Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hell, Universalism and Some Remaining Questions

I used to be a universalist. While I never disputed the existence of hell, I did believe that the fire of hell served the purpose of a temporary purifying process. Judgment and damnation, I argued, would be God’s way of eventually persuading everyone from Hitler to Stalin (and maybe even the devil himself) to accept Jesus Christ as their personal saviour. It might take a long time, but in future aeons everyone would be given a second chance and allowed to “graduate”, if you will, into heaven.
I was not simply a universalist, but a universalist with a mission. I made it my personal crusade to convince the entire Christian world to abandon belief in endless hell fire. I wrote two books on the subject and even challenged well-known Bible scholars to public debates. (Douglas Wilson and I had a lengthy debate on the subject which I later published.)
I stopped being a universalist about seven years ago, after I became convinced that the Bible did not teach the salvation of all men. While there were still a number of things that didn’t make sense to me about the doctrine of eternal damnation, I realized that in good conscience I could no longer teach my children that the Bible taught universal salvation.
With the recent publication of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, the question of hell and universalism has been thrust into the public limelight. Likewise, I have found myself returning to the question with a renewed interest. As I have watched numerous conservative pastors, scholars, theologians and bloggers rise to the occasion of exposing the errors of Rob Bell, I hoped that some of my lingering confusions about endless hellfire might be answered or at least addressed. So far I have been disappointed in this regard. All the responses to Rob Bell’s universalism (at least those I have read or watched) simply regurgitate the same pat answers without deeply grappling with some of the legitimate questions that Rob Bell has raised.
Moreover, many of the responses to Rob Bell hinge on straw man arguments, as if Rob Bell is denying the reality of God’s judgment. He is not; rather, he is questioning the existence of non-redemptive judgements. Universalism is not only fully compatible with a belief in God’s judgment, but certain types of universalism (including Rob Bell’s variety) actually hinge on judgment, since judgment is an instrumental process used by God’s love to bring all souls to a place of repentance and subsequent salvation.
This does not mean that I go along with Rob Bell. His book is woefully lacking in responsible exegesis or theological clarity. But this does not mean that his questions can be ignored. Throughout church history the process of answering heretics has led to some of the richest and most profound expressions of Christian orthodoxy (I have in mind some of the early Christeological disputes particularly). Rob Bell may be a false teacher, but the larger issues he is raising surely deserve to be adequately addressed, just as the church addressed the arguments of Arius in the 3rd and 4th century. Unfortunately, Bell’s emergent church orientation, together with his pop-style of writing, has made it all too easy for conservative scholars to dismiss his questions without doing adequate justice to the legitimate questions he is asking.
I have one good friend who, over a period of about a month, watched and read everything she could find on the internet refuting Love Wins. Since she was personally struggling with the issue, she hoped to find a good conservative response to Rob Bell’s questions. Eventually she came to me in frustration and said, “No one seems to be adequately engaging with the issues he’s raising.”
It is my hope that in posting some of the basic questions here, and framing them with (hopefully) some degree of theological clarity, I will be able to tap into the public debate which already exists and refocus the terms of the public discussion. But first, it may be helpful to share some biographical details so everyone knows where I am coming from personally. Thus, this post will be divided into the following three parts.

1. Why I used to be a universalist
2. Why I stopped being a universalist
3. Some remaining questions

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Intricate Design of an Amazing God

A while ago I read Stacy McDonald's moving testimony "A Future and A Hope." I recommend her testimony as a powerful example of the grace and healing the Lord can bring to a broken life. Below are some of the points she made that I particularly appreciated.

But my goal is not to dwell on the past; it is to give you hope…to testify to you that you don’t have to allow past hurts to identify you. There is freedom in Christ, and part of that freedom comes from acknowledging that God is in control.
As difficult as it is to understand, those painful parts are all part of His orchestrated plan. While God is not the author of sin, He uses even sinful situations for our ultimate good and for His glory because we’re told in His word that “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)…
Fear torments—fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of being hated, fear of being unwanted, unloved…even just being tolerated. Those who have known deep rejection know how difficult it is to articulate the irrational fears that plague you—that chase you down in the dead of night—and sometimes in the day. There is One who knows better than any other—He knows it all….

We may not be able to understand all the reasons for the trials and tragedies in our lives, but we can be assured that none of it is “wasted.” If you feel you “just can’t get past” your trials; if you struggle to forgive; and if your past seems to haunt you even during the day, throw yourself at the mercy of the Savior. Confess that you can’t do it alone….

I pray that if you have been hurt by others, that you will learn as I am still learning to view those times as part of the intricate design of an amazing God – a God who loves you and has for you a future and a hope!

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

The dark days of the 8th century

The year 793 AD would forever change the destiny of Britain. An Anglo-Saxon writer in the late 800s remarked that,
“In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of Northumbria. There were excessive whirlwinds, lightning storms, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine”.

The writer then went on to describe the event that made 793 such a dark year in the annals of Anglo-Saxon history: “and on January 8th the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.”

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Interventionist foreign policy

Last year I wrote an article for the Spokane Libertarian Examiner, critiquing President Obama's foreign policy. I pointed out that when American Presidents first began pursuing interventionist foreign policies at the close of the 19th century, it was ostensibly to make America a safer place. At the time the idea was a simple one: America will be safer if it is bigger and tougher. This was the idea that led America into the Spanish–American War and other wars of territorial expansion.
At around the time of Woodrow Wilson, however, a new justification for international war began to emerge. No longer was the goal merely to make America a safer place: the goal was now to make the world a safer place. The result of this paradigm shift is that neither the world or America are actually safer. If anything, the opposite is the case: America’s military internationalism has been putting the American people at a greater risk than ever.

Consider that America’s expensive militaristic policies (financed almost entirely by debt) are threatening to destroy the very economic integrity of the nation – an integrity necessary for America’s safety in the most general sense. More directly, however, America’s interventionist politics have created unprecedented levels of what the CIA calls blowback. Blowback is the violent, unintended consequences for military action directed against the civil population of the aggressor government. The bombings of 9/11 were a classic case of blowback, since they came as a reaction to the long-time presence of the American military in the Middle East. As Philip Giraldi, former counterterrorism expert with the CIA put it,
I think anybody who knows anything about what’s been going on for the last 10 years would realize that cause and effect are operating here – that, essentially, al Qaeda has an agenda which very specifically says what its grievances are. And its grievances are basically that ‘we’re over there.’
Giraldi’s conclusion was confirmed by University of Chicago’s Robert Pape, who collected a database of 462 suicide terrorist attacks between 1980 and 2004. He found that the religious beliefs of suicide terrorists were less of a motivation for the attacks than has commonly been suspected. The primary motivation is a desire “to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory the terrorists view as their homeland.” Commenting on this in his book The Revolution, Ron Paul points out that
Between 1995 and 2004, the al Qaeda years, tw o-thirds of all attacks came from countries where the United States had troops stationed. While al Qaeda terrorists are twice as likely to hail from a country with a strong Wahhabist (radical Islamic) presence, they are ten times as likely to come from a country in which U.S. troops are stationed. Until the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq had never had a suicide terrorist attack in its entire history. Between 1982 and 1986, there were 41 suicide terrorist attacks in Lebanon. Once the U.S. , France and Israel withdrew their forces from Lebanon, there were no more attacks. ...the longer and more extensive the occupation of Muslim terri tories, the greater the chance of more 9/11-type attacks on the United States.
This does not, of course, mean that terrorists are justified in their attacks, but it should serve to caution those Americans who assume that an aggressive foreign policy is needed to make the United States or the world a safer place. As an American, I do not sleep easier at night because I know Obama has positioned active missiles next to the border of Russia, provoking our former enemy into an arms race (which you can read more about here). Nor I do not consider myself particularly safer because America is engaged in dozens of undeclared wars in Africa. Neither will I sleep better knowing that America is involved in a proxy arms race (via Taiwan) with China. And I am certainly not safer as a result of the United States’ military being stretched almost to breaking point with bases in 150 different countries across five continents. If anything, such policies are making America and the world less safe. Only time will tell how true this is.

To read more about what's wrong with Obama's foreign policy, see my article "Obama at War.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

My review of Dawn Treader in Touchstone

The May/June edition of Touchstone magazine is now out, and it includes a review of mine on the Dawn Treader movie, titled 'Lost at Sea.' If you don't already subscribe to this excellent ecumenical magazine, don't wait any longer but click here to subscribe.
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Monday, May 16, 2011

“for whom only Heaven’s angels are fit company”

In his book Rousseau: The Self-Made Saint, J.F. Huizinga tells how quite soon after his death an industry developed around Rousseau’s relics, as many intellectuals took the long pilgrimage to visit his tomb. The account of one pilgrimage was typical. A French curate and a Prussian baron began their journey by paying their respects to Rousseau’s tobacco-pouch. One of them records that “my fingers touched this box, my heart trembled, and my soul became purer”. As they approached the island where he was buried, they were “agitated as Apollo’s highpriestess at the approach of the god’. When they actually reached the spot they conducted a liturgical ritual with prayers and vows, ending by offering Rousseau a burnt sacrifice. (The sacrifice consisted in burning an essay that one of Rousseau’s enemies had written, while proclaiming in a loud voice: “we offer this expiatory sacrifice on the tomb of the great man, hanging over to he flames a libel which the lie claims its own and truth disavows…”
These pilgrims were not alone. In his book Intellectuals, Paul Johnson presents a smattering of the praise that has been heaped upon him by notorieties from the late 18th century to the present (all by people who never had to live with him):
To Kant he had ‘a sensibility of soul of unequalled perfection’. To Shelley he was ‘a sublime genius’. For Schiller he was ‘a Christlike soul for whom only Heaven’s angels are fit company’. John Stuart Mill and Goerge Eliot, Hugo and Flaubert, paid deep homage. Tolstoy said that Rousseau and the Gospel had been ‘the two great and healthy influences of my life’. One of the most influential intellectuals of our own times, Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his principal work, Tristes Tropiques, hails him as ‘our master and our brother…every page of this book could have been dedicated to him, had it not been unworthy of his great memory’.
What did Rousseau deserve this type of praise? Read the following two article's of mine on Rousseau and then decide for yourself:

Rousseau and the Parenthood of the State, Part 1

Rousseau and the Parenthood of the State, Part 2

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Art, Sacrilege and the Glorious Flesh

All bad art is sacrilege; it is the torturing of matter into ugly and unnatural forms, and a treason against the divine beauty. All jerry-building or dishonest workmanship is sacrilege; it is introducing a lie into the body of Christ. And every sin against society is sacrilege, because we are all members one of another, in that material body which is the body of the living God.” Dorothy Sayers

"A sure mark of Catholic Christianity is the honouring of the ‘holy and glorious flesh’, and indeed of all material things, because they are sacraments and symbols of the Divine glory.” Dorothy Sayers

Friday, May 13, 2011

Solzhenitsyn's Remarkable Story

In 1994, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn flew from Alaska to Magadan, the former center of the Soviet Union’s labor camp system on the Pacific coast. From there Solzhenitsyn journeyed slowly by train across the expanse of the country, taking his time and talking to ordinary people along the way. Having been an exile from his homeland for twenty years, Solzhenitsyn relished the intentionally long train journey, which gave him a chance to savor the country and reconnect with the people he loved.

During his travels Solzhenitsyn was generally well received by the Russian people. However, this was not always the case. Passing through Siberia, he was met with an angry Russian who shouted, “It is you and your writing that started it all!” The man was, of course, referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the system of communism it had birthed in Russia. As this hostile comment suggests, the people of Russia did not all agree that the fall of communism had been a good thing for Russia. But they did agree that the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had been instrumental in communism’s collapse.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Freedom and bondage in Rousseau's thought

After exploring Rousseau's life and thought for an Alfred the Great Society article, I am struck by the fact that he is the supreme example of someone who, never having learned to be responsible and self-regulate, has difficulty conceiving solution to life’s problems apart from the extremes of complete antinomianism, on the one hand, or complete totalitarianism on the other.
In Rousseau we find a tendency towards both of these polarities. The arbitrary despotism towards which his theory of government must inevitably lead (and which was the topic of my second article on him) was born out of his inability to imagine a society in which individuals were self-regulating. (“If government, based on the rule of law, is not possible – and I candidly avow I do not think it is – we must go to the other extreme…and establish the most arbitrary despotism conceivable.”)

Thoughts on the Royal Wedding

Our family watched the royal wedding three or four times and found it quite moving. In an article I wrote for the Charles Colson Center, titled 'Generous Love', I explain what we can all learn from the royal wedding and the lessons we can take from it to apply in our own lives. Read my article HERE.

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Thursday, May 05, 2011

Domenic Johansson update

A court hearing has been scheduled for 11 May for the Johansson family, who have been deprived of justice after the Swedish Social Services snatched their 9-year old son Domenic. (Read our earlier report)

The Johanssons remain unable to see their son, who was abducted by police nearly two years ago, just minutes before the family were scheduled to fly to India.

Keep reading...

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

'Christ transforming culture' vs 'Rome transforming culture'

Over at Alfred the Great Society I recently wrote about Niebuhr's language of "Christ transforming culture", which I take to be a very profound though simple statement of the Christian approach to culture. As I study the history of the early church, one thing I find interesting is that this paradigm of cultural transformation is something that the early Christians shared in common with Rome.
This may help to explain something that may otherwise strike us as rather puzzling. From almost the very beginning, the Christian movement was seen as a threat to the Roman empire even though Rome tolerated all manner of different religious movements. In the city of Rome, and throughout her empire, there was an array of various mystery cults. These were imported from all over the civilized world, but especially from the East. They offered their votaries privileged access to certain divinities but they did not dictate how life should be lived in the public world. It is this point which helps to explain why Christianity was so different. The mystery cults, like Gnosticism, addressed themselves to a person’s interior spirituality; Christianity, like the imperial “religion” of the Roman state, did not.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Solzhenitsyn Among the Postmoderns

I recently wrote an article for the Charles Colson Center about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's approach to postmodernism. Although Solzhenitsyn is best remembered for his books attacking communism, what is generally less appreciated is that he was also a fierce critic of postmodernism.

Don’t be scared off by the term “postmodernism.” The best way to explain it is against the backdrop of “modernism.” As an ideology, modernism it is closely aligned with the worldview of secular humanism, which elevates man and his reason to the center of reality.

In contrast to the pre-modern worldview, which stressed that all human knowledge is a subset of God’s knowledge, modernism emphasized that man is at the center of reality and that unaided human reason can discover absolute truth. Solzhenitsyn challenged this view in his Harvard address, claiming that secular humanist ideas were “the mistake” that was “at the root, at the very foundation of thought in modern times.” He continued:
“I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world in modern times. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was born in the Renaissance and has found political expression since the Age of Enlightenment. It became the basis for political and social doctrine and could be called rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the pro-claimed and practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of all.”
But Solzhenitsyn did not stop by merely confronting Modernism; his message of national repentance also challenged the fashionable postmodernism of the late 20th and early 21st century.

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