Questioning David Platt and the Hindu Funeral Pyres

David Platt was recently elected as President of the International Missions Board for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).   And although I’m a minister in the Church of the Nazarene, the SBC is still our family in the greater kingdom of God.  We are brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Although I disagree with many SBC teachings, evidenced by the remainder of this post, I do not doubt that God will continue to use the people of the SBC to expand his kingdom.  I pray that the heart of God expands in David as he takes on his new role.

On his website, David posted a video explaining his new role.  He states that one of the reasons he accepted this new responsibility was due to an extremely moving experience he had in Nepal.  He was hiking and came across several bodies burning on funeral pyres.

He says, “We came to this Hindu holy river, where, when we walked up, the first thing we saw were funeral pyres above this river and burning bodies on top of those funeral pyres.  We learned the custom for the people in this area was to bring up friend or family member within 24 hours of dying, and bring them to that river, put the body on that funeral pyre, and set it ablaze.  The thought is, as the ashes go down into the river, this will help that person in the process of reincarnation.  So we rounded the corner and saw this river, this scene, and I was just stopped in stunned silence as I found myself looking at bodies of people who were alive 24 hours before, now burning and realizing, ‘This is an earthly picture of a spiritual reality that’s happening right now.  These are people who died in their sin, apart from Christ, and are in an eternal hell at this moment.  They’ll be there forever.'”   If you’re interested listening to the audio or watching the video, it’s only about nine minutes long.

I respect and love David as a Christian brother, but I disagree with him theologically.   I want to say that there is nothing wrong with disagreement; I do not question his salvation nor his devotion to God and to God’s people, nor his ability to lead.  But sometimes it is good to see another point of view.  Even when one point of view is stated confidently as the Christian point of view, there are still other ways of thinking that stay within the orthodoxy of Christ’s Church.

I’ve learned to be gracious in disagreement, which is what I am attempting to do here.  We can disagree without casting people out as heretics and evil-doers; perhaps this is one area where the Christian Church can differ from secular society.

As a Christian, it’s good to think critically regarding every aspect of our faith.  We have to ask if different statements makes sense.  We have to ask ourselves difficult questions and ask whether or not our faith will hold to the test of those difficult questions.

We can even doubt, but we must learn to doubt faithfully.  I do not mean to be faithful to doubting, but I mean that we are still faithful to God through our doubt.  When I doubt, personally, it doesn’t mean I abandon my faith.  It means that I critically test my doubt with questions like, “How does this idea line up with scripture?  How does this idea line up with both my experience and the experience of others?  How does this idea line up with reason and logic?  How does this idea line up with Christian teaching?”

When I listen to people, there is often a constant track going on in my head which questions everything that the person says.   And so when someone makes a definitive claim that a person is, at this very moment, burning eternally in hell, I question it.

The main reason I question this statement is because scripture teaches resurrection.  It teaches the clear resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, Jesus Christ ascending into heaven, and Jesus Christ returning again.  But it also teaches the resurrection of all people at Christ’s return; Christ, at that point, will judge their hearts and determine their fate (Jn 6, Lk 14, 1 Th 4, Dn 12, Rv 20).   To deny this is also to deny the teaching of the Church, which affirms the historic Nicene Creed and Apostle’s Creed.  Both creeds teach a second coming, resurrection of the dead, and judgment of the living and the dead at his return.

Let us not also forget Paul’s imprisonment by the leaders of Jerusalem which led to his journey to Rome.  Paul was taken captive and beaten because he believed in this general resurrection in addition to the resurrection of Christ.  Several of the Pharisees, who believed in a general resurrection, did not want to imprison Paul.  The Sadducees, who did not believe in a general resurrection on the other hand, did want to imprison Paul because he was teaching contrary to their beliefs.  A fight broke out between the two groups over Paul’s understanding of the resurrection (Acts 23)!  (Perhaps the Pharisees were starting to come around, after all?)

Our own denominational Article of Faith, number 16, for the Church of the Nazarene reads, “We believe in the resurrection of the dead, that the bodies of both the just and of the unjust shall be raised to life and united with their spirits – ‘they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.’  We believe in future judgment in which every person shall appear before God to be judged according to his or her deeds in this life.  We believe that glorious and everlasting life is assured to all who savingly believe in, and obediently follow, Jesus Christ our Lord; and that the finally impenitent shall suffer eternally in hell. (Gn 18:25, 1 Sam 2:10, Ps 50:6, Is 26:19, Dn 12:2-3, Mt 25:31-46, Mk 9:43-48, Lk 16:19-31, 20:27-38, Jn 3:16-18, 5:25-29, 11:21-27; Acts 17:30-31, Rm 2:1-16, 14:7-12, 1 Cor 15:12-58, 2 Cor 5:10, 2 Th 1:5-10, Rv 20:11-15, 22:1-15).”

If there will be resurrection in the future, at which point God will determine his eternal judgment, then God has not yet made a final judgment upon the people who are not in Christ.  It would be an unjust God who has revealed a promised judgment upon resurrection at Christ’s return, but instead judges immediately upon death, especially to something so serious as eternal damnation.

Moreover, it would be an especially unjust and unmerciful God who judges those who have never heard the gospel or the message of the true God to eternal damnation immediately upon death.  If there is anything we can learn from the story of God interacting with the people of this world, as demonstrated in the combined canon of the Old and New Testaments, it is that God loves both justice and mercy!

Reading immediate judgment upon death to eternal hell does not do justice to the complexity of scripture, human authors of the different books, the gospel of God in Jesus Christ, the inspiration of scripture through God in the Holy Spirit, or the love, mercy, and justice of God in the Father.  Nor does this type of reading do justice to the intellectual tradition of Christianity dating back to the authors of the New Testament.  We must learn to read scripture critically yet faithfully to God and the Church.

Unfortunately, it can easy to be misunderstood when discussing these aspects of theology.  I am not saying whether or not the people David Platt saw will see eternal life or death.  What I am saying is that I do not agree with his assumption that they “are in an eternal hell at this moment” and that “they’ll be there forever.”

Ultimately, the people who David saw burning on funeral pyres will be resurrected from their death to see the judgment of Christ.  Christ will be a just judge before them, taking everything into account.  As creatures of God, we do not know their judgment; we do not determine their fate.  We are all fallen creatures.  Humble before God, our creature-minds cannot come close to comprehending the full creator-mind of God.  But we must remember that their judgment solely rests in the hands of Jesus Christ; I have faith that whatever he decides, whether to eternal life or death, he will be just and merciful.

This is a much more beautiful picture of God, one that is scripturally accurate, and one that is true to the teaching of the Church.

We spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to expand the kingdom of God in this present world.   Christ’s kingdom first broke into this world when he was born to the virgin Mary.   As Christians, when we make disciples of all the different nations, we give them the promise of God in this current life as well as eternal life.  It is a much bigger picture of God’s work in this world than what happens after death (although that is also important!).  We give lost peoples the hope of God’s justice and mercy – here, now, and today.

We have the promise of eternal life with God through Christ, but we must remember that the promise of eternal life begins today, continues throughout our lives, continues through death, sleep, heaven or whatever may be in-between, and continues through resurrection!  It will be ever-expanding until Christ’s return, when the kingdom will be fully consummated on this earth and a new creation has been brought about as the creation was forever meant to be.

Still, even though I have theological disagreements with David, I believe that God’s Spirit will continue to work through him and expand the kingdom of God in this world.   The love, goodness, mercy, and truth of Christ will be shown, which is ultimately most important.   However, it’s good to have different viewpoints so that we can challenge our thinking when it comes to theological assumptions, yet still be faithful to Christ and his Church.   I pray that God will bring many blessings to David, his ministry, and the SBC family.

I’ve given some of my thoughts.  What are your thoughts?

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