Jeff Cook’s Response: A Confession of a Seeker

From Jeff Cook.

We Need Better Answers. A Response to Mark Galli.

I love and admire Francis Chan and Mark Galli, and am very grateful for the fruit of their lives, and even for their upcoming work on hell. I want to continue to dialogue about present issues in the church with class and respect and in that spirit, I want to offer a disclaimer. I am going to bring my argument strong and candidly with no antagonism toward anyone in particular, just a deep unrest at the present state of Christian thought.

During the recent rapture hoopla I heard a commentator say, “Making fun of born again Christians is like hunting dairy cows with a high powered rifle and scope.” I assume it’s because he thinks ridiculing Christians is not very challenging, and after a while it’s not very fun. But this insult contains a nugget of truth.

Christians hold in their hands the most profound sets of insights into the human condition ever constructed and yet despite their numbers and resources they consistently produce the most lack luster art, literature and academic thought available in popular circles. For example, I find the “Christian living” section of the local bookstore—with a few exceptions—a disheartening place because apparently this set of texts is the best our culture can do when displaying Jesus Christ and his plan for the world.

I work at a state university in Colorado. I gave up God-belief during grad school when I realized the Christian truths I had been defending since my high school days were insufficient in the face of contemporary thought. I stepped away from God-belief, *not* because I hadn’t experienced God’s work in my life, hadn’t read the scriptures and found them beautifully compelling, not because I didn’t respect and love the church. I walked away because American Christianity gave me no good reason to think it was true. In fact, I found the converse.

Alongside the problems of evil and divine hiddenness, it was the dual problems of hell and divinely mandated genocide that pushed me away from Christian belief, and it was not for a lack of trying to stick. With the exception of the problem of evil, the responses given to these problems from Christian thinkers were bland, uncompelling, disinterested and often offensive. When I asked the apologetics of our day why God is not more evident to some very good people, why God commanded the slaughter of Canaanite 4 year olds, and why God feels compelled to sustain the souls of dysfunctional human beings in a state of everlasting torment—the answer I read over and again on my road out the Christian door was “God’s ways are not our ways.”

To those of us who have real questions, this is a tragically uneffective response. And even if it has arguable roots in the scripture, it should no longer be employed because it makes Christian belief look dim. The truth is we need to think hard for the sake of real people who have real questions. We need to construct the best possible presentation of our savior as an act of devotion. Failure here is unacceptable, and if at the end of the day we are unable to intellectually display answers to some of our neighbor’s deepest questions, it should not be for lack of trying.

Unfortunately, sloth and the politicization of ideas is an intellectual sin widespread in Christian churches, universities and publishing houses. We are afraid—afraid we might rock the status quo ship we’re sailing, afraid that there might be dissension in the pews, afraid that we may have been getting it wrong for a long time now. And so we continue to produce below average literature, suggesting below average ideas about an extra-ordinary God.

That course needs to be rejected. I continue to defend my earlier proposal: The world needs good thinkers to show us why Jesus, the scripture, even doctrines concerning hell are worthy of devotion.

Because it is by no means clear that the Biblical God exists. Because it is by no means clear that the scriptures display the true God, or that the Bible is inspired in any way. Because it is by no means clear that God is good, that Jesus is alive, or that we aren’t all just sustaining our sanity with the story of resurrection. There are plenty of reasons for doubt here.

Some Christians find themselves presupposing a certain kind of Christian Theism (as it seems Galli and Chan are doing) that allows them to chalk up all apparent anomalies to “mystery”. But that position is not self-evident. For the sake of the rest of us, we need to pursue compelling answers.

There is a hopeful side to my story which illustrates the point. I was deeply fortunate that even though I embraced an agnostic position seven years ago, I began to listen to podcasts by a Bishop in Durham, England and a pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I found that these men were actually entering the mindset of the good-hearted skeptic. They were embracing my confusion and theological difficulties as their own, and they began to speak over that chaos fresh words. I am deeply thankful for those two men, and we need more thinkers like them, who are not content with present group-think and who have the courage of soul to step forward and offer more potential beauties of creedal Christianity—even when those answers may be seen as controversial or worthy of rejection.

I look forward to Mark’s concluding response.

Jeff Cook teaches philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado and is the author of Seven: the Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes.

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  • Good words, Jeff. Very good.

    Ten years ago this Christmas I had a brother killed by a drunk driver. This was my second brother to die, my youngest brother had died seven years earlier due to a brain tumor. It was after my second brother died that the standard answers to my questions became untenable.

    A friend gave me a sermon cassette tape of a message on suffering by a pastor in Grand Rapids. This pastor became my pastor, of sorts. When I needed someone to help me believe, to keep trusting God, and to keep asking big questions, this Michigan pastor helped me immensely. And so did a book on heaven by that bishop of Durham.

    Your observation about Chan and Galli and others – it resonates with me. There is great resistance to asking probing questions – especially if it seems like we’re not taking the Bible “literally.” There is a great fear that we will get “it” wrong. I like to flip that idea on its head” I hope that we can keep striving to get “it” more right.

  • Rick

    Although I agree that Christians need to make better, more quality impacts on society, I still think back to Michael Patton’s response to Jeff:

    “When is it sufficient to trust God knows what he is doing? When is it sufficient to say that his ways are greater than our ways? When is it sufficient to say that his judgments are greater than ours? If not here, when? This does not prove the doctrine of eternal punishment is indeed true, but the doctrine of our insufficiency to elevate our morality above God’s is. There simply are times when we have to punt our understanding and knowledge to God’s…I think it is important for us to realize that our faith does take faith. In other words, while our faith in God is not a blind irrational faith, God is at liberty to explain things to us or withhold explanation without explanation. Sometimes our beliefs will be hard to believe.”

  • Brianmpei

    #2 – Rick, Patton’s response completely misses the mark. The issue is that Jesus defines the nature of good, justice, and kingdom values in texts like Matthew 5 – 7. Then we are told God has done or is going to do something completely contrary or opposite to the very definition of good he has given us. You can’t have it both ways and if God sets out this way of living “do as I say, don’t do as I do” then we must question whether this is a god worthy of our worship.

  • Tim

    Much of Jeff says concerning his dissatisfaction with apologetic justifications for damnation and atrocities resonates with me personally as well, and I think much of what I experienced in my own crisis of faith, with respect to these issues at least, parallels some of Jeff’s experience.

    Having said that, I don’t agree that Christian art and literature are “lackluster” in any way. There are plenty of examples of absolutely outstanding art and literature written by Christians who draw on Christianity for inspiration. Take music for instance. One of the more popular bands out there is U2, and Bono is a Christian, and draws on his faith for much of the content of his songs. But I guess the key is he doesn’t draw ONLY on his faith, and his songs are about MORE than just a narrow Christian message. Take a look at Tolkien as well – the greatest work of fantasy literature this world has ever known (OK, I may be biased but I think it is a defensible claim). In short, I don’t agree with Jeff in seeing a drawing on one’s Christian faith (or any other faith for that matter) as leading not lead to lackluster art or literature.

  • JohnC

    If I could write as well as you, that would probably be along the lines of exactly what I would have written. It is near verbatim, in expressing how I also have experienced the Christian faith so far, and what I have so far concluded about it. Thanks for writing Jeff.


  • Tim

    …last sentence should be:

    “In short, I don’t agree with Jeff in seeing one’s drawing on their Christian faith (or any other faith for that matter) as leading to lackluster art or literature.”

  • Rick

    Brianmpei #3-

    I understand, and I think Galli, Patton, and Chan understand as well. Tough questions should be asked.

    However, do we recognize that at some point down the line, the questions only go so far since God is God, and we are not?

  • Lyn

    So is the alternative Paul Simon’s lyrical position? “God only knows, God makes his plan; the information’s unavailable to the mortal man.” Is slip slidin’ through life the best we can offer?

  • John W Frye

    It seems to me that behind this discussion (Chan, Galli, Cook) are the shadows of classical deterministic theism and its rival: relational theism. When it comes to real, incarnate evil and ECT, the classical determinist has to punt to “mystery” or quote “God’s ways are not our ways” etc. The reason the determinists punt is that the deterministic system cannot escape logically that God *in that system* is indeed a monster who eternally decreed *all things* and then asks determined creatures to live another way. What is the origin of evil? Satan? Is Satan and all his decisions and actions within the decree of God? Yes. Why? Otherwise God’s sovereignty would be challenged. We *can’t* have that!

  • Susan N.

    Jeff, may God continue to bring together for good purposes your past experiences, your heart for those who are struggling and lost, and your gift for communicating the truth with genuine compassion and clarity. There is a great need for voices such as yours in this moment in time. God bless you…

  • John W Frye

    I did not finish comment #9. On the other hand, relational theism, beginning with the perichoretic nature of the Trinity, sees the nature of reality differently than a determined reality. Real evil, real Satan and demons, real sins exist and the Bible’s judgment on sins and sinners stands. God’s sovereignty is not reduced to “being in total control” but the ability to enter into evil and sin and “make beauty from ashes.” To transform what ought not to be into what ought to be…an unstoppable purpose by an all-wise, all powerful God. No need to escape to mystery by the heard questions of life.

  • #7 – Rick, there are questions that we won’t get an answer for but those shouldn’t be about a flexible definition for good, justice, mercy or other things God calls us to be and has revealed himself to be in Christ. It is a lazy position to say “I guess we’ll never understand in our finite humanness how Jesus can call us to mercy, cry, “Father forgive them…” and justify the mass destruction of non-combatant men, women, babies and livestock.” These are clearly incompatible. John and James want to call trouble down on a village – very O.T. – and Jesus says, “No. Not my way.” Is it his way or isn’t it his way? Do we worship a god with a personality disorder?

    These are fair questions by new and not yet believers in my community that must be wrestled with and not disrespected with by an answer that “God’s ways are just higher than our ways…” Killing babies isn’t higher.

  • KD2

    I am a new poster but have been following this topic and blog for several months. I love that Jesus Creed is a place where Christians can come at hard topics from all diffferent angles with grace (usually) and for the mutual benefit of all.

    In response to Rick– I think it is ALWAYS sufficient to trust that God knows what he is doing, and that his ways are greater than ours. However, I would argue that traditional responses to this topic don’t do that! Proponents of ECT typically claim that they DO understand God’s ways and that ECT is the answer, case closed.

    I had a similar experience to Tim about a year ago. And I wouldn’t have come NEARLY so close to losing my faith at that time if mainline evangelicalism could have admitted to me that there WAS some mystery surrounding these issues and that the traditional answers WEREN’T the end of the story. Discovering that there were faithful, knowledgable Christians out there (like the Bishop of Durham) who thought differently was truly life-saving.

  • John W Frye

    In #11 “heard questions” should read “hard questions.”

  • This has been a really fascinating mini-series – thanks to all. It seems to me that Francis and Mark are asking different questions from Jeff, and therefore producing different answers. For the former, the ultimate question is, “What does the Bible say about hell?”, with the assumption of the Bible’s inspiration, reliability and authority built into the question from the start. For Jeff (it seems) the ultimate question is, “Whether or not the Bible is true, is the doctrine of hell worthy of devotion?” I’m sure Francis would say that, as valid as that second question is, it wasn’t the one he was answering in his video, and from my reading of Rob Bell, it wasn’t the question he was claiming to answer either (whether or not he should have been). Given the question, I find Francis’s (and Mark’s) answers persuasive. What I find fascinating is Jeff’s contention that, in the world we live in, it’s not necessarily the best question. On his question, I’d be interested to hear how Jeff would respond to the takes on hell represented by Lewis (creatively) and Keller (apologetically) …

  • JohnM

    Is part of the problem that we’ve been pedaling the idea of a nice God, which isn’t necessarily the same as a good God?

  • Thx for this post. We do have our hands on “the most profound sets of insights into the human condition”. Your post reminds me that Jesus came into a time and place full of questions. Teeming with different and contradictory answers and solutions. Competing theologies and status quo hermeneutics. And so He reimagined and retold the story they thought they already knew. And He lived/acted it out. And the “old paradigm” killed Him for it. And as the Father sent Him, so He sends us.

  • Richard

    @ 4 Tim

    I’m not sure an author that died in the 70s and a band that expressly avoided the label Christian and had their heyday in the 80s and 90s are the most normative examples of contemporary Christian art nor the best to make your case with.

  • “Unfortunately, sloth and the politicization of ideas is an intellectual sin widespread in Christian churches, universities and publishing houses.”


  • steve_sherwood

    This post was very helpful to me. I agree. It feels to me like Galli and Chan are speaking to the Christian sub-set, that already accepts as given most of their argument. That is fine, but it isn’t where a huge swath of people (and increasingly many who grew up in the church) live. Who will speak meaningfully to THEM of the goodness of God? I wouldn’t say I agree with every point, or the means by which every point was made, in Love Wins, but I believe Bell speaks to folks living where Cook does. Why must we condemn him for it?

  • Jeff,

    I completely appreciate your essay. We seem to have gone through much of the same process, though my disillusion was in undergrad. Amazingly, though, it too for me was God using a pastor from Grand Rapids and a Bishop from Durham that helped me find my faith again. Thank you for your irenic discussion and insightful thoughts.

  • Richard

    @ 15

    “For the former, the ultimate question is, “What does the Bible say about hell?”, with the assumption of the Bible’s inspiration, reliability and authority built into the question from the start. For Jeff (it seems) the ultimate question is, “Whether or not the Bible is true, is the doctrine of hell worthy of devotion?”

    I’m not sure that Jeff and others on here would concede that distinction or “surrender” the Bible to the “traditional” view of ECT. There are plenty of Biblical reasons for questioning ECT and working through our understanding of God. I think Jeff cares passionately about how we read Scripture and how it points us to the One who stands behind it.

    One of my personal frustrations with, “God’s ways are not our ways…” as an apologetic is that it is seldom used in Scripture to justify evil or punishment, etc. It’s used for acts of mercy and grace. We understand and accept eye for an eye all too well – God is higher and better than that. He’s the sort that prays, “forgive them for they know not what they do”

  • josh hetrick

    In a world where we have billions of people who haven’t heard the gospel, I suggest that it isn’t more thought that is needed, but simply to act on the basics Christians everywhere know to be true. And this is why I have Scot’s books and use them with my students. We need to get back to loving God, loving people and making disciples. We don’t know more people to influence the world through thought; they need to influence the world through love and truth (at least that which we can agree on). I realize I am simple-minded and that a lot of people who read this blog aren’t that way. However, when I practice James 4:8, “draw near to God and he will draw near to you” he settles these issues for me and has never let me down. I challenge you to apply your knowledge of God through the study of doctrine and theology to the loving relationsip we are all called to practice with the Lord. Sorry, to me, this is where the rubber meets the road. Thinking is fine as long as it is accompanied by action.

  • @23 Josh, I think you’re right. Here’s the problem I run in to: new and not yet believers who read the text and ask me what’s up with this Old Testament violence, sexism, slavery, eternal torture stuff? I didn’t introduce these topics. Bible College got me comfortably numb to them. Ministry/Discipleship with real people with real thoughts and emotions brought me back to the humanity of the text.

    People I’m sharing the gospel with have heard so many variations, many of them hateful and violent, some of them controlling and manipulative, that when I say, “Jesus” they already are prejudiced because of everyone they’ve been told he hates. The story has been hijacked and we HAVE to think through these things with this generation.

  • The idea that any of the particulars of the Christian faith strikes me as an odd one. From the POV of an unbeliever, why should they suppose that anything should be self-evident or understandable?

    Paul, in Romans 1, does speak of the “invisible” things about God can be understood by us. I do not know whatever else he might have in mind, if anything, apart from what he specifically names: God’s eternal power and Godhead.

    However, in Romans 10, faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. He does not say that faith comes because of anything that is self-evident. If it were self-evident, if would not require faith. Faith is not about things that we can clearly see but about those things we cannot see — we walk by faith not by sight, as Paul says elsewhere. Faith is not about something that is self-evident but about something that has been divinely revealed.

  • Opening line should be “The idea that any of the particulars of the Christian faith should be self-evident strikes me as an odd one.”

  • Jeff,

    Lesslie Newbigin has a been a big help to me, especially in Proper Confidence and Foolishness to the Greeks. Have you read those?


  • But of course, Jeff Doles, sometimes gentiles who don’t have the law “do instinctively the things of the Law.” It seems that Paul thought quite a bit of the faith is “self-evident.”

  • Jim

    Jeff, such an encouraging post, one that deeply resonates. You said, “There is a hopeful side to my story I began to listen to podcasts by a Bishop in Durham, England…” Me too.

    I regarded myself as an evangelical, but the social and intellectual structures that had sustained and made sense of modern evangelicalism seemed to be disintegrating, and it was not at all clear (nor is it for me now) whether modern evangelicalism can or should survive their collapse. But That “Bishop in Durham” seemed to be bringing a renewal of the biblical framework within which a new, transposed “evangelical” commitment might emerge, one that might provide self-understanding and motivation for the church as it confronts an uncertain future. N.T. Wright seemed to be trying to recover the contingent historical perspective of the New Testament and was setting about the creative and adventurous task of re-imagining new futures for ourselves consistent with that critically, realistically, and faithfully reconstructed narrative. FINALLY someone who seemed to be asking, what new paradigm, what new way of framing and understanding Scripture, what new way of existing in the world, might emerge for the post-Christendom, post-modern, post whatever church as it seeks to be loyal to the original calling in Abraham to be an authentic new creation. 

  • Chris Criminger

    Hi Everyone,
    Theism is not the same as the God of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac; we need more followers of Jesus and not just better thinkers; and lastly, a man with an experience has more ‘proper confidence’ (Lesslie Newbigen term) than a man with an argument.

  • alan

    “I continue to defend my earlier proposal: The world needs good thinkers to show us why Jesus, the scripture, even doctrines concerning hell are worthy of devotion.”

    Scott – Jeff is right and these people do exist in good number. Might the problem be that they are mostly scholars read in academic circles and not so much in pop culture. Even if they were, it seems likely their voices would barely be heard. Defending hell is not nearly as sexy as trashing it.

  • Dave #27, No, I haven’t read those. Anything in particular that helped you in regard to self-evidence?

    JoeyS #28,

    I think Paul’s reasoning about the Gentiles “who do not have the law, by nature to the things of the law” (Romans 2:14) is not about pagan Gentiles but about Gentiles who believe in King Jesus the Messiah. The “virtues” of the pagan nations did not particularly fulfill what the Law was about. But the fruit of the indwelling Spirit in Christians (love, joy, peace, gentleness, kindness, etc.) produced what the Law was after but was never able to bring about.

  • SamB

    Jeff Cook, Thank you for what you have written. It is like a tall cold glass of water on very hot and humid day.

  • I think Andrew (#15) is on to something. For some in this discussion it is enough that God’s revelation teaches an eternal hell. For others that’s not enough. If there is any truth to this framing of things, then both sides can learn from each other. For those dissatisfied with traditional answers they ought to think carefully about what it means to submit human thinking to the divine revelation. Doing so may feel like intellectual laziness (and sometimes it is!), but it need not be. For those satisfied to say the Bible teaches it and so we need to believe it (in which I would include myself), we need to hear Jeff’s call to show the world why “doctrines concerning hell are worthy of devotion.” Or more pointedly, why a God who sends people to hell is worthy of worship.* But on this point, I wonder if Jeff needs to read more. When he says the answers given to his questions were often “bland, uncompelling, disinterested and often offensive,” I can go with him right up until that last one. If the answers to questions about hell are anything close to Biblical they had darn well better be offensive!

    *On this question, see Tim Keller here and here. Whether you agree with Keller or not, you have to admit he is trying to do what Jeff is complaining so few do.

  • Richard

    @ 34

    In terms of offending “sensible notions” and being offensive(and even following the notion that people choose hell). I’m not sure the concept of people going to hell that “deserve it” offends the world. The idea of people deserving it because they never heard of Jesus is the part that offends non-Christians.

    For those of us who are Christians that don’t think ECT is “clearly biblical,” we tend to find it offensive because 1) we all deserve it, not just “those” people and 2) we wrestle with a God that calls us to forgive our enemies refusing to forgive his enemies (not to mention that Scripture paints a picture of a God that forgives his enemies…)

  • Jeff,

    Proper Confidence does a great job of showing how the nature of faith is held hostage to Enlightenment categories by those on the far left and far right of the theological spectrum. This barely over 100 page book is worth reading and mulling over!

  • Richard (#35), those who say God condemns those who have never heard of Jesus to hell for not believing in him are mistaken. He condemns them for their idolatry (Rom 1) and for their inherited guilt from being in Adam (Rom 5). A person who rejects Jesus does not become guilty, they become more guilty. They were guilty before they heard about him. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:17-18). One reason Jesus did not come to condemn the world is because it would have been redundant.

    (1) I’m missing the connection between eternal hell, the fact that we all deserve it, and it’s offensiveness. Are you offended by hell or by those who believe it? The latter is not the former.

    (2) Does God have to forgive all his enemies in order to qualify as forgiving? How many does he have to forgive before he can legitimately tell us to forgive others? Where does the the Bible argue like this: forgive your enemies because God forgives all his enemies? It seems like it tends more toward this argument: forgive others because you’ve been forgiven (Matt 18:21-34; Col 3:13; Eph 4:32). It seems to me that if you were once an enemy of God who has now experienced forgiveness you’ve got ample reason to forgive others–regardless of how God deals with the unrepentant. Perhaps the real question is this: what were you forgiven from? From sin that deserved eternal hell or from something less?

  • Adam

    Peter @37

    Romans 5 also says that “through one man, all will be saved”. The actual text presents the argument of Adam = death for all and Jesus = life for all. Both statements are unconditional. I don’t think we should break that passage up to say Death for All but Life for Some.

    In fact, if you look at the whole passage in context, Paul says that through Jesus MORE is being done than just the undoing of what Adam did. (Rom 5:15 and 5:18-19)

  • Taylor G

    Thank you Jeff Cook.

  • Comment #22 is clearly an overstatement. “God ways are not … is never used as an apologetic” for these kind of complexities. What? Brother have you ever read the book of Job?

    On art: Christians have along way to go having abandoned the arts by and large for many years but there are encouraging signs. U2 is a good example, contrary to the brother who thought they were over the hill, but why must we only include current artist? What about Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn in literature? More contemporary? How about Brett Lott in literature, Rosemarie Adcock (Painter) Japanese artist and Christian Makato Fujimura or the growing list of serious Christian slam poets doing substantive engagement with culture. The landscape is not as negative as you make it seem. Though there is much room to grow.

    Every year I read the Bible through at least once and every year I have to wrestle through those passages that remind me that God is not like me. Passages like Exodus 11, the final plague, where I learn once again, that God is willing to do violence to one people to rescue the people that are his. Such a God cannot be understood by a finite mind. We are asking balconeer questions (J.I. Packer’s term from his book KNOWING GOD). We need to be asking sojourner questions. How do we properly respond to a God who reveals himself to us in this way with these stories and these propositions in both the Old and New Testament. Jesus does it too. Read again the parable of the tenants in Matthew 21:33-44. Jesus is not to be trifled with.

    I think John in #16 is right “Is part of the problem that we’ve been pedaling the idea of a nice God, which isn’t necessarily the same as a good God?”

    I’m not unsympathetic to the questions and the struggles and the doubts of many of the contributors here but from the video I say of Chan and his forth coming book, I think he is on to a better and more biblical answer.

  • Adam (38), the isolated statements are indeed equally unconditional. But the rest of Romans and Paul’s theology are certainly not. So I’m not breaking up the passage, I’m interpreting it in context.

  • Josh Hetrick

    @24 Brianmpei I agree that those arguments do come up and we have to deal with them. But, is it more thought that we need to be able to deal with them or just more modeling what we know to be true of the way Jesus lived. I guess I am old school, but I think seeing someone live out truth and love together is more impactful than someone spouting (spouting is maybe too strong a word) off doctrines and theologies. Now, don’t get me wrong, doctrine and theology have their place and we should continue those pursuits, but is the person who is really hurting and struggling with the things carried out by God in the old testament really crying out for more than information? I don’t think they need more information; I think they need someone to SHOW them differently.

    And I do have another comment about how much effort we should put into studying about heaven and hell. I really don’t think we really need to focus on it much. My father loved to read end times prophecy but he never used it for anything other than scare us kids into thinking Jesus could come back at anytime and judge us. While Jesus could come back at any time, that is not my point. My point is that instead of spending time studying what happens after we leave here, let’s spend time doing things that will help ensure as many of us make it to heaven (whatever you hold that to be)as possible.

    I say these things as someone who does love to study and learn but also as someone who thinks we need more action (action not to just do good works, but to usher in the Kingdom of God!) and less talk. The body of Christ must share his love and his truth with the rest of the world, and much of the world needs more than just answers.

  • Adam


    I think we should be careful what we call Paul’s theology. As others have noted in other posts. Paul doesn’t talk about hell. He talks about Death but not Hell nor eternal torment. Judgement and Death are not the same things as Hell and Eternal Punishment. In fact, all of Romans is about the present time and not about the unknowable future. Romans, in context, is not a justification for what happens to people after they die.

  • @Jeff Cook,

    Thanks for your thoughts. But I would have to demur somewhat from the way you’ve framed this. I understand personal angst and anxiety relative to the all to plaguing existential questions that frequent the “Evangelical” mind. But I don’t think it is helpful to suggest that the Trad approach or mode of thought is simply to fall back into mystery. How is one supposed to respond to that? How is Galli supposed to respond to that? That’s not what I sense is going on with the so called “group-think” approach. Don’t you think it better to say that the Trad approach reflects a situation where TRUST is being emphasized? Presupposing that relationship with God is “gift” provided through the triune life of God in Christ for us? Isn’t this the context that questions about God should be worked out from, and not an intellectualist certitude that has the ability to assuage all of “our” dangling questions prior to “our” ability to finally give “our” lives to the God who we have provided the justification for, that we feel necessary, if we are going to finally trust and believe in Him? How is what you’re saying any different than someone like Schleiermacher and his idea about theological method being grounded in “feeling;” the result being to construct a concept of God that we “feel” comfortable with, and thus this God becoming nothing more than a projection of “our” feeling of what “we believe” God should be?

    This is the dilemma your post has created for me.

  • Adam, Paul doesn’t need to use the word “hell” in order to talk about eternal punishment.

    2 Thess 1:5-10 sure sounds like hell. Here’s just vv. 9-10: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.”

    Note that in v. 6 this punishment is described explicitly in terms of retributive justice.

    And all of Romans is about the present time and not the future? What of Rom 2:5-6, 16; 8:18, 25; 9:22, 12:19? These do not speak of the future?

    But if you think the future is unknowable to the inspired writers of Scripture (and thus to us) then we probably have some bigger disagreements then specific interpretations.


  • steve_sherwood

    I don’t want to wade too far into this discussion between you two, but PeterG, doesn’t the phrase “eternal destruction” here in II Thes. lend itself at least as much to annihilation (or Adam’s ‘death’) as it does to Eternal Conscious Torment? It doesn’t seem to me that this passage definitively makes your case.

    I would agree with you that Romans is not ALL about the present. It likely is more (NT Wright on Justification) than most of us have thought, but not exclusively so.

  • @42 Josh. I just don’t think it’s either/or Josh. I think they need to see and experience a new Way but when I encourage them to read the text or we read the text together they ask questions that need to be wrestled with as well. Cook’s original point, I think, was that the simplistic answer offered in the video by Chan and brief response by Galli (their books notwithstanding) represent a familiar but inadequate response to the issues before us. The young adults I’m in relationship with absolutely want to see the Gospel but they also challenge me about the authority of the Text based on what they read and what they’ve been told about it in the past. I’m not an academic who’s talking theory, I’m a pastor who is working this out in real life with real people asking real questions who are seeking real answers – both for their eyes and their minds.

  • Steve (46), if death is defined as an event rather than a state of existence, then yes, “eternal destruction” in 2 Thess 1:9 could lend itself to annihilation. But since Paul is not talking about physical death here (since it happens when Christ returns), I take it that he is talking about what Scripture elsewhere calls the “second death” (Rev 20:14-15), a death which is a state of existence and not an event. Therefore I take it that this is not annihilation. The major Greek NT dictionary also weighs against annihilation by defining the word translated “destruction” (olethros) here as “a state of destruction” (BDAG, p. 702).

    If the NT taught annihilationism, I struggle to see why it would so often refer to it as “eternal.” Why speak of “eternal destruction”? Why not just say we will be destroyed? Wouldn’t that get across the idea of ceasing to exist just fine?

    But I’m still working through William Fudge’s arguments on this, so I’m answering a bit prematurely.


  • Chip

    I’ve been reading Jesus Creed for a few weeks now, and I’m surprised not by the doubts expressed here, but by the depth and prevalence of them. Sure, if you grew up in an age of Josh McDowell (and similar style) apologetics, you very well might find them too much of a modernist bent and too pat in addressing some complicated questions. (I’m an older member of Gen X, and I felt that way about that style of apologetics.) But it’s not like the Christian church has ever been anywhere near devoid of people (and writers) addressing tough issues with candor and pain. To cite just one of several fairly contemporary examples in the American evangelical world, Philip Yancey’s Disappointment with God, published in the late ’80s, refused easy answers and resonated with a large reading audience.

    Moreover, it doesn’t take much searching through Christian history to find writers who addressed these issues throughout the centuries. N. T. Wright is just one in a line of Anglican theologians over the centuries who dealt with vexing issues in thoughtful, and orthodox, ways. Go back into any era of Christian history and you’ll find writers addressing these concerns well, not superficially.

    I am surprised by those on the more emergent end who admire N. T. Wright but seemingly fail to see the distinctions between him and some emergent leaders. Wright expresses a strong, vivid trust in Christian orthodoxy that in many ways is the antithesis of the prevalent doubt expressed by some emergent leaders. Look beyond Wright’s liberal politics and theological positions that differ from the majority of American evangelicals (e.g., his eschatology) and you’ll see a strong defender of orthodox Christianity.

    And read those Christians who underwent a dark night of the soul and came away not with a sense that Christianity had failed them or somehow failed to be relevant, but who found the strength and beauty of orthodox Christian faith instead. Along these lines, I recommend the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s Life of Christ, first published in 1958. There’s very little in it (I’d say 15 percent maximum) that may cause Protestants to quarrel. The insights he draws from the life of Christ are moving, stunning, and fully orthodox — but not easy.

    A final thought: Talking about God’s mysterious ways can, in certain cases, be an unthinking, too pat response, but there are times when it is the only true, valid, real, and honest response. It is not, in and of itself, an easy way out. It is too simplistic to just dismiss it.

  • Jean Morrissey

    Philip Yancey for me is a breathe of fresh air on this whole issue of attempting to offer honest (and well researched) answer and debate on the very real and honest questions that life makes us ask of God and our faith at times.

    Im currently having a read of his book, ‘Reaching for an Invisible God’ and appreciate his attempt to reach ME at an intellectual and thought provoking level.

    There is nothing cheesier than what my friends and I call ‘Christian Cheese’. Dont give me a mug telling me that God is good. My faith needs to stumble 😉

  • I’m not minimizing the questions or trying to shut down dissent. But why is this approach wrong:

    Four people are huddled in prayer after a worship service, arms encircling, one man prays for a woman in the circle.

    “Lord, Nancy has just gotten a preliminary diagnosis of MS. We trust you. This has not happened without your notice. You have not been taken by surprise. We know that even this comes through your hands. We don’t understand that. But we know that as sure as you caused the sun to rise this morning, you mean this for your glory and even, the greater joy of Nancy. We don’t understand that either. But we know that all that you have shown us in Christ and the cross proves your love for us. We ask for her healing. We ask for a confounding of the the doctors. We ask for grace for Nancy and her family. We ask for grace for our church family as we live with Nancy and this diagnosis and seek to help her in the days to come. We bow to your will even in the mystery of what we do not know, because we know that you are good. Help us in our unbelief and doubt. Draw Nancy into your presence. Fill her with the peace that surpasses human comprehension. We ask this from under the blood of Christ, your Son our Lord, and because we are your servants, living for your glory, Amen.”

  • Many thanks for all your comments!

  • Richard

    @ 37

    The language of offense was picked up from a post earlier that I was responding to. I’m not offended by ECT if its conclusively true but as I read the Scriptures and mature spiritually, I find more and more doubts regarding the veracity of it. Just like I’m less and less offended by ridiculous grace.

    Regarding God’s forgiveness. It seems to me that our Heavenly Father, having paid the price to take away the sin of all creation, is pretty liberal in doling out forgiveness. And that seems to be the thrust of Jesus’ teachings. Your question of how often God needs to forgive for Him to be considered forgiving sounds an awful lot like Peter’s inquiry to Jesus when bragging about forgiving someone seven times… Jesus just raises the bar to seventy times seven. To hold ECT, you have to hold that there’s also a cutoff for forgiveness. God was forgiving for a time but once we hit the point of no return… too bad, so sad.

    Regarding your understanding of Paul and his use of universal language, like “all” in Romans, etc. Don’t you agree that it really is a shame that Paul wasn’t a better communicator and didn’t have proper grasp of the Greek language. If he did, he would have known that “all” doesn’t mean “all.” It just means “some.” Unless of course we’re talking about negative things, then it means all. He makes it so confusing for something so simple a child is supposed to be able to understand it.

    Doesn’t that seem to be an incredulous scenario to hold to? If we believe that Scripture teaches sin to be universal and pervasive, why are we so reluctant to see grace be at least as universal and pervasive? This is what I was referring to in the sense that “all” of us deserve death/judgment/hell. We will all be salted with fire because God has bound all men over to disobedience that he might have mercy on them all (synthesizing Jesus in Mark 9 and Paul in Rom. 11).

  • Richard

    Re: in general the acceptance of God’s mysterious ways

    I think we all land here eventually. What causes it to be seen as shutting down discussion, imho is when that card is played early on. Job doesn’t receive something approaching that until after 38 chapters of philosophy and suffering. But it’s the struggle that allows us to grow in faith as God reveals more and more of himself. Being a good teacher means meeting students where they’re at and helping construct scaffolding that helps them reach the next level – not spoon feeding them our distilled wisdom in the hopes they’ll find it as refreshing as we do.

  • Richard (53), the reason I asked how often God needs to forgive for Him to be considered forgiving was to show that counting forgiven heads is a dead end. So I think we’re on the same page here. Given the weight of sin, if God forgives one sinner he is enormously forgiving. That is part of the point of the Matt 18:21-35 passage you refer to. So the question I find myself asking is not “How can God be forgiving if he sends people to hell?” but rather “My goodness, how can God forgive anyone given how serious our sin is?”

    In any case, Scripture consistently teaches that God forgives repentant sinners. Those who need no Doctor do not get healed, if I read Jesus rightly (Luke 5:31-32).

    But you misread the doctrine of eternal punishment. It is not that God was forgiving for a time and then ceased to be. That would imply that heaven is empty. Rather it is that God has been enormously patient but that patience ends at death for those who remain unrepentant (Rom 2:4-5). So yes, there is a cutoff date (Heb 9:27).

    The scope of the word “all” is determined by its context. So there’s no attempt on Paul’s part to be confusing. Also I don’t think Romans is easy enough for a child to understand. It’s pretty dense reasoning for a child to follow. Children struggle with abstract reasoning. That’s no slight on Paul. He was writing for kids.

    Thanks for the engagement. Blessings as you continue to wrestle with Scripture.

  • Adam

    Peter #55,

    Romans 2, which you are looking at, isn’t addressed to the “unsaved”. It’s specifically addressed to people who already follow Jesus. Romans 2:1-4 is an explanation that even if we claim to follow Jesus but still condemn other people, we are guilty of our own condemnation and subject to God’s wrath.

    This, I think, is why people get offended by the hell doctrine. The traditional hell doctrine says that God’s wrath doesn’t apply to christians only non-christians or “those people”. But as I read Paul, God’s wrath does apply to christians as in Romans 2:6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”

    To take those passages seriously means some significant rework of the idea of judgement and hell because the traditional view, or at least the view most of us are familiar with, doesn’t work with these parts of scripture.

  • Richard

    @ 55

    “In any case, Scripture consistently teaches that God forgives repentant sinners. Those who need no Doctor do not get healed, if I read Jesus rightly (Luke 5:31-32)”

    I disagree that God’s forgiveness is contingent on our repentance. Everything from God’s end has been settled for forgiveness. I do believe it is necessary for us to repent that we might experience the forgiveness offered to us. It might seem like a small nuance to some but I think that’s a critical distinction. After all, it’s not, behold the lamb who takes away the sins of the repentant sinners, it’s behold the lamb who takes away the sins of the world, correct?

    Romans 2:4-5 deals with a day of wrath (often a temporal judgment in Biblical usage) that is coming and in the context actually deals with religious folks that condemn others while still being sinners and thus show contempt for God’s kindness by thinking they’ll escape his judgment. I have no qualms about there being a day of wrath or coming judgment, or even something like what we understand hell to be like. I have questions about the purpose of it, and thus the duration of it. What is God’s intent because Scripture has many examples demonstrating that the intent of chastisement and punishment is repentance – punishment is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. To accept ECT, don’t we assume that God’s MO changes upon our deaths? After all, what barrier is death to the resurrected Jesus?

    I appreciate you bringing up context in interpreting the word, “all.”? What hermeneutic allows us to interpret the same word differently in a single sentence? Or if there isn’t a hermeneutic that allows us to do that, is it possible that both sides read a presupposition into their interpretation of the word, “all”? If that’s the case, how do we move past that impasse?

    To clarify, my point about being simple enough for a child. I wasn’t necessarily positing Romans as being simple enough for a child and agree with you about Paul’s audience. I was intending a reference to the simplicity of the Gospel and how the rest of the NT seems to make it much more complicated.

    Thank you as well for the discussion. It’s what makes Jesus Creed a place worth investing time in.

  • Richard

    @ 56 Thank you for better articulating what I was trying to say in comment 57

  • Adam


    I thought you were better articulating. 🙂

  • Adam (56), can you show me where Romans 2 “specifically” addresses followers of Jesus? Romans 1:18-32 is Paul’s invective against the Gentiles and I take it that in 2:1-5 Paul is springing a carefully laid trap set for the good moralists in the crowd (whether Jewish or Pagan). It’s the folks who have been listening and nodding their heads in approval all through the first chapter but whose hands are just as dirty and whose hearts just as unrepentant. It would be odd indeed if Paul was talking about believers in Jesus when he says “you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath” when in 1 Thess 1:9 he speaks of Christ who “saves us from the wrath to come.” It would also be odd for him to go on in 3:25 to speak of Christ as a propitiation if this wrath was intended for repentance believers in Jesus. Maybe you only meant that Rom 2:1-5 was written to followers of Jesus? In that case I agree. The whole letter is to believers (a better term, since we’re speaking of Paul here). But that hardly means that every little bit and piece is written about believers.

    Your quotation of Rom 2:6 as evidence that Paul thinks believers will endure God’s wrath needs to take the next two verses into consideration. Paul goes on to say, “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” Regardless of how you work v. 7 in with the rest of Romans, this is clearly an either-or statement. There is one group who receives eternal life and another that receives wrath and fury. I don’t know how you can possibly mingle these into one group without doing injustice to Paul’s argument. Paul makes an explicit contrast between these two groups with the phrase “but for those…” If this makes Paul guilty of some kind of insensitive, or self-righteous “us-them” mentality then count me in with Paul. He did not seem embarrassed by God’s exercise of his justice. That doesn’t mean he gloated in it either. But he wasn’t ashamed of it. Indeed, the Gospel message itself contains the news that God has judged sin in Christ. There’s nothing embarrassing about God meting out justice any more than there is about a judge sentencing a convicted killer. Paul knows we’re in the dock. He knows he was too and so he glories in the grace of God. But that glorying doesn’t make him reticent to speak of God’s coming, just judgment either.

    So needless to say, I don’t see that this passage requires reworking of the traditional view. Quite the contrary. It helps establish it.

    Richard (57), I couldn’t agree more with this statement: “Everything from God’s end has been settled for forgiveness.” But if, as you admit, repentance is needed to receive God’s forgiveness then do those who refuse to repent fail to receive it? It seems the whole of the NT would answer unequivocally yes, they fail to receive it. “Whoever does not believe is condemned already” (John 3:18). In fact, given the massive emphasis John places on necessity of faith for salvation (note especially John 20:31), your paraphrase–“behold the lamb who takes away the sins of the repentant sinners”–is pretty accurate of John’s theology.

    Regarding the purpose of hell it depends who’s perspective you’re looking at. From those in hell the purpose is not to bring them to repentance. Can you find me a case of someone repenting in Scripture after the final judgment? More pointedly, someone who repents after experiencing hell? In fact, the purpose of eternal punishment is to balance the scales, to uphold the moral fabric of the universe, to uphold God’s holiness, to prove to all the world that God is just and that he does not wink at sin. So I agree, hell is not “an end in itself.” It serves some very important moral purposes. I don’t have time to give explanations, but some key texts where God’s justice, judgment, or wrath is retributive and not restorative are 2 Thess 1:5-10; Rom 12:19; 1 Pet 2:23; Rev 6:10. I would argue that the whole Christian doctrine of non-retaliation is built on the retributive nature of God’s vengeance. If he does not repay evildoers, then the logic of Rom 12:19 and 1 Pet 2:19-24 collapses. But most importantly of all, the justice that Christ endured on the cross was most certainly not meant to lead him to repentance. So that is the clearest and more important example of God’s punishment that is not aimed at leading the one punished to repentance. Christ did not need to repent, did he? I would think long and hard about this before you abandon any notion of God’s retributive justice. As D.A. Carson has written, “But such an attitude [that punishment is meant to correct] overlooks how central retributive punishment is in the Bible. At stake is the issue of justice. If we do not get this matter straight, it will radically affect how we view the cross, and thus the gospel” (Gagging of God, p. 533).

    At this point, the infinite nature of hell directly effects the value of the cross. If you say that sinners don’t deserve an eternity in hell, then, to be consistent, you must say that on the cross Christ suffered less-than-infinitely. Either Christ saves us from a well-deserved everlasting punishment or he saves us from a lesser punishment or from no punishment at all. Either way the glory of the cross is diminished. As J. Gresham Machen once preached, “[Christ] did therefore make full and not merely partial satisfaction for the claims of the law against us…. God Himself in the Person of God the Son, who loved us and gave Himself for us, God Himself in the person of God the Father who so loved the world as to give His only-begotten Son, God the Holy Spirit who applies to us the benefits of Christ’s death. God’s the cost and ours the marvellous gain! Who shall measure the depths of the love of God which was extended to us sinners when the Lord Jesus took our place and died in our stead upon the accursed tree?”

    At the cross, the weight of hell turns out to be none other than the weight of God’s love. If you lighten the former, you will necessarily lighten the latter. It is in the bleakest night of hell that the light of God’s love shines its very brightest. For when we consider the justness of hell we are most overwhelmed by the marvelous grandeur of God’s grace in saving us.

    My biggest problem is not figuring out how God could send sinners to hell. It’s why he would ever save this deserving sinner from it.

    Sorry this came out so long. The issue is important, especially as it effects our view of the cross.

    Thanks again for the engagement, both of you.

  • Gentlemen, let me just add that these are weighty, weighty topics we’re discussing here and it’s hard to do them justice in such an impersonal format like this one. I do hope my tone did not betray a lack of seriousness about this. Sometimes you need to speak coolly about something in order to be clear. That was my aim. But please know that hell is a horrific reality and I do not for a moment wish to treat it lightly or flippantly.

    If you are sincere in wanting to understand the traditional argument for hell (and if not, I don’t blame you), I cannot recommend a greater argument than Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners.” The language is tough, but the arguments are careful, Biblical, and sound. At very least, read the last paragraph.

  • Adam


    To answer your first question. Romans 2:1 (NIV) starts with “You” who is the “you”? The “you” is defined in Romans 1:7 (NIV) “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people.” That whole introduction sets the audience as believers in Jesus.

    Let’s look at The Message version for another take:

    Romans 2:1-2 “Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself.”

    Romans 2:3 (NIV) So when YOU, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do YOU think you will escape God’s judgment?

    Romans 1:18-32 is a description of general humanity, not Gentiles. You might be able to say it’s against “the wicked” but the text only says “humanity” or “they”. And it specifically states that all the wickedness is a result of God’s wrath and not the cause of it.

    Romans 1:24 “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires…”
    Romans 1:26 “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts.”

    Now back to Romans 2:1 “…because you who pass judgment do the same things.”

    For Romans 2:7, a different approach to it. Verse 7, 8, 9, and 10 are all action oriented. 7 and 8 are about “seeking” 9 and 10 are about “doing”. Then lets jump to Romans 2:13-15. Judgement is based on what a person does and not what they hear (I would say this means “believe” as well).

    To bring the idea home Romans 2:23-24 “You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.””

    What’s the point of all this? I’m trying to point out that many of the verses people use to justify God’s wrath against unbelievers are actually aimed at the believers.

    I think God’s judgment is more nuanced than a simple either/or. I think believers are held responsible for what they do (as Romans 2 suggests). I’m going to repeat what I said in 56 “This, I think, is why people get offended by the hell doctrine. The traditional hell doctrine says that God’s wrath doesn’t apply to christians only non-christians or “those people”.”

  • In a different-yet-related topic, Harold Camping was wrong.

    Of course, “We’re not Harold Camping.”

    Then again… maybe we’re not as theological as we think.

    So back to this topic, we have to be careful to not let our feelings of how God “must be” cause us to diminish who He is. Statements that begin, “I would much rather follow a God who…” betray the root issue – we want God to make sense.

    Isn’t this the very thing that caused the Pharisees to miss God in their midst?

    May the Lord be the Lord, no matter what we think of Him.

  • Matt

    “To those of us who have real questions, this is a tragically uneffective response. And even if it has arguable roots in the scripture, it should no longer be employed because it makes Christian belief look dim.”

    You go on to say we need to think real hard about these questions for the sake of those around us with real questions. The reality of it is that we have and we do try. The reality of it is also that we don’t understand why God would do what He did in some situations.

    I am surprised that your response is that even if we find solid, arguable roots in scripture, that we should just ignore. Why do we employ the scripture at all then? Why not just make our own? I understand that there are things we will NEVER understand – and we either choose to live with that (while hopefully still seeking a better understanding), or make up our own God that fits into a pattern that we want. Is that what we want?

    Personally, I agree more with Michael Patton’s response. I desperately want there to not be a place of eternal torment and I have looked myself for loopholes; unfortunately I have yet to find any.

  • I want to commend to all who have read this thread the Biographical lecture from the Bethlehem pastor’s conference from 1999 on John Bunyan (TO LIVE UPON GOD WHO IS INVISIBLE: Suffering and Service in the Life of John Bunyan).

    I would encourage you to listen rather than read the transcript. Dr. Piper adds much of a personal nature with his own struggle with the issues developed here and the transcript doesn’t do justice to all of what was added.

  • Richard


    I think both Adam and I are enjoying the engagement and the tone of discourse.

    I agree 100% that all of God’s justice and everything else that comes with it was fully satisfied on the cross. Justice was served ultimately in an act of mercy (Rom 3). If sin has been dealt with at the cross, what is left for us to do but live out of that reality? Did God’s justice at the cross not extend far enough?

    I agree with Carson that our understanding of justice is crucial to this matter but I disagree with him in his order. He wants our notion of justice to inform how we view the cross and I think the cross needs to inform our understanding of justice. God tells us that his agent of justice, his anointed one, will faithfully bring forth justice but won’t break bruised reeds or snuff out smoldering wicks (Is 42). Solomon was considered just for restoring a baby to its mother, even though he didn’t punish the one who took the baby in the first place. God’s justice and judgment are about purifying and restoring. Even Calvin says as much in his commentary on John:

    “Some view the word, judgment (πρίσις) as denoting reformation, and others, as denoting condemnation. I rather agree with the former who explain it to mean, that the world must be restored to a proper order; for the Hebrew word משפט, mishpat, which is translated judgment, means a well-ordered state. Now we know, that out of Christ there is nothing but confusion in the world; and though Christ had already begun to erect the kingdom of God, yet his death was the commencement of a well-regulated condition, and the full restoration of the world.”

    This is why the furnace language in all of the parables uses the word, “kiln” and God talks about a refining fire to purify his people. It is not upholding the moral fabric of the universe when a portion of God’s created beings remain in rebellion against him for all eternity, even if they’re in “jail” while they’re doing it. You cannot worship begrudgingly and yet God’s stated intent is that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. If the demonstration of God’s overwhelming justice, mercy and grace at the cross is the means for invoking that confession now, why would that change later? If God died on the cross for unrepentant sinners then, why would his MO change later?

    I’m glad you appreciated my paraphrase of John’s lamb but the paraphrase is not accurate to the Scriptural witness though – Scripture says that the lamb of God takes away the sins of the world (John John 1:29), not just the sins of repentant sinners. As Paul writes to Timothy, “we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially those who believe” (1 Timthy 4:10). I think this is why believers are referred to as first-fruits, not the full crop.

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and I look forward to continued discussion on future threads.

  • Thanks, Gents.

    Adam (62), I’m not buying your interpretation of Romans. You’ve got to read the text more closely. 1:18 starts the first major moveement of the argument and is about people who know about God but refuse to acknowledge him as God. This is not believers. Compare this language with Paul’s description of the Thessalonians’ conversion in 1 Thess 1:9. No one is saying that believers are perfect or that they can’t learn humility from these passages. But I don’t know a major commentator that takes Rom 1:18-3:20 as Paul’s description of believers. If it did, the “but now…” in 3:21 would have no real force. Also, rethink this phrase: “all the wickedness is a result of God’s wrath and not the cause of it.” That’s too strong. In 1:18 the unrighteousness is not the result of wrath. It’s the cause of it. The first “therefore God gave them over” doesn’t come until 1:24.

    It sounds like you’re frustrated with self-righteous believers using these verses to condemn others while remaining unrepentant themselves. If that’s the case, then 2:1-5 definitely applies. But note that all of us are hypocrites at some point. The question is, how do we respond when confronted with it? Do we remain obstinate and defensive? Or do we repent with tears before our holy God? If the latter, then the wrath in Rom 2:5 does not apply to us. It is for those who have hard and impenitent hearts. A true believer does not have this. They have soft hearts that respond to the Spirit’s conviction.

    Again, how can wrath apply to believers when Jesus is the “one who saves us from the wrath to come”? (1 Thess 1:9)?

    Richard (66), you’re subtly redirecting the recipient of the justice of the cross. Isaiah 42 is about the justice the Messiah will bring for others not the justice he endured. So if you want to use the cross to help in your understanding of justice, I would ask, “What kind of justice did Jesus experience?” Was it restorative? If so, what of Rom 3:25-26? The justice that is displayed there is retributive. It is the justice that needs to be seen given God’s “passing over of former sins.” I agree with most commentators that this passing over does not refer to God’s non-restoration but of his withholding of ultimate punishment under the Old Covenant (see Moo and Wright, for example).

    Regarding Calvin, I think you’re misusing him. He’s talking about the restoration of the created order not of every individual who ever lived. Still less about the justice that was meted on the cross. The key is this phrase at the end “full restoration of the world.” Christ was not restored on the cross was he? On the issue of hell, I think this quote from Calvin is more to the point, “The second distinction is, that when the reprobate are brought under the lash of God, they begin in a manner to pay the punishment due to his justice; and though their refusal to listen to these proofs of the divine anger will not escape with impunity, still they are not punished with the view of bringing them to a better mind, but only to teach them by dire experience that God is a judge and avenger” (Institutes, 429; §3.4.33). That’s clearly retributive justice. And reformative justice is clearly ruled out.

    Fire can definitely be for the purpose of purification in Scripture. And in the case of the created order, I take it that this is exactly the point in 2 Pet 3:10. But not everyone is part of this new created order. And fire is not always for purification in Scripture. It simply can’t be in Rev 20:10, 14-15. Nor can an eternal punishment be reformative (Matt 25:46).

    So I’m happy to affirm that God’s justice can be for the purposes of setting the world right. But it is not always. And it is not so for everyone. For some, his justice is purely retributive wherein the goal is to balance the scales not to fix their wayward condition. This is a good thing. Again, retributive justice has enormous practical implications in the NT. It is the ground of Christian non-retaliation (Rom 12:19; 1 Pet 2:23). I am not willing to give that up. As Miroslav Volf powerfully argues, “It takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge” (Exclusion & Embrace, 304). When a person experiences real evil they do not want restorative justice, they want retributive justice. And this is not wrong. And what will keep them from meting this justice out themselves is knowing that doing so is God’s prerogative alone. What makes bombing abortion clinics wrong is the same thing that makes hell right: God alone is the judge.

  • Richard, you had some other good points I wanted to address but I ran out of time. Maybe later today or tonight.

  • Ann

    This is my first visit to this website. Wow – quite the discussion. Interesting for me especially as I’m part of a group that is reading through Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God”. Re: the many comments about hell on this blog. Quite a while ago I found an interesting website: Don’t let the title turn you off – it’s deep, it’s interesting, and (I happen to believe) scripturally correct. The author believes that it is indeed important to know what the Bible really tells us regarding this.

  • Richard

    Peter G

    Looking forward to engaging further. Some quick points:

    Re: Is 42, don’t fall into the trap of separating the Son from the Father. It seems that your positing a two types of justice – what Jesus experienced on the cross and what the rest of us get.

    I think a similar line of thought is driving your contention about my Calvin citation. Calvin is defining a term so I’m not sure how I’m misusing him here.

    Thanks for bringing Volf in but follow him all the way home. Yes, we trust in God to set things right, that he will put everything back as it should be and as it is intended to be. Doesn’t this necessitate all things being reconciled to God (which Jesus did on the cross)? Otherwise they are still in wrong-relationship with God (the very definition of righteousness being “right relationships with God and others,” no?). The point of Volf’s writings is to help us hold in tension the reality that the solidarity of Christ on the cross with the persecuted and those crying out for salvation is also the atonement for the perpetrators of injustice. The Living God is bringing about liberation for the oppressed and the oppressor. That’s good news that is higher than our ways. For instance, Kenneth Bailey observes that Luke records Jesus giving healing for the blind beggar (a marginalized figure, oppressed by poverty) immediately prior to his fellowship with Zachaeus (a wee but powerful man who oppressed his neighbors and collaborated with Rome in collecting unjust taxes). It’s this understanding of the cross that leads us to not merely avoid retaliation as we look forward to “them getting their’s” but to pray for those who persecute us and bless them, not curse them (Romans 12:14). That’s why Volf opens the book with the question from Moltmann, “But can you embrace a cetnik?” and he answers, “No, I cannot- but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.” (from the preface). The end is for us to love our enemies, just like God does. To borrow from George MacDonald, if your family heirloom watch is stolen and the perp that did it is caught after fencing it, what consolation is it to you (the one who was wronged) that he is in jail? You still don’t have your grandfather’s watch…

  • Okay Richard, I’ve got a few minutes. Let me do my best…

    On your previous comments about restoration, order, and continued rebellion (#66), I think we may have a legitimate disagreement on whether punishing evildoers forever is part of “upholding the moral fabric of the universe.” I wish we could chat in person about this because it’s a big topic and I have wrestled with this again and again in my own thinking. The caricature of hell as a prison in the basement of the mansion has given me pause many times. But I think it would be more accurate to say that unpunished evil would snag the moral fabric of the universe. But I’m not so sure that punished evil creates any snags. I wonder if might actually strengthen it.

    I live within a few hours of two state prisons and within 15 minutes of a big city jail. I have never had trouble sleeping because of this. Now that may be due to my hard, insensitive heart. But it may just as well be due to the confidence I have in our legal justice system, flawed as it is in this world. But when God’s justice is finally, decisively, unarguably done–and what’s more, seen by the world to be done–then the existence of evil will not be a stain on God’s restored creation order. On the contrary it will be part of what makes that order so marvelous. It will be a place where there is no doubt, no hint of doubt, that right is right and wrong is wrong. I have no problem admitting that the punishment of the wicked contributes to the restoration of God’s good creation. I just have a problem saying that in order to truly restore order, God has to reconcile everyone. I don’t see that he does. If there is no hint that those unreconciled could ever become a menace again, I don’t see that this creates any kind of stain on God’s restoration work. In short, to punish evil is to triumph over it (I don’t see Christus Victor themes in tension with Penal Substitution). But I would like to hear your push back on this because I think your objection is an important point in the discussion.

    I’m a little fuzzy on how you’re connecting Phil 2 with the cross. When you ask, “If God died on the cross for unrepentant sinners then, why would his MO change later?” What’s the “then” and “later” you’re talking about? If you’re getting at post-mortem repentance, you’re going to need a lot of evidence. I don’t find any in the NT. Heb 9:27 is simply decisive here. There’s no middle step in that verse. It’s death, then judgment. But I’m assuming you’re pushing post-mortem repentance and you may not be. So correct me if I need it.

    I 1 Tim 4:10, I think the “all people” should be taken as it was in 2:4, as a reference to all types of people not to every individual who ever lived. This is consistent with Paul’s use of “all” elsewhere in the Pastoral Epistles. In 1 Tim 2:1 Paul is hardly urging us to pray for every individual who ever lived. Rather he wants us to pray for all kinds of people in all walks of life and all positions of authority. It’s not every individual. That’s why the mention of “kings and all those in authority” is not a major shift for Paul. Had he been thinking of every individual, he should have shifted to speak of someone in particular. But he doesn’t. He speaks of one type of person in particular. That’s because he’s been speaking in categorical terms the whole time, not individualistic terms. Likewise in Titus 2:11. Paul has just finished a litany of instructions for people in a variety of social positions (young women, old women, slaves, young men; 2:1-10). What grounds these various instructions? Just the fact that God’s grace has appeared to all sorts of people (note the “for” in Tit 2:11). No class of people can shirk the behavioral implications of God’s grace precisely because no class of people is left out. That Paul does not have every individual who ever lived in mind is clear again by the next verse where he shifts quite naturally to speaking of “us,” that is believers. Grace has appeared to all sorts of people–and it is this grace that teaches us (not everyone who ever lived) how to live in light of that grace.

    On your other points (from #70). I’m not sure how I’m separating Father from Son. But I stand by my point that the justice Jesus endured on the cross was not restorative for him. It was retributive (as Paul argues in Rom 3:25-26) and it was deserved insofar as “he who knew no sin became sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21). Jesus did not need to be restored. He knew no sin. Would you disagree?

    On Calvin, you are misusing him if you’re suggesting that he thought God’s justice and judgment are about purifying and restoring for every speck of creation. His doctrine of election and the quote I cited from the Institutes would show that he does not think so. Some parts of creation (namely, the reprobate) never experience the benefits of God’s restorative justice. Some only experience the terrors of his retributive justice. The former is grace. The latter just. But again, I may be putting words in your mouth, so correct me if I am.

    On Volf, I intentionally do not follow him all the way home. I’m not a pacifist at the state level, only at the personal level. But that’s a topic for another day. But again, putting things right does not mean forgiving everyone. It means dealing with everyone as they deserve. So no, righteousness (tsedeqah or dikaiosune) in the Bible does not always mean “right relationships with God and others.” I cited examples earlier where it does not mean this. But to give two more, see Ex 34:7 and the whole book of Habakkuk. For a good corrective to your reduction of the Bible’s view of “righteousness” I would recommend James Hamilton’s recent book, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment or, in shorter order and more direct to your question, Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach’s Pierced for Our Transgressions, pp. 249-63.

    MacDonald’s illustration fails because he has used a rather small and–more importantly–impersonal crime. Change the stolen watch to a raped and murdered wife and you’re much closer to the Biblical view of the offensiveness of sin. Killing God’s Son is hardly tantamount to stealing a watch. And that’s what our sin did. Emil Brunner is right and Biblical when he says, “The more we see that sin is sin against God, the more serious it becomes; and the more we see it as sin against God, the more we recognize that our sin is irrevocable, that is, it is guilt. Both ‘sin’ and ‘guilt’ express the truly personal relation between God and man” (The Mediator, [1947] p. 444).

    Also, if our persecutors repent and trust Christ, they are “getting theirs” insofar as they are united with Christ in his death [that deserves explaining but this comment is already too long]. So there’s no need to pit a desire for retributive justice against a desire to see our persecutors come to saving faith. If our perpetrators come to faith we don’t throw a party and say, “Isn’t it wonderful that God didn’t need to punish their sins!” Loving our neighbor and wanting God’s justice to be vindicated need not compete in our hearts. Again, see 2 Pet 2:23. Judging justly is not about restoring relationships here. And as for God liberating the oppressors too, I couldn’t agree more. I am living, breathing proof!

    At the end of the day the question is just this: has God saved us from a crime deserving of eternal damnation or from a crime deserving something less? Or, as Edwards once asked it, with a much finer point, “How is it possible that you should be willing to accept of Christ as Saviour from the desert of a punishment that you are not sensible you have deserved…. Christ came into the world on this errand, to offer himself as an atonement, to answer for our desert of punishment. But how can you be willing to have Christ for a Saviour from a desert of hell, if you be not sensible that you have a desert of hell?”

    As I said before, defendants rarely make good jurors in their own cases. We need divine revelation to tell us how guilty we really are. God’s word tells me I deserve hell. When I look at my own heart and when I look at the cross I have no defense. I deserve hell. No question about it. God would do me no injustice if I never saw the light of heaven for all eternity. That is staggering.

  • Wow. That was ridiculously long. If either of you want to continue the discussion, you might get me at my website (linked with my name) and we can do this through email rather than via Scot’s blog.

  • Carlos

    Well written post. Dying to know the names of the two ministers who so greatly influenced your “revival”.

  • Richard

    @ 73

    I’m pretty sure that was a subtle nod to NT Wright (fmr Bishop of Durham) and Rob Bell (pastor in Grand Rapids)

  • Gun

    I will recommend that you read Walter Russells inspired books
    1)The Messages of the Divine Iliad I and II and
    2)The Secret of Light
    3)The Light-Wave Universe

    The book by Glenn Clark
    4)The Man Who Tapped the Secrets of the Universe
    is about the life of Walter Russell

    His wife Lao Russell has written
    4) God Will Work with you but not for you