Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #7: What to do with hell... (Part 1).

This post is part of the Damned Nonsense! series, a collection of posts exploring the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is named after a dissertation by Ravi Holy entitled "Damned Nonsense: An Argument for Universalism Consisting of a Critique of All the Alternatives to It." While some of the series' content is adapted from Holy's worknot all opinions expressed in this series are Holy's. Please check out all the posts in this series!

There is a fascinating passage in Jeremiah chapter 7 in which Jeremiah speaks on behalf of the God of Israel and says this:

"The people of Judah have done what I said was evil, says the Lord. They have set up their hateful idols in the place where I have chosen to be worshiped and have made it unclean. The people of Judah have built places of worship at Topheth in the Valley of Hinnom. There they burned their own sons and daughters as sacrifices, something I never commanded. It never even entered my mind." (Jeremiah 7:30-31)

The Valley of Hinnom was a specific location outside of Jerusalem that evolved into what the New Testament authors called "Gehenna" in Greek and what our contemporary bibles call "hell." (This is also the roots of Islam's concept of hell called "Jahannam") As one can see from the Jeremiah text, the Valley of Hinnom was a horrific scene where pagan idol worship led to human sacrifice. Isaiah also alluded to this scene when he wrote of a "burning place" (30:33) where "the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die," (66:24). This real, historical scene provides the background to our contemporary notion of hell. The similarities are obvious: fire, suffering, death, etc. Over hundreds of years it evolved from a particular location associated with a particular cult into a concept associated with the fate of the wicked. This is the same location/concept (Gehenna) that Jesus spoke no less than 11 times according to the Gospels.

It is for this reason that I find the passage in Jeremiah 7:31 so fascinating. Maybe you didn't catch it in your reading, but Jeremiah, who is speaking on behalf of God, describes this hellish scene of fire and human suffering as "
something I never commanded. It never even entered my mind." Hold the phone. Is God saying that the mere thought of humans being consumed in fire is abhorrent? Jeremiah mentions the Valley of Hinnom a second time:
"And they built the high places of Ba'al, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin." (32:35)
I won't belabor the point. These passages in Jeremiah are extremely interesting because they portray God as totally repulsed by the Valley of Hinnom. How, we may ask, can the God who abhors the Valley of Hinnom be the same God that sends people to a place of fire and torment? How can the God who abhors the Valley of Hinnom become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth and speak of hell?  The traditional view answers with the disturbing picture of God as both compassionate and wrathful, loving and "just," abhorring death and also dealing eternal death. 

Universalism, on the other hand, offers a consistent picture of the God who abhors the Valley of Hinnom, Gehenna, and
all hells. Let us, therefore, take a closer look at what to do with the concept of hell as found in the Bible.

Hell Prior to the New Testament

The word "hell" never appears in the Old Testament. Aside from the Valley of Hinnom, the only thing we find is the concept of Sheol, an "underworld" or "place of the dead" that is neither positive nor negative; it is simply the place of all the dead. Old Testament Judaism really had no concept of hell. It was during the Exile (500's BCE) that Judaism began to adopt myths of the afterlife from surrounding cultures. Brian McLaren writes, "The Jews have a lot of contact with these people of other cultures and religions during the Exile in Babylon and during the continuing occupation by the Persians, Greeks, and Romans, so it's natural that there would be some amount of syncretism or mixture between the very this-worldly Judaism of the pre-Exilic period and these other-worldly, speculative elements, especially with the Persian religion of Zoroaster," (The Last Word and the Word After That, 81).

Other-worldly speculations became popular during the Exile as Jews attempted to make theological sense of their experience. The Jews saw themselves as God's chosen people. Their entire story was based upon the covenant that God had made with Israel. Therefore, when the exiles and foreign occupations occurred they were forced to speculate as to how their current oppression would be resolved. The answer that many adopted was that the faithful would be vindicated in the afterlife, while their oppressors would have 'hell' to pay in the afterlife. It was also during the Second Temple period that many Jewish freedom fighters revolted against foreign occupiers (e.g. the
Maccabean Revolt). Belief in postmortem justice was an essential element to such revolutionary violence. For more on this see N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God (especially 216ff).

The major point here is that the concept of hell is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. It is obviously something that developed sometime between the Exile and the New Testament. Indeed, David Powys writes, "Gehenna’ is nowhere found in the Hebrew Bible but may be found in the Pseudopigrapha, Palestinian Targums, and New Testament," (Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question, 177). James A. Brooks confirms that it was "During intertestamental times [Gehenna (Greek), or the Valley of Hinnom (Hebrew)] became the garbage and sewage dump of Jerusalem and a symbol of the place of punishment (1 Enoch 27:3; 4 Ezra 7:36) because worms and fires were always consuming the refuse," (Mark: The New American Commentary).  If you want a detailed development of hell in the intertestamental period then see David Powys' book.  

Hell in the New Testament

The above chart reveals the various words translated as "hell" (thank you, Wikipedia). As you can plainly see, the Jewish concepts of 
Sheol and Valley of Hinnom (Ge Hinom) evolved, notably in step with Hellenistic thought. The classical Greek term "Hades" occurs 10 times and is used to convey both a general realm of the dead (Rev. 1:18, 20:13-14) and that of a negative fate (Matt. 11:23). Also Greek, the term "Tartaro" (from "Tartarus") is used once in 2 Peter 2:4 to refer to God sending angels to a place of punishment. More than any others, however, the word "Gehenna" appears in the New Testament 11 times, namely on the lips of Jesus. Thus it is upon this word and Jesus himself that I wish to focus. Let the reader not forget what we have learned about the history of "Gehenna" above.

Jesus and Hell

Reformed pastor 
Timothy Keller denounces Universalism after saying, "Jesus talks more about hell and punishment than all the rest of the authors and speakers in the Bible put together." Yes, Jesus talked about hell a lot. But mere quantity of usage is not an argument. Words have to be interpreted in their context to understand their meaning. I'm sure there are plenty of old books that use the word "gay"a lot. Should the quantity of that one word lead us to believe that the authors intended what we now mean by the word "gay?" Obviously not.

We must interpret Jesus' speaking about hell and punishment in the context of his prophetic ministry in first-century Judea at a climactic moment in the story of Israel.

First of all, Jesus was a prophet. "Prophets in the Jewish tradition characteristically announced the judgment of the covenant god upon his rebellious people, and (sometimes) announced also the inauguration of a new movement, a time when Israel's god would again act graciously for his people. Part of Jesus' prophetic persona was that he did both." (N.T Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 182-3). "Jesus' message, so far from omitting or toning down the warning of judgment, seems from a wide variety of texts to have emphasized it continually. We might have guessed as much from the traditions which report on his public image: he was likened not only to John the Baptist but to Elijah and Jeremiah... Once we see Jesus in this light, a great many sayings come together and make sense." (Wright, JVG, 326-7)

So how exactly ought we interpret Jesus' warnings and talk about hell? Wright continues: "We may regard these warnings as threatening the
end of the present nation of Israel, if they do not repent. In the sad, noble and utterly Jewish tradition of Elijah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist, Jesus announced the coming judgment of Israel's covenant god on his people, a judgment consisting of a great national, social and cultural disaster, ultimately comprehensible only in theological terms." (Wright, JVG, 184-5) Let us examine some examples.

In all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) Jesus pronounces judgment upon various Galilean towns because they do not heed his message of the coming judgment and the kingdom of God. In Matt. 10:14-15 he says to his disciples:

'If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than that town.'
Wright explains, "Once again, this was not a prediction of a non-spatio-temporal 'last judgment'. It was a straightforward warning of what would happen if this or that Galilean village refused his way of peace which Jesus had come to bring. This was amplified in the words of woe uttered over Chorazin, Bethsaida, and even Jesus' own adopted home town of Capernaum. Judgment would fall upon them which would make the judgment of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom seem mild by comparison. The horrifying thing was that Jesus was using, as models for the coming judgment on villages within Israel, images of judgment taken straight from the Old Testament..." (JVG, 329)

"The catalogue of judgment upon the scribes and Pharisees, as it appears in the material common to Matthew and Luke, concludes with a further warning that is specific to 'this generation':

'Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to Gehenna? Therefore, I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation.' (Matt. 23:32-36)
Faced with this prospect, it would be better to abandon that which was most cherished rather than go straight ahead into the conflagration:
'If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to Gehenna, to unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. For every one will be salted with fire.' (Mark 9:43-49)
The judgment was coming upon 'this generation', now caught in the act of rejecting the final messenger who had been sent to call it back to obedience." (Wright, JVG, 330)

Luke 13 opens with a double solemn warning. Unless Israel repents of her headlong rush into destruction, she will suffer the same fate as those whom Pilate killed, or who were crushed by the tower of Siloam: in other words, Roman swords and falling masonry will be their fate if they persist in going the way of idolatrous nationalism (13:1-5)." (JVG, 331) As one begins to understand the socio-historical context of Jesus' ministry, as well as the story of Israel, it becomes increasingly clear that his teaching about Gehenna is nothing less than a prophetic warning of present tense, this-worldly destruction.

One classic passage that is often cited as proof of Jesus' teaching the traditional view of hell is the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Again Wright is helpful:
"The parable is not, as often supposed, a description of the afterlife, warning people to be sure of their ultimate destination. If that were its point, it would not be a parable: a story about someone getting lost in London would not be a parable if addressed to people attempting to find their way through that city without a map. We have perhaps been misled, not for the first time, by the too-ready assumption, in the teeth of evidence, that Jesus 'must really' have been primarily concerned to teach people 'how to get to heaven after death'. The reality is uncomfortably different.
The welcome of Lazarus by Abraham evokes the welcome of the prodigal by the father [Luke 15:11-33], and with much the same point. The heavenly reality, in which the poor and outcast would be welcomed into Abraham's bosom (as everyone would know from [a well known] folk-tale), was coming true in flesh and blood as Jesus welcomed the outcasts, just as the father's welcome to the returning son was a story about what Jesus was actually doing then and there. ... The point of this, when the story is seen as a traditional tale with a new ending, was not so much what would happen to both in the end... but rather what was happening to both rich and poor in the present time. (255) 
 Another popular passage in which Jesus speaks of hell is Luke 12:4-7:
'I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has the power to cast into Gehenna; yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.'
 "Some have seen 'the one who can cast into Gehenna' as YHWH [God]; but this is unrealistic. Jesus did not, to be sure, perceive Israel's god as a kindly liberal grandfather who would never hurt a fly, let a lone send anyone to Gehenna. But again and again - not least in the very next verse of this paragraph - Israel's god is portrayed as the creator and sustainer, one who can be lovingly trusted in all circumstance, not the one who waits with a large stick to beat anyone who steps out of line. Rather, here we have a redefinition of the battle in terms of the identification of the real enemy. The one who can kill the body is the imagined enemy, Rome. Who then is the real enemy? Surely not Israel's own god. The real enemy is the accuser, the satan." (Wright, JVG, 454-5)

What we see over and over again in Jesus' career as an itinerant prophet is that he announced imminent judgment upon Israel if they did not turn from their self-righteous, violent, nationalistic ways and follow Jesus' way of peace: "Those who take the sword will perish by the sword," (Matt. 26:52). This is evidenced again in the
Olivet Discourse as Jesus predicts the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.

At the end of Jesus' life we find a final, cogent warning as Jesus
warns the women who weep for him that they should instead weep for themselves. "There will come a time when they will utter a terrible 'beatitude': Blessed are the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!' The great blessing of children will be turned into shame; for if they (the Romans) do this when the wood is green, when the condemned one is innocent of violent revolt, what will happen when the wood is dry, when the children at present playing in the streets grow up into a revolutionary force that will pit itself directly against Rome? Jesus, knowing that Israel has now finally rejected the one road of peace, knows also that within the next generation she will find herself embroiled in a war that she cannot but lose, and lose horribly." (Wright, JVG, 332)

And lose horribly she did. About 30 years later, in the same generation, the Jews 
revolted against the Romans in 66 C.E., which led to the ultimate destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. "The entire city was plundered and burned in A.D. 70 and it must have seemed that not one stone remained upon another (see Luke 19:43-44). Christians in the city are reported to have escaped to Pella. Tens of thousands of Jews perished and were thrown outside the wall into the Valley of Hinnom." (The Biblical WorldA Dictionary of Biblical Archeology, ed. Charles F. Pfeiffer, 323)

Let that sink in. 

Though I have not examined each of the
11 occurrences of "Gehenna" on Jesus' lips, the above study clearly demonstrates that Jesus' talk about hell was not about the afterlife but rather about a present tense, this-worldly devastation. Jesus was warning that if Israel did not repent and "enter the kingdom of God," that is, Jesus' way of living, then there would come a time when the whole city of Jerusalem would be indistinguishable from the smoldering trash dump outside the city.  Every single occurrence of "Gehenna" in the Synoptic Gospels should be interpreted in this manner. To read our contemporary [Greek mythological] understanding of hell back into Jesus' words is to miss his point entirely and prolong the harm caused by this absurd [mis]interpretation that is behind the traditional view of hell.

In Jesus of Nazareth we find the incarnation of the God who abhors the Valley of Hinnom. In Jesus we find the prophet of God who warns us to turn from our wicked ways so that we might not turn our world into Gehenna. In the final analysis, Gehenna is no mere metaphor for a place in the afterlife, it is a literal, present tense place of evil where humankind has turned from the will of God. 

I cannot think of anything more EVIL than to twist the meaning of hell as Jesus used it into an other-worldly concept or metaphor that turns our eyes from the current hells in this world happening all around us. This is the ultimate evil of the traditional view of hell. And it is this distorted understanding of hell that prevents us from seeing the Gehennas of our world.

With the God who abhors Gehenna, may we weep for ourselves and the hell we have caused for refusing the Way of Jesus and His Kingdom.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #6: How about Universalism?

This post is part of the Damned Nonsense! series, a collection of posts exploring the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is named after a dissertation by Ravi Holy entitled "Damned Nonsense: An Argument for Universalism Consisting of a Critique of All the Alternatives to It." While some of the series' content is adapted from Holy's work, not all opinions expressed in this series are Holy's. Please check out all the posts in this series!

In today's post I'd like to put forth the basic support for Universalism. Admittedly, this post may seem a bit underwhelming for some readers. I say this for a few reasons.  First, I have already presented a lot of support
for Universalism in the form of arguments against Calvinsism, Arminianism, Annihilationism, Lewisim, and Original Sin (see posts 1-5).  Second, I will not deal with hell in today's post. That will be in post #'s 7 and 8. Third, the reader may be looking for something that does not exist, that is, a flawless argument for Universalism. I have noticed that many skeptics of Universalism expect its proponents to offer some kind of clear-cut answer to 'prove' that it is undeniably true. This is unfortunate and I can tell you that you will not find 'proof' in this blog series. The point is not for universalism to "win the day," but to lose its false caricature as heresy. Whether or not you discover enough material to consider Universalism as a hopeful alternative to the traditional views is up to you and God. At the end of the day, I simply wish to put forward some good thoughts on this topic and allow you the reader to explore. So let's get to it.

I concluded yesterday's post on 'Original Ungrace" with this: 

If grace is grace, and if there is nothing we can do to make God love us more or less, than how is it that some end up in heaven and others in hell? It would seem that there are only two options. Option 1: Those who end up in hell are not wanted by God (Calvinism).  Option 2: Those who end up in hell did not do their part to receive their "free grace" (Arminianism). Or maybe there is an option 3? 
Option 3 is, of course, Universalism. More specifically, option 3 is the belief that nobody remains in hell forever because the God who desires all to be saved has given pure grace to all through Christ and will therefore save all. Thus, the major point that I want to put forward in today's post is that Universalism hinges upon two biblical/orthodox claims about God: 1) God desires the salvation of all. 2) God is sovereign.

In the book
Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, the Calvinist theologian Daniel Strange writes that "Talbott is indeed correct that if Christ died for everyone then everyone will be saved," (p.160, original italics). Contrary to Calvinism and Arminianism, this is exactly what Universalism champions. Christ died for all and therefore all will be saved. Let us therefore begin by examining where Universalists find support for the claim that Christ died for all.

As with any theology rightly to be named
Christian, they begin with the Gospels' witness to the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth (Heb. 1:3). Firstly, let us ask if there is any indication that the God revealed by Jesus desires the salvation of all. In his life and ministry Jesus actively pursued those who were "lost" and "un-elect" (e.g. Matt. 9:9-13; Mark 5:24-34; Luke 6:27-29, John 4:7ff). One does not have to read very far into the Gospels to see that Jesus reveals a God who desires the inclusion of all and sundry. In a series of parables Jesus compares God to a shepherd who pursues a lost sheep until he finds it; to a woman who pursues a lost coin until she finds it; and to a father who breaks social norms, forgives beyond measure, and embraces his lost son because he has been found (Luke 15)! Jesus himself referred to his ministry as the year of radical debt-forgiveness (Luke 4:19) and his own death as the means to "draw all men" to himself (John 12:32). Because of this Universalists believe that Jesus unequivocally desires the salvation of all.

In addition to the four gospels, the New Testament conveys a God who desires all to be saved. The support for this is found explicitly in Acts 3:21, 1 Tim. 2:1-4, 4:10, 2 Peter 3:9; and implicitly in Rom. 11:32; 1 Cor. 15:28; 2 Cor. 5:13-19; Eph. 1:7-10; 1 John 2:2 and many others (you get the point). Universalists interpret the New Testament as communicating a strong witness to God's desire to save all.

At this point Universalists are still in good company. Many people believe that God desires the salvation of all. What separates Universalists from others is that they actually believe that God will achieve the salvation of all. This belief is rooted in the second orthodox claim: God is sovereign. This claim needs little defense because it is the presupposition of most Christian theology: if God is God, then God achieves God's purposes. (Process theology presents a slightly different view of God's sovereignty, but that is another blog series entirely!)

However, in addition to the claim that God is sovereign and therefore achieves what God wills, Universalists find evidence in the New Testament that God actually achieved the salvation of all in the Christ Event (the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus).  I'm trying not to proof text too much, but the following are among several passages that are used to support this view:
  • Romans 5:18 - Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.
  • Romans 11:32 - For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
  • 2 Cor. 5:18-19 - All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
  • Col. 1:19-20 - For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
  • 1 John 2:2 - He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
  • 1 Tim. 2:6 - Christ Jesus "gave himself as a ransom for all men"
  • Heb. 2:9 - Jesus tasted "death for everyone"
In other words, Universalists answer the question "Did Christ die for all?" with a "Yes." Not everyone agrees with this view. John Piper, for example, has written on the limited nature of Christ's atonement in several places such as here. Nevertheless, Universalism proposes that the death and resurrection of Christ is the ontological event of God's salvation of all. As I understand it, the Christ Event is the eschatological judgment and salvation of all of humankind. This is why the resurrection is the beginning of the New Creation, the eschatological beginning of the New Age. (This is how I *personally* understand the New Testament at this point in time) 

Though not a Universalist himself, N.T. Wright seems to agree with Universalism that the Christ Event is efficacious for the whole world:

"There [in Romans 8], Paul outlines and celebrates the hope that one day the entire cosmos will have its own great exodus, its liberation from bondage to decay. The point is this: the covenant between God and Israel was always designed to be God's means of saving the whole world. It was never supposed to be the means whereby God would have a private little group of people who would be saved while the rest of the world went to hell (whatever you might mean by that). Thus, when God is faithful to the covenant in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the work of the Spirit, it makes nonsense of the Pauline gospel to imagine that the be-all and end-all of this operation is so that God can have another, merely different private little group of people who are saved while the world is consigned to the cosmic wastepaper basket." (from What Saint Paul Really Said, 163-164)

It seems that the church father St. Athanasius interpreted the Christ Event similarly: "For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father. ...For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection." (from The Incarnation of the Word)

Theologian Jürgen Moltmann is, in fact, a Universalist and claims that "the realistic consequence of the theology of the cross can only be the restoration of all things." According to Moltmann "Christ 'suffered the true and total hell of God-forsakenness' for all people on the cross. Therefore all people are already included in the new creation which began with the resurrection. Since Christ died for all when all were sinners, 'all will be made righteous without any merit on their part'." (Holy, 13. Moltmann quotes taken from The Coming of God)

It does not take a learned theologian to notice that Univeralism is totally centered around the unique and decisive events of Jesus the Christ. In this sense, Universalism is fundamentally Christian. It does not begin with the "feel good" belief that God will save all and then run back to the Bible to dig for support. On the contrary, Universalism is rooted in the New Testament texts that communicate that God not only desires the salvation of all, but also achieved this in the Christ Event.  

I think this is a good place to stop for today. The major points that I wanted to communicate in today's post are:

  • Universalism hinges upon two biblical / orthodox claims about God: 1) God desires the salvation of all. 2) God is sovereign.
  • At the heart of Universalism is the conditional proposal: if Christ died for all then all will be saved.
  • Universalism begins with the biblical witness, especially the Christ Event, and concludes that God not only desires the salvation of all but has ontologically / eschatologically won the salvation of all in the Christ Event
I want to conclude today's post with some wisdom from the great 20th century theologian Karl Barth.  In his colossal Church Dogmatics he reminded us that even if we cannot argue the certainty of Universalism, "We are surely commanded the more definitely to hope and pray for it!" (CD vol. 4:3:1, 478)

If you don't hope and pray for it, why not?


Next Post: What to do with hell... (part 1)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #5: Original Ungrace

This post is part of the Damned Nonsense! series, a collection of posts exploring the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is named after a dissertation by Ravi Holy entitled "Damned Nonsense: An Argument for Universalism Consisting of a Critique of All the Alternatives to It." While some of the series' content is adapted from Holy's worknot all opinions expressed in this series are Holy's. Please check out all the posts in this series!

The preceding posts have demonstrated that traditional views on salvation and hell are not simply the "clear teaching of Scripture" but rather varying 'schools' of approaching the Bible and theology. In Post #1 we learned that the traditional views have emphasized or neglected various parts of Scripture. The question before us today is why tradition has vehemently held on to hell. Why, for example, have passages about hell been given more weight than, say, passages about Christ's atonement for all? In today's post I propose, along with Thomas Talbott, that "something other than biblical exegesis lies behind the fierce opposition to Universalism that we find in tradition," (Talbott in Holy, p.1).

Whenever I bring up the topic of Universalism to fellow Christians there is an instinctive reaction against it. I use the word instinctive very intentionally because I have noticed that this reaction comes from a place of deeply embedded beliefs about the way things are. It is as if the thought of God saving all people clashes into the very essence of what is true about God and reality. This is an important observation and I encourage the reader to reflect upon whether or not this is true in your experience.

The sociologist Peter Berger referred to our deeply embedded beliefs as our "plausibility structure." It refers to all of the "unconscious assumptions 'accepted within a given society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to its members and which are not,'" (Berger in Holy, p.6). That word "plausible" indicates everything that we can even imagine as being possible. Our plausibility structure is like the lenses through which we see the world, especially as it pertains to voices of authority and credibility. The only problem with our plausibility structure is that it can inhibit us from seeing that which is outside of or contrary to it. 

A great example of this is the Newtonian view of time and space. Since Einstein came along and demonstrated that the Newtonian view was wrong, physicists have agreed with the theory of relativity. However, the majority of folk (myself included!) can't seem to break free from Newton's view that time is the "stage" upon which objects play out their existence. This *false* view is totally embedded into our world view. To get closer to the link between our plausibility structure and the topic at hand, let's try a little thought experiment (tailored for Christians):

1. When did you first learn that not all people would be saved? 
2. How did you first learn that not all people would be saved? 
3. Was it by reading by reading the Bible?
4. Or, was it taught to you?
5. When you first began to read the Bible, did you approach it with the presupposition that all would be saved? Or, did you begin with the presupposition that not all would be saved?

If you grew up in the church then it is more than likely that hell has always been a part of your plausibility structure. And, it is likely that you did not first learn about hell from reading the complete narrative of Scripture; rather, you learned from what was taught as the "truth" about God. The world into which we are born gives us are sense of what is "normal." Even people who join the church later in life are usually already informed by traditional portraits of hell. The myth of heaven/hell permeates Western culture so pervasively that it is almost impossible to break free from the traditional view of seeing God as the one who sends the unsaved to hell. Whether in comedic caricatures or serious theology, hell is embedded in our plausibility structure (e.g. just watch TV commercials, read comics, or listen to people talk).

Since the majority of Western Christians were taught about hell before they were able to study the Bible for themselves, it is not surprising that the default reading of Scripture has been one that gives more weight to passages about hell and eternal punishment rather than the scope and finality of Christ's victory. In other words, it's no surprise that the plausibility structure of tradition leads to an interpretation of Scripture that opposes Universalism.

We must ask why this view has become the norm when the Bible clearly contradicts it in many places (at least as much as Universalism is also contradicted). In other words, is there something other than "clear biblical teaching" that has kept hell in the game for so long? Along with Talbott and Holy, I believe there is. 

I believe that the our human instinct is to preserve the traditional view of hell because we are fundamentally bent toward ungrace. In the final analysis, "it is 'original ungrace' not biblical exegesis that lies behind even evangelical opposition to Universalism," (Holy, 30). In agreement with Holy, I believe that the visceral reaction against Universalism is the result of our desire to exclude those who we believe do not deserve God's grace. As Talbott puts it, it is the opinion that "God has no right to extend his mercy to a given class of persons."  

The popular Christian author Philip Yancey wrote a contemporary classic called What's So Amazing About Grace? (1997) In it Yancey explains that human beings have "an inbuilt resistance" to grace and it goes "against every instinct of humanity." Indeed, the scandal of God's grace does not make sense in a world where people are supposed to get "the rewards and punishments that they deserve." 

This is precisely why most Christians cannot allow grace to be grace! Instead, traditional [predominately Arminian] Christians distort grace to mean that only those who respond to Christ in a certain way before a certain time will receive God's grace. 

Holy explains:

"This is most obvious in Yancey's proposed definition of grace as meaning that 'there is nothing we can do to make God love us more' and 'nothing we can do to make God love us less.' He stresses that our 'instinct' is that we have to 'do something in order to be accepted' by God is wrong. Yet, at the same time, he says that 'all we must do [to 'get to heaven'] is cry 'help!'. Surely, then, there is something we can do to make God love us more? It is hard to see in what meaningful sense those who 'fail' to 'get to heaven' (and, thus, presumably, end up in hell, however that is defined or conceived) are accepted and loved by God." (30)

Holy's critique of Yancey is a prime example of how Christians instinctively distort grace into ungrace. We convince ourselves: 'It is not up to God to have mercy upon whoever God pleases (Exod. 33:19), instead we must decide who gets God's grace based on our reading of Scripture and our tradition because surely we know!'

It always fascinates me to observe the dynamic between the "saved" and the "unsaved" in the Gospels. The "saved" in Jesus' day were no doubt the self-confident "children of Abraham," those who perceived themselves to be in God's favor. Yet whenever Jesus extended grace to the "unsaved" -  those who supposedly did not deserve it - the "saved" became outraged (e.g. Matt. 9:11, Luke 7:39, John 9:16). Perhaps this is why Jesus told a parable about laborers in a vineyard who each receive the same reward despite working different amounts. When payment is given there is outrage among those who are stuck in a plausibility structure of "earning" what they "deserve." The same can be seen in the parable of the Prodigal Son as the elder brother is enraged by the father's grace.  

There comes a point when we must consider that maybe our own plausibility structure has been infected by sin. What if we really are bent toward ungrace? To facilitate some reflection on this question, allow me offer a list of claims that Christians have traditionally preferred to endorse instead of the claim that God will save all. 

Consider the following:
  • God simply does not love all people.
  • God does not desire the salvation of all.
  • God saves some and damns others to hell.
  • Hell exists because God cannot stand to look upon sinners.
  • God still loves those in hell, but refuses to save them.
  • God doesn't love those in hell.
  • Jesus did not die for all people.
  • Jesus only died for the elect whom God foreknew.
  • Those in hell did not do their part to accept God's grace.
  • Those in hell choose to be there.
  • God will annihilate those in hell against their will (out of mercy, of course).
  • Those who end up in hell have the option to leave but will reject God forever.
I could go on but I will stop there. To be fair, these individual statements become more coherent within their respective systems of theology, but the point still stands. These horrific statements are ideas that most Christians are more compelled to believe than the statement 'God will ultimately save all people.' One way to interpret this opposition to Universalism is to say that the above statements are what Scripture teaches. Unfortunately (or fortunately!) there is a lot of Scripture that teaches otherwise (see Post #6 next). Another way to interpret this opposition to Universalism is what I have proposed in today's post. Allow me to summarize:

Human beings are fundamentally bent toward ungrace. We are so brilliant, so crafty, and so self-centered, that even our religion has been contaminated with ungrace. We have turned the very means of God's universal grace to humankind - the Christ Event - into a measuring stick for including ourselves and excluding those that we don't think deserve God's grace.
But if grace is grace, and if there is nothing we can do to make God love us more or less, than how is it that some end up in heaven and others in hell? It would seem that there are only two options. Option 1: Those who end up in hell are not wanted by God (Calvinism).  Option 2: Those who end up in hell did not do their part to receive their "free grace" (Arminianism). 

Or, maybe there is an Option 3?


Next Post: How about Universalism?