually later writings.

But, thankfully, the book isn’t entirely about sexual inequality. Some of the topics are more light-hearted. You’ll learn about sexual innuendos which shed light on several passages in the Bible; you’ll find out whether David and Jonathan were gay lovers (they weren’t); you’ll learn about the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah (it wasn’t sodomy, or even sexual perversity); you’ll learn about Yahweh’s wife in Israel’s most primitive beliefs, including several passages from the Bible. I highly recommend the book, and I guarantee you’ll learn from it.

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Luke 2:1-2, When Was Jesus Born?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010 in Bible Commentary | 0 comments

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)

Today’s post is not meant to ridicule traditional Christian beliefs; it is to help reconcile followers of Christ, whether believers of the supernatural or not.

Do you think all Christians need to believe literally in the virgin birth? Can you fellowship with nonbelievers? I’d like to give one of many examples why liberal Christians and Jesus scholars have a hard time believing in the virgin birth, so that believers can begin to understand the complications nonbelievers struggle with.

Note that many early Christians didn’t believe in the virgin birth either. The early Jerusalem church (the Ebionite sect), headed by James, brother of Jesus, did not. Paul writes only that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law” and that he descended from David “according to the flesh,” while Mark portrays Jesus as estranged from his family, disowning mother and brothers, hardly an endorsement for the idea of Mary being informed by an angel of Jesus’s divinity. John insists that Jesus was never born, but existed before the creation. Only Matthew and Luke tell a story of Jesus’ birth, and these two stories contradict each other quite radically.

I present today’s verse as just one example. In Matthew’s rendition, Joseph and Mary flee Herod, who died in 4 BC. In Luke’s story, Joseph and Mary come to Bethlehem for a census overseen by governor Quirinius … but Quirinius did not govern before 6 AD. So, was Jesus born before 4 BC or after 6 AD?

This and other examples convince many that the birth narratives were written to honor Jesus in story, not to relate historical facts. You must decide for yourself; are one or both of the birth stories true or not? But I hope that, whatever you decide, it will not cause you to criticize those Christians who decide otherwise. May we all have a merry Christmas as brethren!

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