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?
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.
"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.
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.
Or, maybe there is an Option 3?
Next Post: How about Universalism?