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

Why I Used To Be A Universalist

The Scriptural Argument for Universalism

I used to be a universalist because I believed the Bible taught that all men would be saved. While I have heard many people say that such a heretical conclusion can only be reached by someone wilfully twisting scripture, it is not as outlandish as many people assume. We simply took the familiar scriptural arguments that Arminians use for asserting that Jesus died for all men, and added them to the familiar scriptural arguments that Calvinists use to assert that Jesus death actually secured the salvation of those for whom he died, and then drew the inference that since Jesus died for all men then all men will be saved actually and not merely potentially. The philosophy professor and universalist Thomas Talbott has developed this argument in his article “Universalism, Calvinism, and Arminianism: Some preliminary reflections.”
We also believed the universalism had warrant since it allowed us to take the various passages about universalism at face value. When taken at face value passages such as the following, and many others, seemed to suggest that all men would one day be reconciled to Christ:
  • ‘For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive’ (1 Cor 15: 22-24).
  • ‘...God, who is the Saviour of all men, especially of those who believe.” (1 Tim 4: 10).
  • ‘For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Jesus), and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’ (Colossians 1:19-20
  • “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
In those days when I loved to do “proof-texting”, it seemed that a very strong case could be made for universal reconciliation. I wasn’t so concerned to understand the context of these verses, nor to fit them within the larger narrative of Biblical theology (though certain axioms of my systematic theology made the universalist interpretation of these verses an a priori necessity).
The Argument From Moral Intuition

In addition to the scriptural arguments, there were epistemological arguments I appealed to. One of these was the argument from moral intuition or what I used to call “the innate moral sense.” Since the doctrine of endless torment contradicts our innate sense of what is good, just and moral, it followed (I argued at the time) that it could only be preserved to the extent that we assumed God’s goodness to be qualitatively different to our ordinary understanding of goodness. This is, indeed, what apologists of eternal hell fire would frequently say to me when questioned. One mentor of mine who was concerned about the direction I was going, wrote,
“It seems you are trying to get hold of definitions and meanings of good, evil, hell, punishment, cruelty, suffering, etc., on our terms…. His goodness is…a hugely higher thing of which we cannot presently conceive… What once seemed cruel will no longer seem cruel because I will see God’s love in it. Aspects of my understanding of goodness will have changed, because I will now see it truly for what it is…God’s goodness is infinitely above man’s finite notions of goodness.”
C.S. Lewis’s book The Problem of Pain helped me to see the problem (or so I thought) in this line of reasoning. Lewis pointed out that if God is good in a different sense than the essence of what our intuitive moral instincts tell us is good, then to say “God is good” is no different from saying “God is I know not what.” Lewis then argues that a totally unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving and obeying Him, and we might be equally ready to obey, out of fear, an omnipotent Fiend.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that if God’s goodness is qualitatively different to our ordinary understanding of goodness, and if God’s nature is a “thing of which we cannot presently conceive”, then we are left in an abyss of unknown quantities amid virtues that might be vices and vices that might be virtues. We could not then use language about God, for though we may speak the words "God is good", as soon as we open our mouths to say what we mean by "good", we are committing the fallacy of "trying to fit God into our definitions of good." Even an appeal to the Bible couldn’t help, for if that which the Bible calls goodness in God might turn out to be "that which is perceived as evil by finite-thinking man" (which would be the case if eternal punishment were true), then what guarantee did we have that what is called truth in God might not turn out to be what is called falsehood in man? It might be ‘good’ (according to God's unknowable definition of goodness) for God to lie to us in the Bible, or for Heaven and hell to switch places for that matter. In fact, the entire continuum of moral virtues might be reversed. The scriptural descriptions of God might actually mean something opposite of what we think they mean, and reading the Bible becomes like reading a book in a foreign language. That seemed to be the logical result of divorcing the goodness of God from ordinary human understandings of the concept.
At this point people would frequently tell me that I was making God accountable to human standards of right and wrong. If God willed to do something that contradicted the human moral sense, then that action must be good because God willed it. Here again C.S. Lewis came to my rescue. Lewis points out that if "good" means only "what God wills", then the statement "God is good" means merely "God wills what God wills", which is meaningless, for the devil also wills what he wills. But the alternative - that God wills an action because it is good - is hardly any better since that would make goodness a standard outside of God to which He must be subservient. The solution to both these problems, I believed, lay in the fact that neither the will of God nor the goodness of an action are related to each other as efficient cause and effect, but rather that both are the effect of the same common cause: God's own nature. God's will is not arbitrary but consistently conforms to His perfect nature, since God is Himself the unchanging, ultimate standard of goodness. Therefore, God is not accountable to human standards of right and wrong because He is Himself the standard from which the human conscience and intuitive moral sense derive their objective validity. God has put the mark of His nature on the hearts and minds of all men, even of those who have never heard of Him. Thus, we can say an action is good because God's wills it only if (A) the will of God and the goodness of the action always conforms, and can never not conform, to His character, and (B) if God’s good essence is itself the basis for the human moral sense, since a denial of this leads to ‘goodness’ collapsing into a unknown variable. But if the human moral sense has some continuity with objective reality, then we cannot dismiss it in the way that defenders of endless torment are in the habit of doing.
The ‘Complete Victory’ Argument

I was also convinced that universalism must be true because of certain metaphysical arguments. Probably the most powerful of these was the argument from the impossibility of endless evil. Essentially this argument contended that for God to have a complete victory over sin, He must eventually eliminate evil and bring all men to repentance. But to consign sinners to an endless hell is not to eliminate evil, but merely to punish it or confine it, since the subjects in hell continue to be sinners.
This is a problem that Saint Augustine took very seriously. As I pointed out in my article ‘Augustine and Hell’, in order to defend Christianity against the heresy of Manichaeism, Augustine realized he needed to establish that goodness and evil are not co-eternal just as they are not equally substantive. Thus, in numerous places in his writings Augustine asserts the eventual abolition of evil, arguing that "evil consists in this very thing, namely in a defection from being, and a tendency to non-being." However, Augustine also asserted the unending existence of evil, saying that “the devil’s [citizen’s]...shall drag a miserable existence in eternal death without the power of dying... This perpetual death of the wicked, then...shall abide for ever, and shall be common to them all...” Augustine’s idea of perpetual death and perpetual wickedness seems at odds with his conviction that evil tends towards non-being. Augustine thus got himself on the horns of a dilemma. His attack of Manichaeism compelled him to argue that goodness and evil are not of equal duration (since evil, by its nature, tends towards non-being and will eventually be destroyed), while his critique of universalism compels him to imply the unending existence of evil (death, wicked beings, pain, etc.,) as a corollary of eternal hell.
Augustine seems to have realized this problem, and so he tried to resolve it by suggesting (elsewhere) that sin is only evil when it goes unpunished, whereas sin properly punished ceases to be evil but actually becomes good. Augustine was thus able to maintain, as one commentator puts it, a "bland assurance that the universe is no less admirable and beautiful a place for having a chamber of horrors eternally present within it, so long only as each horror of pain perfectly matches and balances each horror of sin". The obvious problem here is that such an idea of evil (that it can be neutralized of its negative moral quality by appropriate punishment) fails to appreciate the nature of sin itself. In order for ongoing sin to cease being evil it would have to cease being in opposition to the nature and will of God, which sin by definition is not. Suffice to say that sin is always evil, even if it is punished; ergo, those sinful souls in hell are evil and that is why they are there. But if they are evil, and if they exist eternally without ever being destroyed, then evil is not tending towards non-being as Augustine argued.
The problem is very practical for those who advocate the endless punishment of the wicked. I have known teachers who confidently asserted that rebellion to God would be destroyed, only to turn around the next minute to say that the unrepentant souls in hell will forever persist in rebellion against their maker (which is true by definition of an unrepentant agent). It is hard to escape the logic that in order for rebellion to be destroyed, sinners must stop being sinners (the other solution, to assert that sin against God is not rebellion, creates even more problems and may lead to antinomianism). But the only way someone can stop being a sinner is for (A) some form of redemption to occur (B) the person ceases to exist as a moral agent. Option A is universalism and option B veers towards some form of annihilationism. Both of these were not options for Augustine.
One could, of course, maintain that Augustine was mistaken in thinking that evil tends towards non-being. Yet it is problematic to assert that evil continues to exist eternally in an endless hell and never tends towards non-being. This is problematic because the doctrine of endless hell is the doctrine of the victory of evil, for it assures us that in the end the evil of Satan will prove more powerful than the goodness of God over certain souls. Without knowing it, eternal punishment turns us into virtual dualists, since it commits us to affirming two rival empires destined to exactly the same duration. Thomas Allin expresses this problem in his book Christ Triumphant:
Think too how grotesque a parody of the divine justice it is to say, as the popular creed does, that God requires obedience and righteousness here, but if He cannot have these, He will be satisfied with endless disobedience and sin hereafter as a substitute. We are gravely told that if the wrong be not righted within a specified time, justice will be satisfied to...perpetuate it to all eternity... the powers of imagination, if taxed to the utmost, could hardly conceive any more ludicrous parody of justice than the above.
Hating sin with an eternal hatred, He provides for it an endless duration, an abiding home. Because it is so very evil, therefore it must go on for ever, for this is the meaning of saying that for the very worst sinners there is after death no hope. Their guilt is so vast, therefore it must endure forever; it is so foul, therefore it must defile forever God’s redeemed universe.
Take a lenient view of human guilt, and you thereby shut out endless penalty. Take the very sternest view, and the perpetuation of this awful hostility to God becomes inconceivable....
“A homely illustration may make my meaning more clear. What should we say of a householder who, prizing purity before all things, and with ample power to gratify his tastes, should sweep into some corner every variety of abomination, there to rot on for ever under his sight? Nor is this all, for it is precisely the least rotten, and offensive, of the mass of moral filth that he removes and cleanses, while permitting the foulest of all (i.e., the most obstinate and the very worst sinners) to rot and putrefy for ever. Indeed, according to the current theology, it is exactly because the moral foulness of this mass is so great, that it must endure for ever....
“And how instructive is the evident perplexity our opponents feel in reconciling with the triumph of Christ and perpetual duration of that evil, which He expressly came to destroy (1 John 3:8). Thus some (able) men now plead that the resistance of the lost to God will be “passive” only, and their evil “inactive.” But passive resistance, if it be not a contradiction in terms, is some form of resistance, and inactive evil is some form of evil, and in both cases Christ’s very purpose is defeated. And obviously the worst forms of obstinate sin, for which hell is reserved, are the most active, are essentially active. Therefore, to say that they become inactive is to say that hell exercises a remedial influence. And if hell be remedial how near are our opponents to the larger hope?...
This was enough to convince me that eventually evil had to expire. I believed that when people say that the Lord shuts the rebellious in hell for eternity because He hates sin so much and cannot tolerate the sight of evil, they have got it the wrong way round, for surely the more the Lord hates sin, the more he would detest the idea of its unending existence! Thus, when debating the subject, one thing I would frequently ask is this: Is the Lord so acquiescent of evil that He will be content for all eternity to know that there is somewhere that is not subject to His Lordship, somewhere where sin continues forever unchecked? Indeed, I argued, it seems to indicate a toleration of sin on the part of God to say He provides hell as a place where evil can be eternally preserved, when all the while He has the power simply to annihilate it. Will He of whom we are told is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness” (Hab. 1:13), actually allow a place where every form of abomination, blasphemy, and filth can continue on and on and on forever with no end and no interference from Himself?
Of course, there were other arguments we used. God would not have not brought any soul into the world if He foreknew her existence would end in eternal suffering. The description of God’s judgments in the Old Testament seem to always have a redemptive motif behind them. Although God does not owe grace to anyone, His self-revelation is incompatible with a stingy approach to grace and mercy. Unless God is a hypocrite, He could not command us to love and forgive our enemies if He does not do the same to His. The gospel descriptions of “eternal” punishment really only mean “age-lasting” punishment. And so forth.

Why I Stopped Being a Universalist

Initially I stopped being a universalist, not so much because of theological reflection, but because of the bad fruit that the doctrine seemed to be producing in the personal lives of those who believed it. I wrote about this in my 2009 blog post “Universalism”. The theological reflection came later, and when it did I realized that many of my earlier arguments were fallacious. As I began thinking through the problems with some of the arguments I had previously found so compelling, I opened up discussion with a number of American universalists, hoping they could persuade me that universalism was, in fact, a Biblical teaching. The discussions that ensued left me sick in the stomach, for despite their belief in a compassionate God, these universalists were very uncompassionate and uncharitable towards me. Instead of answering my questions or even trying to engage with my arguments, most of them resorted to ad hominems, mud-slinging and what seemed to be the pervasive assumption that anyone who disagreed with their theology was not just mistaken but a bad person. An exception to this was my universalist friend Charles Slagle who always remained very gracious, but among the other universalists I spoke to, it seemed not to matter that I still loved Jesus, or even that I still hoped that universalism was true – the very fact that I had abandoned dogmatic universalism made me a first order heretic who must have some nasty motive holding the position that I did. Moreover, many of these universalists made comments to the effect that only those advocating universalism were the true people of God, and that the entire visible church is in apostasy. One well-known universalist even told a colleague of mine to go and cut off his sex organs! What was the connection, I wondered, between universalism and unkindness? If anything, I would have expected the doctrine of eternal torment to lead people to be nasty, but the reality seemed to be the opposite. Why was that? I still don’t know the answer to that question.
In any event, I began to re-evaluate some of my earlier arguments.

The Problem with the Proof-Texts

As I began reading people like N.T. Wright and theologians from the reformed tradition, I realized that the reconciliation passages need to be understood within the context of the covenant. They are not descriptions of what happens in the post-mortem state but descriptions of what will happen here on earth during the Eschaton. There will come a time, after the earth is renewed, when every person on earth will indeed be reconciled to Christ, but this tells us nothing either way about the fate of those who no longer live on the earth.
I have expanded on this idea in my post “An Open Letter to an Evangelical Universalist”, arguing that while we tend to fixate on issues of eternity, the post-mortem state and heaven and hell, the Biblical writers were much more earth-oriented. If the universal passages are taken in their appropriate context, it will be seen that they too are within an earth-centred trajectory and are not actually pointing to a time when everyone has finally made it into heaven. (For more of this, see my discussion of The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.)
It still seemed likely that if Jesus died for all men then all men must eventually come to be saved. However, the more I studied scripture, the more it seemed clear that Jesus did not die for all men. In the gospel of John, Jesus continually draws a distinction between His sheep the He is laying down His life for (John 10:4, 11-18, 27-29; 17:9-12) vs. those who are not His sheep (John 6:41-70; 10:26). The way Jesus juxtaposes these two categories side by side suggests that He cannot have died for all men. But if everyone eventually becomes God’s own after passing through the fires of a purgatorial hell, then Jesus must have died for them, which makes it hard to understand how Jesus can talk about His sheep whom He is laying His life down for as a class separate from those who are not His sheep.
At first I struggled with this idea, feeling rather like George MacDonald did when he was a child and felt that he didn’t want God to love him if God did not love everybody. However, the more I submitted to the Bible’s teaching on the subject, the more I realized that unless universalism is true, the doctrine of limited atonement is actually necessary to preserve God’s love. If we say that God loves everybody, and that Jesus therefore gave His life for all men, then this so called “love” more resembles that of an absentee Father. What kind of fatherly love is it to leave so many of His own children dead in their sins? I realized that the only thing worse than Jesus only rescuing some people from their sins is Jesus wanting to rescue everyone and failing. Arminian soteriology simply exchanges a quantitative limitation of the atonement with a qualitative one, and within the latter schema Jesus might still have died for every single human being even if no one is actually saved.

The Problem With Moral Intuition

I realized that the epistemological argument from the moral sense, while raising some legitimate points, was failing to take into account the noetic effects of sin. While the Bible does teach that our sense of right and wrong has objective grounding (which is one of the reasons the apostle suggests that all men can be held accountable), scripture also teaches that our internal moral compass is in need of redemption. Thus, our moral sense cannot function as an autonomous authority. There are many things that God says in scripture which do not make sense to my innate moral sense. For example, it doesn’t make sense to me that God would forbid people who are terminally ill and in great pain from committing suicide; it doesn’t make sense to me that God would forbid people who have been divorced without Biblical grounds (and for whom there is no chance of getting back together), from remarrying; it doesn’t make sense to me that God let’s His church be persecuted. Though these things do not make sense to my moral intuition, I have to conclude that the problem exists with me and not with God.
Consider the alternative. If we say that God’s actions must conform to our moral intuition, then what do we do with the fact that there is so much discontinuity in what human beings consider right and good. Even with the idea of endless torment, many people see no contradiction between this and their inward sense of right and wrong. Thus, the problem with using moral intuition as a compass is that all the compasses are pointing in different directions.
Further, in appealing to my “innate moral sense” as an autonomous authority, one of the things I had to ask was how far I was willing to push it. This question was pressed home to me when I read my universalist hero Thomas Talbott suggesting that in some cases our moral intuition can trump the teaching of scripture. For example, in his “Reply to Steve Cowan” (available here), he argued that

…if we have good reason (as I think we do) to believe that Wes' intuition (on the matter in question) is more reliable than anyone's teaching, whether it be Paul's or anyone else's, that God justly imputes guilt to newborn babies, then such teaching must take a back seat, so to speak, to Wes' intuition.

It troubled me that Talbott could appeal to intuition to override something allegedly taught in scripture. At around the same time, some of my universalist friends began appealing to their moral intuitions to justify unkind behaviour to others, saying things like, “A God of love would never tell me not to do . . . ” Something isn’t right there, I thought. (For more about the limitations of measuring God by the standard of our own conceptions of justice and goodness, see Francis Chan's comments here.)

Problems with the Complete Victory Argument

Even after abandoning universalism, the Complete Victory argument against endless evil still retained a strong pull for me, and we will revisit it below in “Some Questions Remaining.” However, even if this argument is legitimate, it is important to note that it does not necessarily imply universalism. At the least the complete victory argument, if cogent, establishes that evil cannot exist eternally, but this condition could be realized in either universalism or those forms of annihilationism which assert the termination (as opposed to salvation) of the wicked. Thus the complete victory argument is not a reason for believing in universalism; it is merely a reason for disbelieving in endless torment.
But is it even that? Consider, while it may be philosophically unsatisfying for evil to be co-eternal with God’s goodness, this is qualitatively no different to the philosophical problems which arise from the existence of evil in the first place. That is to say, the same arguments which argue that it is problematic for a good God to permit evil to exist eternally in hell, could also be used to argue that it is problematic for a good God to allow evil in the first place. But evil clearly does exist and God clearly is good (for to deny God’s goodness leaves us with no ultimate standard for making moral judgments, which we do implicitly every time we acknowledge the existence of evil), and consequently there must be some way of reconciling these two things. But if it is possible in theory to reconcile God’s goodness with the existence of evil in this world (even if we do not presently understand how this can be achieved), then in principle there is no reason for assuming it is impossible to reconcile God’s goodness with the existence of endless evil.
Nevertheless, the Complete Victory argument remains very compelling and does, I think, put the finger on one of the chief difficulties in the doctrine of eternal torment.
Some Remaining Questions

Having abandoned my former universalism does not mean that I have embraced the doctrine of eternal hell fire. Because endless torment and universalism are contraries rather than contradictions, it may be the case that they are both false, as would be the case if some form of annihilationism or conditional immortality were true. (By contrast, if two positions are contradictory, then the falsity of one necessarily entails the truth of the other, and visa versa.) Over the last seven years I have been slowly studying the Bible to see if it does indeed teach endless torment and/or a literal post-mortem hell, and my pastor has leant me some books to assist in my studies. The reason it is taking me so long is partly because I do not have enough time to devote to it, but also because I want to be scrupulously careful that my desires do not bias my handling of the Biblical texts (I’ll be honest: I want to discover that the Bible doesn’t teach endless torment).
I had hoped that furore over Love Wins would lead to some of my questions being addressed, but so far that has not been the case as I mentioned earlier. Below are some of the questions I would like to see apologists of endless hellfire addressing.

The Problem of the Sheep and the Goats

In all of the discussion surrounding Rob Bell’s book, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats probably gets featured the most as a proof-text of endless torment. However, those who appeal to this parable, and particularly Christ’s words about “eternal life” and “eternal punishment”, seem to be unaware that a strong case can be made that when Jesus refers to eternal life and eternal punishment, he is invoking the historic-temporal blessings and curses that would occur in the age shortly to come – the age he was even then inaugurating by His kingdom announcement – rather than a post-mortem condition. In an earlier blog post titled “The Sheep and the Goats”, I have argued that this preterist reading does justice to the actual context of the parable. While such an interpretation may be false, it would be nice to at least see it addressed in those who cite Matthew 25 as the definitive proof text of everlasting suffering. (I would say the same for Tom Wright’s reading of the rich man and Lazarus.)
The Problem of Unquenchable Fire 
Jesus’ words in Mark 9:42-50 form another favourite proof text for those who support the doctrine of endless torment. Yet as with the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, the context is often neglected.
The recurring motif in this passage about the worm and the fire is drawn directly from Isaiah 66:24, the final verse in the book of Isaiah. By repeatedly citing this motif, Jesus is invoking for His hearers the whole Isaianic narrative and bracketing his words within the context of the story Isaiah was telling. That story, of course, was the narrative that Israel’s God would renew the earth through the work of his Servant. It was a narrative that would have been common knowledge to Jews of the Second Temple period and by invoking it, Jesus is implicitly saying that he is the Servant who is restoring the earth; He is the Servant who is bringing all flesh to worship Him. Isaiah‘s story, the story of the New Exodus, is unfolding right before them and in front of the disciples’ very eyes.

Yet He is not merely bracketing His ministry within the context of the Isaianic narrative; He is also characteristically investing it with a new twist. The subtext of Jesus’ use of Isaiah 66 is that the Jews who believed they had Abraham as their father, will find themselves cast into Gehenna (the rubbish dump outside Jerusalem where non-covenant members were traditionally dumped as an alternative to ceremonial burial), if they continue to reject Jesus. By telling the people to cut off their offending hand, foot or eye, Jesus is essentially saying: abandon everything that is standing in the way of embracing My agenda of New Creation, or you will find yourself outside the covenant. It is the same message that we find in many of Jesus’s parables: the insiders will become the outsiders, and the outsiders will become the insiders.
Now, we know that there were many things standing in the way of the Jews accepting Jesus work, not least their own ideas of how the kingdom would unfold, including but not limited to their nationalistic aspirations. Those nationalistic aspirations would eventually bring about the destruction of Jerusalem and the literal death of the generation that refused to heed Jesus‘s warnings. In AD 70 the unbelieving Jews did parish in exactly the way Jesus described in Mark 9. Rotting and smoking corpses became a literal reality. This is one of the reasons we need not invoke the idea of eternal hellfire to explain Mark 9. It points to a judgment within the space-time continuum – not hellfire but Roman-fire, not the cosmic rubbish dump but Jerusalem’s rubbish dump. It is the same reality towards which the Olivet discourse points (see Mark Hornes The Victory According to Mark for the reasons why everything about the Mount Olivet prophecy indicates a local fulfilment).

(Understanding this helps us to avoid the contradictions which follow from belief in literal hell fire. For example, how can the descriptions of hell be literal when such descriptions include both fire and darkness? Fire, by definition, cannot be dark or it isn’t fire.)

Mark 9 stands as a solemn warning throughout the ages that destruction comes upon those who reject Jesus. Whether that destruction includes endless hellfire is a question that must be settled from an appeal to other passages, not Mark 9. Nevertheless, Mark 9 remains one of the most cited proof texts of endless torment.

For further reading, see 'Rethinking Unquenchable Fire (complete series)'

The Existential Problem

We know as an axiom of theology that moral categories can have no meaning outside of God as the ultimate standard. Therefore, if the Bible does indeed teach the endless torment of the wicked, this must somehow exist in harmony with God’s perfect goodness. Now even though I firmly believe the last two sentences intellectually, on an existential level I feel nothing but horror and revulsion at a God who would allow someone to suffer torment eternally. I know objectively that no matter what is the case I ought to feel love for God, but try as I might I cannot make myself feel any love for a God that would do this. Now granted, love for God is not just about feelings, so I don’t want to overemphasize the scope of this problem. But surely feeling revulsion towards God is not only problematic, but is antithetic to the correct type of fear that the Bible enjoins us to have towards God. (It also presents problems for worship.)
Thus, my question for apologists of everlasting torment is simply this: if the doctrine is true, what council would you give to someone in my position who feels revulsion at such a God?
The question is important because I think there are a lot of other people in my position, and the church needs to have a way of helping them. Now obviously the extent of this existential problem is going to be lessened when it isn’t being fuelled by universalist myths like the assumption that God somehow owes mercy to everybody, or that in order for God to be love He has to show love to everybody, or that our moral intuition is a reliable guide, etc. But even when I subtract these myths from the equation, the existential problem still remains.
Put another way, I find it troubling to imagine even one person being tortured for all eternity, and whenever I start to imagine it I feel like I’m going to go mad. I watched a panel discussion from Ligonier Ministries where they discussed this issue. I was pleased to see that R.C. Sproul also struggled with a similar sort of existential problem (not in terms of it making it difficult for him to love God, but in terms of also finding the idea very horrific and disturbing). After one of them made a specific point of assuring the audience that the punishment of the damned would “be bodily”, R.C. said that when we get to heaven we will be mature enough to be able to rejoice at the sufferings of the damned. I quote:
"I had a teacher that said in a seminar, someone asked this question: 'Dr. G, what if I get to heaven and I find out that my mother is in hell. How can I be happy? And he answered the question this way. When you get to heaven, you'll be so glorified, you'll no longer think through the prism of your own sinfulness, you'll be able to look into the pit of hell and see your mother there, and rejoice that God is glorified through your mother in hell.” 

While R.C. found this just as disturbing as me, he was able to take refuge in the fact that at least the people in hell are getting what they deserve and at least justice is being done. If I could come to see eternal punishment as being just, I think that would help a little with the existential problem. But this raises an additional problem about justice.

The First Problem of Justice

How can the eternal suffering of the damned be an outworking of justice when the Bible always says that the wages of sin is death not endless torment?
Let’s assume that while the wages of sin are death, eternal punishment is nevertheless an outworking or necessary extension of death as sin is given its just deserts. Well, if that is the case, then wouldn’t Jesus have had to undergo eternal torment on the cross in order to receive the just deserts of sin on behalf of the elect? Jesus took the punishment our sin deserved by suffering death, but if every sin deserves eternal punishment than Jesus would have had to undergo eternal punishment on the cross for our sins, which He obviously did not.
Or did he? I recently asked some people this question and they answered that because Jesus is God, He was capable of undergoing eternal torment on the cross on behalf of the elect.
But consider: it is impossible for a past event to be infinite because then that past event could never have been completed. When we talk about the future or the series of positive integers being “infinite”, we mean that it can stretch on forever without limit, not that it constitutes an actually infinite completed whole (William Craig’s book The Kalam Cosmological Argument goes into the mathematics of set theory to establish this.) Imagine the distance from the beginning of time to any point in the vast distant future, or the distance from zero to any conceivable number, and the distance will always be bounded and finite. One of the reasons we can say this is because it is always possible to imagine such a series being increased, whereas a series which formed an actually infinite completed whole cannot be added to since the series is already as large as it can be. Put another way, an infinite series can only be infinite in terms of its potentiality, not in terms of its actuality, since an actual infinite can never be traversed. But this is precisely why a past event like the suffering of a man within past history in the space time universe, cannot be said to be infinite.
But if the just deserts of every sin is eternal punishment, then because Jesus didn’t suffer eternal punishment, He could not therefore have taken upon Himself the just deserts of the sin of His elect. So either eternal punishment is not what every sin deserves, or Jesus did not suffer what every sin deserves and, consequently, the cross is not efficacious and we are still dead in our trespasses.

Consider the same problem from a different perspective. If every sin deserves infinite punishment, then when someone sins against me, should my forgiveness of them be predicated on the fact that I know Jesus has suffered for that sin? If so, then how can I forgive someone without first knowing if Jesus died for that person, and how can I know whether Jesus died for that person without knowing whether that person is part of the elect? But suppose I could know that Jesus died for that person or that I merely assume so: would it then be appropriate for me to say, "I forgive you because I'm satisfied that the magnitude of Christ's torment was sufficient punishment for what you deserved when you did that to me?" Clearly it would not be appropriate to say that, but is the reason it would be inappropriate to say that because such sentiments would be false, or because they would be uncharitable but not false, or because they would be both uncharitable and false?
I would love to see some of the recent debate about universalism addressing these important questions.
The Second Problem of Justice

I frequently hear something like the following: “All sin deserves eternal punishment since all sin is an offence against an infinite God. Therefore, to get rid of eternal punishment is to get rid of justice.”
But isn’t it the other way round? Doesn’t eternal punishment mean that justice doesn’t happen? Think about it: if eternal punishment is true then it means that justice is never actually achieved, because justice is forever in the process of being achieved. But since an unlimited process can never be complete, this means that justice never actually gets achieved since an unlimited process can never be complete. Therefore, eternal punishment seems to entail that justice never gets done.
Is there an answer to this argument? If not, it is a fatal problem to the doctrine of eternal damnation, and here’s why. An appeal to justice is often presented as the answer to arguments against endless hellfire, such as the Complete Victory argument presented above. That is, the problems of endless evil are said to be mitigated by appealing to the fact that endless evil is a necessary corollary to justice being done. But if what I have just suggested about justice is correct, then justice is never done within the schema of eternal torment, but is always in process rather like the process of filling up hotel rooms in THIS comic – a process that, by its very nature, can never reach completion.

The Third Problem of Justice

A third problem of justice arises, not so much from eternal punishment, but from a certain argument that is often used to defend eternal punishment. I frequently hear people saying that God leaves some people in their sins in order to demonstrate His justice. Consider the following words from Jonathan Edwards.
“It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all. . . .

Thus it is necessary, that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.
If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God’s holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever he bestowed, his goodness would not be so much prized and admired. . . .
So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect.” 
I have always been uneasy with that type of reasoning since it seems to implicate that there are unrealized potencies within the godhead. Consider that the Triune God is completely self-sufficient and doesn't need to have evil to demonstrate His character any more than He needed to create the world, let alone redeemed it, in order to demonstrate His personality (Saint Augustine makes this points lucidly in his Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love). God could have left our first parents in a state of bondage, He could have chosen for less or more people to be redeemed, He could have chosen not to create at all. The only things God cannot do are those things which contradict His nature.
The implication of saying that if God didn’t have a group of people to be angry with for all eternity that one whole side of his character (namely His hatred of sin) would not be able to be demonstrated, manifested or expressed, is essentially to say that God requires an opposite in order for Him to be good, or at least for such goodness to be fully actualized or manifested? A corollary of this is that throughout all eternity, the goodness and justice inherent in the blessed Trinity was always incomplete. On the other hand, if the members of the Trinity are completely self-sufficient and could fully appreciate their own justice independent of creation, then it would be possible for God’s redeemed and glorified children to appreciate God’s goodness and justice apart from the existence of evil, unless we can first produce an a priori argument to the contrary.
Consider further, if evil is necessary in order for God's goodness to be manifested, and if the manifestation of such goodness is a crucial part of what it means for God to be Lord (since otherwise God’s hatred of sin couldn’t find an outlet), then it follows that creation is necessary in order for God to be Lord since creation is itself a precondition to evil. In that case, God would not be Lord prior to creation. Ergo, creation is not an overflow of God’s abundance but something that was necessary in order to realize a certain aspect of His character. This lands us uncomfortably close to what some Arians have proposed. I have met Arians who said that in order for God to be Lord, He must eternally be Lord over something; ergo, the Son must be eternally subordinate to the authority of God the Father.
In The Pleasures of God, John Piper seems to go even further than Edwards, suggesting that the pain, evil and the misery of some are a necessary pre-condition for the ever-increasing enjoyment of the saints. This seems to leave us with a kind of dualism since it makes goodness eternally dependent on evil. Again, if taken to its logical consequence, this would entail that evil must be just as eternal as the blessed Trinity.
Imagine there is a potter who labors continually until he has created a number of excellently wrought vessels of great beauty and delicacy. But he is not satisfied with that - he must also construct a second class of vessels in order to smash them into a hundred bits. This proves to everyone that he has strength. Now if I correctly understand what you are saying, God is like this potter and must have two classes of people, one group for demonstrate His love and mercy on and another group on which to demonstrate His wrath and hatred of sin. But in the end doesn’t this amount to saying that God hates sin so much that He wanted it to enter His creation eternally so that He could always be punishing it? But consider carefully what this actually means. It is precisely because His hatred of sin is so great that He must create it and that it must go on existing eternally in those subjects evil that He is punishing (for to say that they cease being evil is akin to the universalism you reject). According to such a theory, if God had chosen to prevent the existence of evil in the first place this would have been a worse state of affairs then the endless perpetuation of evil in an everlasting hell since there would then have been no way for us to know that God is just.
Suffice to say, the idea that the cosmic torture chamber is necessary in order for God to actualize otherwise unrealized potencies in His character, is an idea that seems both problematic and disturbing. A similar problem surfaces when we say that without the evil we could never appreciate the good by contrast. This seems to have been the position of St. Augustine who wrote,
...if all had remained condemned to the punishment entailed by just condemnation, then God's merciful grace would not have been seen at work in anyone, on the other hand, if all had been transferred from darkness to light, the truth of God's vengeance would not have been made evident.
Those who adopt this position are forced to believe that God's love, grace, goodness, etc. are only intelligible in a world marred by evil. On a purely practical level this doesn't make sense. I don't need to go down to the local dump and gaze upon the garbage there in order to appreciate the beauties of a nature reserve. I don't need to feed on putrefied fruit and rotting bread in order to enjoy a bowl of strawberries and cream.
Now evil exists, so there must be some explanation for it that does not compromise the attributes of God, seeing as terms like goodness, justice and love can have no meaning apart from God. However, if what I wrote above is correct, then these explanation must be false.
Psalm 5:4 declares in no uncertain terms that God does not take pleasure in wickedness. Why then does He allow evil? I am not God, so I do not presume to know the answer to this question. I also don’t presume to know why He chooses to leave some people in their sins. It is a mystery, and I can only say that God must have had a good reason. I can even say that evil somehow furthers God’s glory because everything furthers His glory in some way. That’s as far as I’m willing to go because that seems to be as far as the Bible goes. We should leave these matters with God’s mysterious council instead of trying to plumb the depths of the decrees and turning God into a cosmic sadist as a result.

But am I exaggerating. Is there really that much difference between saying:

1. (a) The final judgment reveals God’s wrath, and this somehow mysteriously shows the Lord’s glory/character because everything God does shows His glory/character; or (b) because all things work together for good for God’s children, it follows that all the pain and suffering of the world, including the sin and damnation of some, will somehow further God’s good purposes for His children.
versus saying
2. (a) It is necessary that evil eternally exist so that God’s wrath can be displayed in forever punishing it; or (b) a world without sin would have been horrible because then we wouldn’t know that God hates sin; or (c) without evil there would be no way to know that God is just.

I would argue that there is an important difference between these two. Jonathan Edwards’ thought clearly falls into the category of 2 when he says “So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature”, as does Piper when he argues that the evil and misery of some are a necessary pre-condition for the ever-increasing enjoyment of the saints. Similarly, when a blogger I know wrote that it “would be horrible” if there had never been any sin, we are going way beyond 1. Now the difference between 1 and 2 above may be subtle, but it is crucial that we don’t conflate the two. Romans 9 and Proverbs 16:4 get us to 1, but they can only take us to 2 if we ignore many other passages of scripture and the Bible’s meta-themes about the character of God.
The reason it is important not to conflate 1 and 2 is that it ends up making goodness eternally dependent on evil, leading to the type of functional dualism that we find in St. Augustine where evil has to balance with good to achieve a type of metaphysical symmetry. As he writes,

“God would never have created a man, let alone an angel, in the foreknowledge of his future evil state, if he had not known at the same time how he would put such creatures to good use, and thus enrich the course of the world history by the kind of antithesis which gives beauty to a poem. ‘Antithesis’ provides the most attractive figures in literary composition: the Latin equivalent is ‘opposition,’ or, more accurately, ‘contra-position.’ The opposition of such contraries gives an added beauty to speech; and in the same way there is beauty in the composition of the world's history arising from the antithesis of contraries—a kind of eloquence in events, instead of in words. (City of God, 11.18)
Or again Augustine writes,
“And thus evils, which God does not love, are not apart from order; and nevertheless He does love order itself. This very thing He loves: to love good things, and not to love evil things—and this itself is a thing of magnificent order and of divine arrangement. And because this orderly arrangement maintains the harmony of the universe by this very contrast, it comes about that evil things must need be. In this way, the beauty of all things is in a manner configured, as it were, from antitheses, that is, from opposites: this is pleasing to us even in discourse.” Robert R Russell, trans., Divine Providence and the Problem of Evil: A Translation of St. Augustine's "De Ordine" (New York: Art Service Co., Inc., 1942), 37.
I would like to see a conservative apologist of endless hellfire actually address this third problem of justice in a sound and coherent way.

Further Reading

Rethinking Unquenchable Fire (complete series) 

An Open Letter to an Evangelical Universalist

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats


Is God the Author of Evil (and other questions about God's sovereignty)

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Steve Douglas said...

Looking forward to reading this series. As someone who's recently gone the other direction, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Kip Hop... It don't stop said...

Two comments and two questions...

You say it is contradictory to have fire and darkness - have you ever witnessed or seen on tv the aftermath of a volcano? You can have red hot magma (which may allow you to glimpse things) whilst darkness abounds all around. In other words, it is not as contradictory as you suppose ot have fire and darkness...

You question how consistent eternal torment as punishment is given that Scripture says that the wages of sin is death. But what of Revelation 20 and 21 which depicts the everlasting fires of hell as the second death? In other words doesn't Scripture speak of various kinds of deaths and by honing in on Romans 3/6 aren't you limiting death to the mere temporal.

Your revulsion for God's eteranl punishment - what is it precisely that reviles you? That it is contradictory to God's nature? But that is kind of answered by your own post (some things that God does may not make rational sense) which leads to my second question if the Scriptures affirmed that everlasting punishment a certainity would you then embrace it even if it reviled you?

Kip' Chelashaw

Steve Douglas said...

(Wait...I thought you were spreading your discussion out over a series -- didn't realize you had it all here!)

Having read through your discussion, Robin, I wonder if it'd be safe to say that the basic issue for you is that you feel you cannot uphold universalism while upholding something like inerrancy. You spoke of "submitt[ing] to the Bible's teaching" and being uncomfortable with Talbott's setting aside of some certain Scripture passage[s]. You also mentioned that you were (rightly) wary of proof-texting. But only under an inerrantist paradigm would you expect that the interpretation of any individual verse needs to be "submitted" to "the larger narrative of Biblical theology"; arguably there are plenty of passages that speak of unlimited atonement, and it is a violent sort of proof-texting that takes certain passages (e.g. from John's Gospel) and allows it to overrule the voices of other biblical authors.

You are right not to teach your children that the Bible teaches universalism. It doesn't. In fact, the Bible doesn't teach anything at all. The Bible is not a teacher, but a book -- and not even really a book, but a library, a compendium of books written by different men with often different and even competing perspectives, some of them decidedly more universalistic than others (Jonah, for instance), some of them more particularist than others (John certainly comes to mind), etc. But even if all of the biblical authors argue for a particular doctrine, it is a man led by the letter rather than by the Spirit who unquestioningly adopts and defends their consensus against his conscience. After all, the conscience of those who have encountered God in Christ should be expected to gradually overcoming whatever noetic effects of sin impair our judgment, although I must say that I find scriptural that "our internal moral compass is in need of redemption" to be lacking; rather it's our ability to follow our moral compass that's said to be impaired.

The fact is, we have more evidence from the Bible for universal redemption than we have for God counting slavery as immoral. Yet which Christian doesn't believe it is immoral, and for decidedly Christian reasons? My point is that church tradition, the testimony of saints that have gone before us (this is what the Bible is), is a great starting point. But I believe that God intends more for our moral development than can be cultivated by doggedly clinging to what we fallibly deem to be "biblical" teachings. After all, the Bible was only intended to lead us toward God to be be birthed anew in Him through Jesus.

I guess what I'm saying is that I don't believe we can neither discount all moral/ethical/doctrinal understandings simply because they're underrepresented in Scripture nor accept all moral/ethical/doctrinal understandings simply because they're represented in Scripture.


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