How do we know what God is saying? Part 1

This American Life is a podcast I enjoy (on those rare occasions when I run). I usually learn something, and often they explore the human condition with real insight.

Last month they told the story of Carlton Pearson, in an episode entitled Heretics. Carlton Pearson was a Pentecostal pastor in Tulsa. A graduate of Oral Roberts University, his ministry was influential and showed signs of ‘success’: 5,000 people each Sunday at his church, a guest at the White House, TV show host, popular conference speaker. The broadcast was about his rise and his fall, when he changed his theology and no longer believed in hell, and became a ‘heretic’.

My interest in this episode is not so much on the specific question of hell. To say there is a hell, and that God excludes those who don’t have a relationship with him through Jesus, is clearly not the most popular or palatable doctrine in our times. But it actually says some vital things about God’s justice, and evil not being treated lightly. If you want to reflect more on what hell is, and why it matters to believe in it, Tim Keller treats it well in ch. 5 in The Reason for God, and Francis Chan has written Erasing Hell.

Instead, here I’m interested in how Pearson changed his mind. He recounts that the pivotal shift begin while he was holding his daughter in his lap, eating dinner, watching an ABC news report on the aftermath of violence in Rwanda. You can listen at the 18:40 mark.

Pearson was understandably grieved at the suffering he saw on the television, and the evil that had caused it. And it prompted him to talk to God.

And I said God, I don’t know how you can call yourself a loving, sovereign God and allow these people to suffer this way and just suck them right into Hell, which is what was my assumption.

In response, he heard God say to him,

“So that’s what you think we’ve been doing?”

God tells him that if he believes they’re going to hell unless they receive Jesus,  he should put his baby down, quit eating and watching the big-screen TV, get on the next plane, and go save them. And Pearson begins to cry at that guilt and pressure and tells God,

You know I’ve given you the best 40 years of my life. Besides, I can’t save the whole world. I’m doing the best I can. I can’t save this whole world.

And God, having pushed him to this point, responds,

And that’s where I remember, and I believe it was God saying, “Precisely. You can’t save this world. That’s what we did. Do you think we’re sucking them into Hell? Can’t you see they’re already there? That’s Hell. You keep creating and inventing that for yourselves. I’m taking them into My presence.”

And it dawns on Pearson that hell is not something God does, but what we do. He sees emergency rooms, divorce court, prisons, and realizes “how we create Hell on this planet for each other.”

And this moment is an epiphany for Pearson and the beginning of a sea-change in his theology, his ministry, and his life.

This is a hard case, and Pearson’s heart is right to break, and it’s understandable that we struggle with questions about God’s character in light of such evil and pain. That needs exploring (which many have done well; I cover this in the Night Crossing Defeaters class).

But it also raises the question: What’s our basis for what we believe? Because notice that all this takes place as a private, internal conversation with God. It’s not open to others, it’s not verifiable. It is subjective—and I don’t mean that perjoratively, just descriptively.

So what place does the Bible have? Pearson realizes how important that question is. Listen to the key passage at 24:45.

You know, they were asking me questions, and I couldn’t answer them to their satisfaction and neither to mine. I knew it spiritually, but I couldn’t answer it theologically because the Bible clearly– I can take that Bible and denounce what I’m teaching. There is plenty of Scriptures that say that salvation is limited to only those who confess Christ. The Bible clearly says that. . .

What he has come to believe and Scripture don’t agree. He says he knew this new insight spiritually but couldn’t answer their questions theologically, because the Bible disagreed. That, right there, is the key.

All of us have a final authority, the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong, that beyond which there is no further appeal. Whatever authority people choose, in reality there’s only one, God. But how do we know what God says? For those who want to follow God, how do we figure out what he’s saying? Jesus is clear: God speaks in the Bible. He says that people are to live on every word that comes from God’s mouth, which he makes clear is Scripture (Matt 4:4). Jesus considers that what the human author of Genesis wrote is what God said (Matt 19:4-5). Accordingly, he rebukes his disciples for not believing everything that the prophets have written (Luke 24:25).

But what Pearson does, and what we sometimes do, is make ourselves the arbiters of what God says. ‘God spoke to me’, we say. And that can become a minefield. There are a couple of possible paths.

The most problematic is what we have in Pearson’s case. For him, it creates a contradiction. If God spoke both in the Bible and to him, then God is contradicting himself in the process. Or the contradiction is that one of those claims is wrong: either God didn’t speak in the Bible, or God didn’t speak to him. Pearson concludes that what God said to him personally is right, and the Bible is wrong. His inner revelation is authoritative and stands in judgment over Scripture [btw, his history of how we got the Bible, as told in an excerpt in the broadcast, is simplistic, tenditious, and misleading].

That’s a scary place to be. When you reach that point, your foundation is shaky by nature. Once you’ve concluded, even in one place, that Scripture is wrong in what it affirms, and you’re right, then you’ve introduced a fundamental instability to the whole building. The house may not collapse, but there’s no assurance now. Even if everywhere else you affirm that the Bible is right, the principle has already been introduced that we get to decide what is right, and we are in a position to judge the Bible.

And the standard we use is what we think, either individually or corporately. Our wisdom is superior and trumps the Bible. That’s where a lot of people are, even if they don’t explicitly articulate it. But it’s not a very stable place to be. Because in principle, we are now those who decide what God really says, and what truth is.

There is another possibility, that what ‘God spoke’ to me is different from, but agrees with the Bible, and we’ll address that next time. For now, it’s good to end with a bit of reflection. Are there areas where we make ourselves the arbiter of what God says? Is there any place in what I do, or believe, where Scripture says one thing, but I’ve decided that’s not true, and I’m going a different direction? Again, it may only be one thing, it may not seem to affect anything else about our relationship with God, but if we’re doing that, we’re making some dangerous claims about the Bible, about our own wisdom, and we’re digging up the foundation.

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