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Making Idols and Mocking Hell: Theology" in the News"

I’m addicted to USA Today. It’s not the best in American journalism, but it’s entertaining and moderately informative (especially the sports section). Today, Tuesday, September 25, 2007, it was just sad. Two stories in particular caught my eye, both of which are tragically indicative of the state of mind in Hollywood and around the globe.


(1) The first thing I noticed was a short piece concerning the Indra Jatra festival in Katmandu, Nepal. The eight-day festival, celebrated by both Hindus and Buddhists, “is named after Lord Indra, the god of rain” (p. 9a).


What caught my eye wasn’t the headline announcing this pagan festival but the picture that accompanied it. Two unidentified people, a man and a woman, are seen putting the final touches on the face of a hideous idol. Its features include protruding eyes, flaring nostrils and four oversized and undoubtedly sharp teeth, two of which are protruding from the top much like one would expect from a vampire in some B-horror movie. I have no way of knowing if this is a representation of the pagan deity Indra or perhaps some other “god” or “power” believed to work in tandem with or in opposition to “the god of rain”.


I immediately felt three responses rising up in my heart. One was anger that yet again people refused to honor or give thanks to the One True God and instead were futile in their thinking and, while claiming to be wise, became fools and “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom. 1:21-23).


It angered me that anyone but our great and glorious God would be praised or given credit for the gift of rain, for he alone “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt. 5:45). Neither “Indra” nor any other so-called “god” is capable of doing what Yahweh does, for “he covers the heavens with clouds . . . [and] prepares rain for the earth” (Ps. 147:8). Perhaps I should let God speak for himself, as he did to Job: “Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no man is, on the desert in which there is no man, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground sprout with grass?” (Job 38:25-27).


A day is coming when those who worship “Indra” and other deities to whom they give credit for natural phenomena will stand before the Lord and hear him say: “Why did you not repent and give me glory for the manifestation of my goodness and greatness in creation, the consistent witness to my ‘eternal power and divine nature’ (Rom. 1:20) that are ‘clearly’ seen ‘in the things that have been made?’ (Rom. 1:20-21). You are ‘without excuse’” (Rom. 1:20b).


My second response was one of sadness to think of such people who give themselves over to the worship and adoration of a “deity” who is utterly impotent to intervene on their behalf, utterly impotent to redeem them from sin, utterly impotent to bring this chaotic world to its consummation in Jesus Christ. It reminded me of Psalm 115:4-11 -


“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. O Israel, trust in the LORD! He is [your] help and their shield. O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD! He is [your] help and their shield. You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD! He is [your] help and their shield.”


As over against such pathetic incompetence and inability, “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Ps. 115:3)! And as I looked at those two anonymous figures in the photograph, I only wish that I could have said to them, “Don’t you realize that ‘those [like the two of you] who make them [i.e., dead, lifeless, hideous idols] become like them’? Is this the image according to which you want to be conformed?”


My third reaction was one of gratitude for friends of mine like H_____ and M_____, and B_____ and N_____, and B_____ and S_____ who labor daily in Nepal, joyfully sacrificing the comforts I take for granted to bring the gospel of eternal life to those who would otherwise forever remain in spiritual darkness.


(2) The second eye-catching story was easier to see. The large headline in the Life section of the paper read: “Reaper” shows viewers a hell of a good time (p. 1d). The story concerned a new TV show scheduled to premier tonight at 9:00 eastern time. No, I won’t be watching.


The show concerns a “hapless young Sam” (praise God, not me!) who is sold to the Devil by his mother and father. And what is his job in service of his new master? He is forced to work “as a hellish bounty hunter, recapturing escaped souls.” As expected, Satan is portrayed as being in charge of hell, overseeing the torment of those consigned to spend an eternity there.


Aside from the fact that a show like this fails to communicate the very real and literal existence of eternal torment, it perpetuates any number of misconceptions about hell that, sadly, even many Christians mindlessly embrace. Contrary to the plot, there is no such thing (and never will be) as “escaped souls.” There are no “second chances” or opportunities to “redeem” oneself. Once consigned to hell by the righteous and irreversible verdict of a good and holy God, there is no escape. Perhaps those in Hollywood, if they know anything of the biblical portrait of hell, are aware of the liberties they are taking with this story. But I doubt that they care. After all, it makes for a good laugh and an interesting twist in their efforts to gain as many viewers (and thus dollars for their commercial advertisements) as possible.


There is another distortion in this scenario, and it concerns the role of Satan in hell. Contrary to what many believe, he is not in charge there. God is. The “eternal fire” of hell was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41), not that he (and they) might oversee its application to others but precisely so that he (and they) might suffer its torments. According to Revelation 20:10, in which we find a description of the final judgment, “the devil . . . was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” It is God who inflicts righteous punishment on the rebellious and unbelieving, not Satan. The latter is himself a deserving object of eternal punishment, not its administrator.


I suppose some will tell me to lighten up and enjoy the show for what it is, a mindless, slightly entertaining diversion at the end of a long day at work. But may I suggest that it is precisely because of such an endless run of jokes, TV shows, and misguided feature-length films that we Christians struggle to get people today to take hell seriously. Is it any wonder that professing evangelicals are themselves beginning to question the existence of an eternal hell in favor of some version of annihilationism or universalism?


Watch this show if you must, laugh if you will, but as you do, think about those two people in Nepal preparing “Indra” for their pagan festival in Katmandu. For they and all others who exchange “the truth about God for a lie” and serve “the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25) will one day, and forever, be in that very hell which so many casually mock. And there too, but for the grace of God, go I.


Let me close by telling you a story. A friend of mine who worked in a high-rise office building in Dallas told me of an incident one day in an elevator. It was August and the temperature was in excess of 100 degrees. As my friend entered the elevator, so too did a man who was sweating profusely and had obviously been jogging in the summer heat. “Whew,” he virtually spewed out, “it’s as hot as hell out there!” Without intending to be in the slightest way humorous or flippant, my friend replied, somberly, “No sir. It isn’t.”


So much for my experience today in reading USA Today.