Admitting Ignorance

Admitting Ignorance February 28, 2012

So what does orthodox theology say about “hell”? To answer this question we might want to ask another question, one that Tony Thiselton raises in his sketch of classic German liberal thinker: If love is a permanent feature of God, and wrath is not a permanent feature of God, then how can hell be eternal? Thiselton doesn’t really chase this idea down in his book Life after Death, but he does sketch the three major views of the early church.

Relying on the well-known study of David Powys on hell and the afterlife (‘hell’: a Hard Look at a Hard Question), Thiselton observes that there were actually three views in the time when orthodoxy became fixed, and no one view dominated. The three are:

1. A vague form of annihilationism, perhaps connected to what is today called “conditional immortality,” namely, that only God is life, that immortality is a gift of God, that no one has immortality by nature, and that therefore the final state of the wicked is not immortality but destruction. Powys maps this view in Irenaeus, and he was connected to a widespread apostolic tradition.

2. Gregory of Nyssa taught a kind of universalism, namely one in which God’s love and life eventually overcomes all sin and wickedness and rebellion. All will be restored to their original state — that’s the view of Nyssa.

3. Augustine taught eternal, conscious torment. God raises unto punishment. Augustine was followed by Aquinas and Calvin and many.

Powys’ point is simpler: we should not equate Augustine’s view with the orthodox view of the church.

A question arises for Thiselton, and I can’t see that he resolves this one either: How can we conceive of God sustaining the life of all and be, at the same time, totally separate from the wicked?

Thiselton then sketches the biblical evidence, observing that the material about hell in the Gospels sometimes appears in parables (not always, not entirely, but mostly), that hell is not pervasive in the NT, that duration is not often taught, and that the point of the passages is the rhetorical function of moral exhortation and not revelation of what will happen. (Emphasis, yes; but this is a false dichotomy.)

Thiselton admits ignorance: some of what we want to know lies “beyond our horizons in the present” and they are designed to “summon us to responsibility” and we can “commit our uncertainties to God in his sovereign love” (158).

"Well said Mike. Thank you."

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  • Considering several conversations I had only tonight here at seminary about JUST this topic: Amen.

  • It’s such a relief to read this. This has been a topic on my heart for about 8 years now, and I was thrilled to see ‘Love Wins’ bring this conversation to the lay public.

    I firmly believe that in matters such as hell, it is best to claim agnosticism for the sake of apologetics, rather than to side with some traditional, worst-case scenario.

  • Fred NZ

    Many see ECT as the orthodox position, so Thiselton’s pushback is welcomed.

    I am not hot about hell.

  • Mark Edward

    I’ve held the ‘conditional immortality’ view for quite a few years. I believe it is more exegetically faithful to what Scripture teaches directly, and my opinion is that it is more in line with the character of God that Scripture reveals to us.

    Even still, if I was drawing up a creed of fundamental beliefs for Christians, C.I. would not make it. So many things are held as ‘fundamental’ that are completely secondary, things we should be perfectly content with disagreeing upon without worrying about schism. This is one of them.

  • Jerry

    Fred (#3),

    ECT? Electroconvulsive Therapy?
    Maybe you mean Eternal Conscious Torment.
    I work in a military environment where we constantly have to define acronyms.

    I generally fall into category #1 though I don’t want to insist on this position. I agree we may need to be agnostic on this matter a bit. Still, I think the second death means just that–death, not life. Even a life in ECT is still life.

  • Susan N.

    “How can we conceive of God sustaining the life of all and be, at the same time, totally separate from the wicked?”

    Well, I would ask a slightly different question: How can we conceive of God, knowing what we do of Him in Christ, failing to respond to the wicked with infinite, redeeming love and grace?

    My e-mail meditations from Richard Rohr have lately been centered around the theme, “My image of God creates me.” If, as Augustine posited, God created some for the sole purpose to punish or destroy, and I believe that of God, then love by definition and in practice becomes a twisted proposition. I’m with Roger Olson: I can’t go there. I’m through with any part of that doctrine.

    I think I would cast my vote for option #2 (that of Gregory of Nyssa.) Though, I question the meaning of, “All will be returned to their original state.” What does that mean? The original me wasn’t all it was cracked up to be…

    This is refreshing: “Thiselton admits ignorance: some of what we want to know lies “beyond our horizons in the present” and they are designed to “summon us to responsibility” and we can “commit our uncertainties to God in his sovereign love” (158).”

    So I was talking to my husband a few days ago about the doctrine of hell, and the fact that in Hinduism there is also a “lord of death” akin to Satan/the devil. He is named Yama, and Yama is subordinate to Brahman, the Absolute Godhead, and also to Vishnu/Krishna, the savior-god of Hinduism. One time, my then-9yo son was told by a person of the Reformed/Calvinist persuasion that the devil is God’s agent. Therefore, God doesn’t personally *do* or *cause* evil; He has the devil do His dirty work. As if that explanation could reduce the systematic theological dissonance?

    Anyway, I digress. My husband and I were marveling at the similarities between Hinduism and Christianity in its religious explanations for good-evil, savior-adversary, death-life, and the Absolute Godhead who rules over all. Interesting.

  • Tyler

    Wait-why is wrath not a permanent feature of god?

  • Scot –

    Have you read Andrew Perriman’s recent ebook publication, Heaven and Hell in Narrative Perspective? I would love for you to review it here.

  • DRT

    I don’t so much care where someone falls out on the spectrum as much as I would like to see those in a teaching position teach the controversy on this and be honest about the fact that they do not know which is correct. That’s what I liked about Rob’s book, it taught the controversy.

    That is also what I don’t like about the ECT crowd. Generally they cower in fear to their horrible god and teach that you have to believe in ECT.

  • JohnM

    Who said the wicked are ever totally separate from God? They might wish they were. That’s one view of eternal conscious torment after all.

    The qualifications to View No. 1 – I’d need more explanation about the “vague” and “perhaps” before I could even say “maybe” 🙂

  • John W Frye

    Like many, I am startled that ECT was not the prevailing view of the early church Fathers and Mothers. I was trained that ECT was as absolute as the Trinity. Reformed is not always reforming, is it?

  • Ed Fudge spoke recently at Lanier Theological Library on his views of Hell. I believe he is right on. Here is a Vimeo Link of his lecture for those who might be interested.

  • Scott Gay

    Listening to detractors can be interesting, For instance I followed a discussion on Huffington Post about God commanding Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. The consensus emerged that asking such a thing to prove your love is monstrous. Even making such a situation necessary is reprehensible. The one who creates that situation is pathetic.
    Likewise there are examples of God asking for the death of others. Dr. Olson has called them “Texts of Terror”. They come up in discussions about the wrath of God being righteous. Even making a situation possible where one being is asked to kill another is reprehensible, right?
    Our inward curvature proves to be not only rebellious, but its trajectory shows it wants to eliminate altogether.

  • I wonder if the early church ever went down this same “uncertainty” route. Scot, what’s the Powy’s book you reference? It would be interesting to see if Augustine, Irenaeus, and Gregory thought the issue was so shrouded.

    On the question Thiselton doesn’t resolve, is he asking that as a question about the future or the present? Seems like it would have to be both. Does God sustain the wicked right now?

  • Never mind. Found it.

  • Mike

    Thanks for the post Scott. So many of us are afraid to even engage in the conversation lest we be labeled a heretic. In the evangelical world it seems that we are not allowed to have “uncertainties”, and I was proud of Rob Bell’s attempt to get the conversation started once again.

  • Tim Marsh

    When reading any theology, especially a theology of hell, I think that it is necessary to examine the historical and social contexts of the theologians in question. Augustine wrote after Constantinianism. Having the “keys” to Hades as well as charge over the means of grace, i.e., Baptism and Eucharist, can be pathways to power and control. I am increasingly skeptical that all theology was done with the best intentions of “getting it right” for the benefit of the people. Sometimes, I suspect, theology was written for the sake of those in power.

    Finally, when “sovereignty”, not “love”, becomes the defining, over-arching, attribute of God, the church begins to look for ways to express that sovereignty in this world today. Love is, and always should be emphasized as such, the defining attribute of God in which all other attributes should be understood.

  • I’ll reiterate the question of Tyler in #7: where do we get the idea that wrath is not a permanent feature of God? Assuming you think it is an attribute of Him at all (which I take this post to assume), where and when does it all of a sudden become not “permanent”? Is that in Scripture somewhere? I’m just wondering.

  • Dan Reeve

    This whole topic at once gives me a headache and scares the hell out of me but I’m not sure Thiselton would understand.

  • Richard

    @ 7, 18

    I think you’re confusing “attributes” with “actions.” Attributes are the sort of characteristics of God that exist within the triune God and don’t necessitate another being or object for expression – the essence of “goodness” so to speak. This is why “love” is an attribute (the members of the trinity eternally loving one another) whereas “wrath” would be a response to sin and death… unless you want to speculate that the members of the trinity are eternally wrathful toward one another as an expression of their love. 😉

  • Richard

    If anyone is looking for a good overview of the history of universal reconciliation (option #2) in Christian theological thought, Robin Parry, aka Gregory MacDonald, edited a tremendous collection of essays:

  • Percival

    Tyler #7 & Joey #18,

    It is a fair question. Why is wrath not a permanent feature of God? Here’s a short answer.
    1) Wrath is an emotional state in response to a bad situation. Presumably, the situation (sin/rebellion) will not exist forever.
    2) Many times (I don’t know how many) God states in the OT that He will not be angry forever. It would take a little research to find every reference, but I suppose someone has already done it.

  • It occurred to me several years ago that our understanding of Hell and Judgment are dependent on our conception of God’s Core Values. I believe we make a mistake in seeing all of God’s values as absolute and unyielding. It is when God has to decide between two of those values that they become weighted.

    For instance, Calvinists and Arminians are fascinated with the dualism of Man’s Freedom to Choose and the Sovereignty of God. Are there times that God allows man to choose? If God never REALLY allows man to choose anything apart from his will, is God then the author of sin? (I know this is a Straw Man type argument, but I’m not arguing the issue, I am just giving an example of the tension between the Values of God). Can God be sovereign and allow man to have a limited amount of choices?

    In the same way, the understanding of Hell requires that we know how God’s values are weighted. Specifically, these four values come into play:

    1. The Justice of God
    2. The Freedom of man to Choose
    3. The Love and Mercy of God
    4. The Plan of God

    Do all of these carry equal weight? And how do we decide which ones carry more weight? If we fall on the side of the Love and Mercy of God, are there situations when some of the other values can supersede his Mercy?

    Or Scot, you said that the Love of God is eternal and the Justice/Wrath of God is a temporary feature. How do you know that? What if the love of God is temporary and the wrath is eternal? Does that change how we would see the nature of God? What if the desire of God for us to have Freedom of Choice is the most eternal of all God’s values?

    What I am trying to say is that our view on hell leans completely on how we weight the various values of God.

  • Luke Allison

    “How can we conceive of God sustaining the life of all and be, at the same time, totally separate from the wicked?”

    Well, I think Scripture is fairly clear that God is opposed to evil in all its forms. Not just opposed to it, but that he actively “wars” against it, and will someday utterly destroy it.

    The more “Augustinian” our God, the more “Augustinian” our views on the afterlife will be. What’s interesting is that a lot of people start de facto with an Augustinian view of God, but try to adopt more progressive views of the afterlife or judgment. If you start with Augustine, you must end with Augustine, too.

    But, if you start with a different perspective of God entirely (one that I believe is more true to the Biblical witness), you can faithfully wind up with a different perspective of the afterlife.

    I hold to two ideas that are incompatible with classical Augustinian Protestantism:
    1. Not all sin is equal (therefore not all sinners are equal)
    2. God’s omnipotence doesn’t necessarily imply “omni-control”

    One that is more compatible with Luther than Calvin:
    1. Satan is crazy powerful, and the earth is populated with a spiritual community of free agents, some intent on chaos and destruction in the face of God’s goodness.

    Once I assert these three ideas, any sense of Augustinian thought gets progressively thinner in my mind.

    All that to say: Trinitarian Warfare Worldview all the way!

  • DRT

    More thinking, and particularly reading 6, 18, and Mike 23, it seems to me that the wrath part is an anthropomorphism. Love is, if I am not mistaken, defined by the relationship and not by an emotion. Emotions are quite human, and despite that all of you can look up all of the texts that say that god has emotions, I don’t believe that god would experience emotion in any way that resembles our emotional state.

    Agape is unconditional and volitional in my view, not emotional.

    It seems to me that we must start from there. His ways are not like our ways 🙂 … the good sense.

  • Luke Allison


    Are you advocating the impassibility of God?

  • Susan N.

    Mike (#23) – “What if the love of God is temporary and the wrath is eternal? Does that change how we would see the nature of God?”

    Uh-huh, you bet. I would not be worshiping that god (of eternal wrath.) If I did, I would have to say that love is hate, and wrath is good. Simply does not compute; I’m better off being an a-theist. I think that Jesus allows us to see in Him the divine nature of God’s love. The truth is revealed most fully.

    Which brings me to Tim’s (#17) thoughts… Boy do these comments articulate some uneasiness I have had with historical, “orthodox” Christianity. Especially the differentiation between “sovereign” vs. love as *the* essential attribute of God. I know that Jesus used the word “kingdom” and taught several parables involving kings and servants, but unless the king and kingdom are understood as subversive to earthly powers, I am afraid that the human interpretive bent is to misuse and abuse the concept of king…as in “violent, conquering Lord.” If, however, divine love overwhelmingly conquers, redeems, and restores all, then O:K. I can hope in that!

  • Amos Paul

    Listen. Here’s the problem I have with your blog, Scot. I currently have an Amazon wish list (basically–reading list whether by purchase, library, or other) of SIXTY FREAKING BOOKS and growing.

    You need to stop convincing me that so many people have so many interesting and well thought out things to say.

  • Tom F.

    I would put the argument against eternal (permanent) wrath as follows:
    (I don’t think all truth can be reduced to logical argumentation, but I think it can be a helpful place to start).

    1.) God’s love has no beginning.

    As has been pointed out, God’s love is grounded in the eternal relationship of the Trinity.

    2.) Evil has a beginning.

    If you deny that evil has a beginning, it would seem to make you Manichean. It would also mean locating evil in God in some way, as only God is eternal.

    3.) God’s wrath is a proper response to evil.

    4.)Therefore, God’s wrath is only an accidental (non-intrinsic) relation to non-eternal evil.

    I don’t know if I can make as strong of a case that God’s wrath is not everlasting. I suppose it could be argued that God would sustain the possibility of evil indefinitely into the future so that some greater good would result. But at the very least, those who would make this case need to articulate what this greater good might be, or minimally, that God is at least seeking after that greater good that might be completely mysterious to us.

  • Richard #20,

    I understand what you are saying about attributes vs. actions. But probably like many things, we are defining wrath differently. My Biblical understanding is that the wrath of God is a necessary result of that which is contrary to His holiness, which is an attribute, not an action, and will last forever. And since I don’t believe He can be holy without being wrathful, wrath exists in His nature forever, even though, as you said, he is not executing it among Himself in the Trinity, or among His bride in eternity. This is because He has already “executed it” infinitely and eternally on Jesus Christ.

    I have trouble with the idea that wrath all of a sudden just isn’t part of God’s love anymore at some point. I think that would misunderstand what it is in the first place, namely, an expression of love in vindicating His holiness in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Since reconciliation with His holiness is the desire of our hearts, and what salvation ultimately is, than this is an amazingly gracious thing.

    So no, its not as if “wrath” will continue to be unleased in various forms forever because its a “permanent attribute” of God – but the love we see in the wrath absorbed in Jesus on the cross was eternal and will last forever, completed with the Resurrection, as the the hope of mankind and the ultimate triumph of sin and evil forever. Its not like its just history and doesn’t matter anymore because we understand God’s love more generally now. It should be the specific center of our worship forever!

    I’ve opened up about a hundred really heavy topics to be disagreed with, I’m sure. Just trying to get to a more robust understanding of “wrath” to help us understand God’s love in Jesus more fully!

  • DRT

    Luke, regarding impassibility of God, I don’t think my view is quite in line with what I believe that means. I am not arguing that god is unaffected, but that his state is different than ours and our emotions would not be applicable.

  • Luke Allison

    “I am not arguing that god is unaffected, but that his state is different than ours and our emotions would not be applicable.”

    I’d be interested to hear what you base this statement on. Aren’t our emotions inherent within the imago dei?

    Due to the Biblical witness presenting Jesus as vastly emotional (on every spectrum) and since I don’t embrace Nestorianism, I have to believe that God intends for us to see emotion as reflective of greater reality in some way.
    “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:9). We can’t just apply that willy nilly. All of the emotions seen in Jesus Christ are reflections of something greater.

    So in that sense, I’d argue that God is “super-emotional” rather than unemotional or differently-emotional. God is “supremely empathetic”, above and beyond any of our notions of empathy. And yet empathy is a reflection of something within God. I’ll agree with the folks who affirm that God is “supremely passible”, rather than impassible.

  • NW

    This whole discussion is very frustrating for me because, in my opinion at least, the NT so obviously teaches universal salvation that one has to wonder how spiritually blinded we are to not see it (Jn 1:29; 3:16-17; 12:32; Rom 5:18; 1 Tim 2:4; 4:10; 1 Jn 2:2). Of course, the NT also teaches that many will suffer a fiery “aionion” punishment, but that can’t be the end of the story for those who end up there (1 Cor 3:15?) in light of the clear witness of Scripture in the matter of universal salvation.

    In my opinion, there are at least two reasons for the strong evangelical commitment to ECT. The first has to be a sick form of pride and arrogance that sees the love that God has for those who respond to the gospel against the backdrop of the rest of humanity being permanently separated from him. The second has to be the natural evangelical bias to see one’s afterlife as being almost exclusively determined by how one responds to the gospel in this life. On a related note, this is why evangelicals struggle mightily with the providence of God, they want all the emphasis to be on the ministry that God has given them and are very uneasy with the idea that God can save his creatures apart from their ministry, hence the evangelical struggle against both universalism and Calvinism.

  • Dana Ames

    I’d like to take a shot at the “impassible” thing. In EO thought, “impassable” doesn’t mean “unemotional” or “without the capacity to have feelings”. What it means (to my understanding) is that God is not driven – by his attributes or anything else – to do anything. This is hard for us to wrap our heads around (esp if we have been taught to think that God’s wounded honor/holiness *requires/drives* him to punish).

    Our “passions” are those things (not emotions per se) which, although good in and of themselves, end up driving us to do things that are incompatible with love, chiefly because we’re trying to stave off Death, or anything that “feels like” or signifies death to us. For example, the appetite for food is good, but the drive to overeat or undereat, because of greed or psychological pathology – something unhealed inside us – is a sin against our relationship with our own being, body and soul, and can also cause damage in other relationships. All of this stuff can be very, very subtle.

    But God is not saddled with our issues. Nothing “makes” God do anything. The terms “passable” and “impassable”, though formally accurate translations, don’t really convey the meaning in English of the original Greek. I’m not sure how to get around that. I do know it can’t mean that God is devoid of feeling. It is very common in Orthodox prayers to address God as “Philanthropos”, the lover of mankind – which is itself a Greek term that connects to the Hebrew idea of what is behind the very most decent way is to treat a human being – for example, if you didn’t give someone water when they asked, or let them warm themselves by your fire, that was not being “philanthropic” – indicates a problem inside you that won’t let you manifest basic decency on the outside.


  • Dana Ames

    Susan N.,
    I’m really enjoying your husband’s observations. Lots to think about. God certainly has put eternity in everyone’s heart.

    One of the things that made me want to explore Eastern Orthodoxy was that, while #1 is the “majority view” and “official” teaching, #2 has never been declared heretical – it is still on the table… I think the reason for this “imbalance” is that it’s way too easy for us to forget the magnitude of the consequences of our sin, and to take for granted God’s desire to work healing, so that we “forget” – we quit attending to being constantly present to God, and we don’t seek the humility of “working out our salvation” with fear and trembling – we neglect to practice those things that St Paul tells us to do in the “practical” parts of his letters. (What would it actually look like to practice: “Don’t lie to one another”? Yikes!)

    As for the “original state”, Eastern church thought posits neither original “perfection” before the first human transgression, nor “total depravity” after it. Our original state toward God was that of worship, communion, trust and receptivity in goodness, though as immature creatures. We had the potential to grow into the likeness of God (insofar as the created can be “like” the Uncreated), and that is what was short-circuited; the image of God remains, though dirty, like an unused mirror, and we don’t see clearly. The Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection/inauguration of the New Creation sent a ripple throughout the kosmos, making it possible for us to align ourselves with God in his “training program” – to get the mirror cleaned up so that we can more clearly “see” God and love one another.

    This is so much bigger than Jesus being an “example” to follow or a “sacrifice” deflecting wrath. It’s also much bigger than humans simply being able to be more moral. Morality is good, but it doesn’t solve the existential problem. The Christ Event did that. God has done everything that we can’t do – and now we must enter in and do what we can do.

    I recommend St Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation”. Read the “older” translation alone – the one by CS Lewis’ nun friend; or read it side by side with the new one by Fr John Behr (former on the “dynamic equivalence” end of the translation spectrum, latter on the “formal equivalence” end).


  • DRT

    Luke, thanks for helping me think through this. I tried to understand the literature and names of the positions but there is a bit too much to absorb this fast. So let me just say what I think.

    Perhaps you statement “super-emotional” would be appropriate, so let me define what I think and you can tell me if it matches.

    I believe that many of our emotions are either caught up in delusional states or in moods that have nothing to do with the true nature of what is going on. We have been treated poorly the past week and someone else comes along and we have a bad emotional reaction to that person due to our longer term emotional condition.

    Likewise, there are great number of emotional states that happen as a result of physiological triggers, hormones, imbalances and the like that also contribute to the emotional make up of a person.

    Then there are emotional states that simply blind us to reality. Empathizing and sypmpathizing with people across cultures would lead to a plethora of emotions that are probably not grounded in reality.

    So when people like my wife talk about emotions, it is many of the things I just discussed that she would feel are important. BTW, she is very empathetic, but, unfortunately, she is not very sympathetic. So I don’t get any pity, even though she knows it sucks to be me at times.

    Now god, most likely is not really going to experience the emotional tapestry that my wife would call her emotional life. I like the emotion of deep abiding peace, but I dare say that she would not really classify that as an emotion. I think god experience deep abiding peace, tranquility, care, and such, but not the others so much.

    Does this make any sense?

  • DRT

    Dana#34, I think what I said is consistent with what you said. Or I was in the same ballpark.

  • Dana Ames

    Can’t answer for Luke, DRT, but I find what you say remarkably consistent with EO thought 🙂 Emotions aren’t bad – and they’re not always “honest”, either; although, according to Fr Meletios Webber, they’re “more honest” than most of our thoughts because of their connection to our bodies.


  • Sherman Nobles

    As some of you know, over the last few years I’ve come to believe in Universal Reconciliation (UR), as noted that Nyssa did. I came to believe this because 1) the surprising amount of passages that seem to affirm UR. And 2) the more I studied what scripture actually warns of concerning the penalty of sin, the less I saw scripture affirming the concept of Hell. For example, only 1 word in the original text of scripture actually conveyed something similar to the concept of Hell, that being Tartrus. And it is only used once in scripture, and doesn’t reference people being consigned there, and even seems to have an end.

    The other three words mistranslated as Hell in the KJV are Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna – not one of which actually means Hell. Sheol and Hades mean grave or realm of the dead. And Gehenna was a real place, Hinnom Valley with a real history, a real cultural setting, and thus should be translated as Hinnom Valley, and certainly not translated as Hell!

    It seems to me that something so important as ECT would be specifically and repeatedly warned of in scripture IF it was a real threat. But it’s not. The Egyptians, Greeks and other ancient civilizations had a Hellish realm in their mythologies,and were a regular part of their attempts at controlling the masses. It seems that if such, ECT, was a real threat for humanity, it seems that scripture would affirm such specifically and repeatedly, especially in the Mosaic Covenant, but it’s not. And it seems that Jesus would have warned of such specifically, but it’s not. Instead he warned of being cast into Hinnom Valley – literally possibly a trash dump, and historically the place where the dead of Jerusalem were cast when conquered by the Babylonians, a place of prophetic significance and emotional turmoil.

    Anyhow, the more I studied what scripture actually warns of concerning the punishment of sin, the more I came to accept the Jesus really is the savior of all, especially we who believe (1 Tim.4.10), that the sacrifice of Christ is truly greater in effect and power than the sin of Adam (Rom.5), and that ultimately every knee shall truly bow in worship and every tongue proclaim allegiance to God (Isa., Rom., and Phil.)

    So for me, it was the weight of scripture (as I understood/misunderstood it) that has compelled me to believe that Jesus really is the savior of all humanity, that Love does not fail, and that the Good News is truly Good News for everyone not just for some (chose few or the smart few)!

  • C

    “If love is a permanent feature of God, and wrath is not a permanent feature of God, then how can hell be eternal?”

    Wow…very insightful question. I’ve never thought of it in that light before.

  • Kenny Johnson


    I’m curious though, why do you think the warning passages are there? I have tended to lean to #1 (annihilationism) over the last few years — though I’m wishy-washy about it. Because 1) there seems to be warnings about being excluded from the Kingdom. 2) Universalism denies human freedom. A person is not able to reject God.

  • Percival

    Joey #30 and C #40,

    I’d like to address the idea that holiness is inextricably tied to wrath.

    Joey, you are right to say that you opened up about a 100 heavy topics to be disagreed with. But I will not address them all, but will point out that a full embrace of Calvinism does indeed lead someone in this direction in regards to eternal conscious torment, ECT (IMO). Calvin stated that one of the chief pleasures of heaven was that the redeemed could look into hell and see the eternal suffering of the damned. And indeed, if you believe in ECT, one is driven to that conclusion. It is good and should be embraced. Are you looking forward to seeing that forever? If not, I have to wonder about the emotional viability of ECT. If you ARE looking forward to that, I have to question your sanity.

    My point, which I stated in #22 above, is simple though. God’s wrath is a holy response to sin. It is not a holy response to Christ. When Christ is all (and He will be in all), there will be no need for wrath. This seems to be the plain teaching of NT scripture, that all things will be reconciled in Christ.

    Tom F. #29 stated it very clearly as well. Evil was not eternal in the past and will not be eternal in the future.

  • The question is rightly asked by Scot: “How can we conceive of God sustaining the life of all and be, at the same time, totally separate from the wicked?”

    The answer is you can’t. They are mutually exclusive, and as such most of the evangelical presentations of hell need to be seriously revised.

  • Susan N.

    Jeff (#43) – and I would add that it’s about more than evangelical presentations in terms of doctrine and proclamation of a story for the purpose of coercing a conversion. It’s about how we, the storytellers, live out our concept of ourselves in relationship with God and others.

    No matter how much spin doctoring is put on the idea of hell, ECT, God as eternally wrathful and punishing to the “wicked,” it is still really, really BAD news.

    That image of God makes me, personally, want to duck and run for cover. The Apostle Paul didn’t write: “Faith, hope, wrath…but the greatest of these is wrath,” did he?

    From our weak human perspective, it seems that wrath is easier and more palatable to accept and have faith in than love that conquers all. If that is true of us, at least we should admit our sin and name it as a lack of faith? “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.”

  • Sherman Nobles

    Kenny @41,

    You asked if I believe in UR, “why do you think the warning passages are there?” I believe that the warning passages are there because of the very real ramifications of sin in this life and the life to come! The wages of sin is death – physically, socially, relationally, etc.

    You go on to say, “I have tended to lean to #1 (annihilationism) over the last few years — though I’m wishy-washy about it. Because 1) there seems to be warnings about being excluded from the Kingdom.” There are warnings about being excluded from the Kingdom, missing out on the party, etc. Sin breaks relationships; having faith in Jesus to ultimately reconcile and restore all relationships does not lessen in any way the reality that many relationships are now broken, in need of reconciliation. The lifeguard that saves 100 out of 100 people drowning in no way lessens the reality of the potential of drowning; it only magifies the power, skill, and devotion of the lifeguard. It’s also helpful to realize that discipline such as exclusion from fellowship is meant to bring the person to repentance, reconciliation, and wholeness. Though discipline is harsh, it is rooted in love.

    And you say “2) Universalism denies human freedom. A person is not able to reject God.” I believe in the sovereignty of God and that human autonomy is very limited. And I believe that people are only responsible for the choices that God gives us. We do not choose when, where, to whom we’re born. We do not choose our talents, gifts, environment, or culture in which we’re raised. We do not choose even choose to be born in bondage to sin! From birth we are selfish to the core (original sin, however you understand that). We are slaves of unrighteousness, dead in our sins; none of us seek God, not one!

    When I read the warnings in scripture concerning sin and living right they give me pause and motivate me to a holy life because I believe that we shall all face the judgment one day, and judgment, though remedial, will be terrible and is based on how we actually live, what we do with what God gives us, not just on what we profess to believe! Frankly, the passages that warn of judgement scare the hell out of me and cause in me a deep repentance.

    The more I study scripture and the human condition, the more I realize just how much we are slaves of unrighteousness, in bondage to evil from within and without, polluted by selfishness at our core! This is why we need a savior, a lifeguard to save us from the evil in which we are trapped!

    I believe we as humans have limited, very limited, autonomy; but my faith is God, not human autonomy. I believe that God is like gravity, and though people fight it, ultimately we shall all come to rest in Him. I believe that Jesus really meant what He said, He was not speaking in hyperbole when He said, “If I be lifted up I will draw all to myself!” We are not saved by making the right choices; we are saved so that we can make right choices. Slaves and the dead have no power to make right choices.

    Sadly, because Calvinism and Arminianism both affirm the certainty of damnation of others, they both Limit the Atonement. Calvinism limits the scope of the Atonement. And Arminianism limits the power of the Atonement. Universalism does not limit either the scope or the power of the Atonement but rejoices in the power and scope of the the Atonement, the greatest revelation of the character of God and love of God for us all! I believe!

  • Luke Allison

    Jeff Cook:

    “The answer is you can’t. They are mutually exclusive, and as such most of the evangelical presentations of hell need to be seriously revised.”

    Absolutely. Is there anywhere that God isn’t? And if God isn’t somewhere, can life be sustained at all? Can even the smallest microbacteria exist?

    I tend to lean toward the “same fire” analogy: the same fire that doesn’t consume Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego kills the guards with its very heat. The same love and grace and blinding brilliant glory that is a comfort and a source of awe for those who believe may inspire hatred and agony in those who do not. Either way, separation from God isn’t in the mix. Love is hateful to those who hate. Love is lovely to those who love. God is love. It’s gonna suck for some folks to be in his presence.

  • Percival,

    The conclusions you are drawing from what Calvin and others believe (not from what I said by the way) are not natural ones. You’re stretching a bit, I fear, in order to make what you believe to be my position sound insane.

    Allow me to clarify. I believe God’s holiness is vindicated in the absorption of His eternal wrath in Jesus Christ on the cross. God is so holy, and we are so sinful, that only infinite wrath on Jesus could vindicate God’s holiness and save us. That act of grace, namely, Jesus taking the wrath we deserve, making God both the just and the justifier of those who put their trust in Him, will remain as the center of our worship forever. Therefore, we will be worshipping the infinite wrath of God poured out on Jesus forever, because it is simultaneously the most clear expression of God’s grace, mercy, and love. It is a necessary component of God’s love and holiness, which are eternal attributes. As I said above, this doesn’t mean wrath expressed in various forms will remain or that evil will remain – just the wrath poured out on Jesus which was infinite (otherwise we wouldn’t be saved!) will remain. Something infinite cannot cease. Those who did not accept Jesus’ sacrifice for their sins still are under the wrath of God (John 3:36) – hence ECT. Otherwise God would not be the just, only the justifier. That wouldn’t be the God of the Bible! God’s infinite holiness will either be vindicated on the cross or in hell. That may be outrageous to you, but it is has been a common belief in the church, not just among so-called Calvinists.

    Never did I say, and nowhere do I think Calvin or others even imply, that we will look onto those in ECT at all, let alone with pleasure. Please cite your source on the following quotation, “Calvin stated that one of the chief pleasures of heaven was that the redeemed could look into hell and see the eternal suffering of the damned.” If Calvin indeed said something like this, I do not agree with him here.

    My understanding of Scripture is that we will be focusing on the wrath that was absorbed for us, not the wrath that will remain on those who didn’t put their trust in Him. I don’t claim to know how we will comprehend the reality of hell once in heaven, and I resent the fact that you implied I will be forced to have some insane tendency based on my beliefs.

    I know on this thread my beliefs are the minority. So disagree with them – I don’t mind. I just wanted to clarify what I meant by wrath so that my contention that it is an everlasting component of God’s love and holiness could be a more complete and coherent argument. I think you would be hard pressed to say my argument is not coherent, although of course I’m sure that you and others disagree with it strongly.

  • Luke Allison

    Susan N.

    “From our weak human perspective, it seems that wrath is easier and more palatable to accept and have faith in than love that conquers all. If that is true of us, at least we should admit our sin and name it as a lack of faith? “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.”’

    I’ll agree with this statement for the most part, except for the fact that God’s wrath is talked about quite a bit in the Scripture. It’s not as though we bring that to the text. The warning passages in Hebrews alone are enough to get a person thinking that, perhaps, walking away from the faith might be very very bad for them.

    So I don’t want to appeal to modern “common sense” beliefs, like “love is better than anger”, or “love is antithetical to anger”, especially knowing that other cultures don’t seem to have any problem with judgment and wrath. I recently talked to someone from Ethiopia, and he described his family as having a huge problem with grace and forgiveness. What’s the point of non-violent response to rape and murder if, in the end, the unrepetant rapist of your children gets a pat on the back and a “well done good and faithful servant”?

    Now, there’s obviously more to this conversation, and I’m sure you’ve read and thought on this a great deal. But it seems to me that the problem of evil is unsolvable unless God does something about evil. Whether that’s principalities and powers, or the people who have thrown themselves in league with those powers, God is going to deal with them. I wonder what that means?

  • Luke Allison


    “Calvin stated that one of the chief pleasures of heaven was that the redeemed could look into hell and see the eternal suffering of the damned.”

    Don’t believe that’s Calvin. Jonathan Edwards, Tertullian, Aquinas, and many others held this viewpoint, but I don’t think Calvin ever articulated it, at least not in the Institutes.

    It’s sort of a logical conclusion from a high view of God’s sovereignty, though: What, are we going to sit around heaven being sad?

  • Tim Hallman

    Scot, you are such a nonconformist! Thanks for making space for nonconformity when it comes to big ideas like gospel and hell.

  • Richard

    @ 47

    So you do think that the members of the Trinity express wrath toward one another eternally? If not, how do I need to change my reading of this:

    “I believe God’s holiness is vindicated in the absorption of His eternal wrath in Jesus Christ on the cross. God is so holy, and we are so sinful, that only infinite wrath on Jesus could vindicate God’s holiness and save us. That act of grace, namely, Jesus taking the wrath we deserve, making God both the just and the justifier of those who put their trust in Him, will remain as the center of our worship forever. Therefore, we will be worshipping the infinite wrath of God poured out on Jesus forever, because it is simultaneously the most clear expression of God’s grace, mercy, and love. It is a necessary component of God’s love and holiness, which are eternal attributes. As I said above, this doesn’t mean wrath expressed in various forms will remain or that evil will remain – just the wrath poured out on Jesus which was infinite (otherwise we wouldn’t be saved!) will remain. Something infinite cannot cease.”

    I’m also curious where you see the infinite wrath of God clearly taught in the Scriptures. I can’t think of any such references though I know some pastors and theologians who certainly hold to such a view.

  • Susan N.

    Luke (#48) – “I wonder what that means?”

    What I hope it means is that evil will thoroughly be overcome and transformed by the purifying, refining fire of God’s love. 🙂

    I appreciate the gracious way in which you phrased your push-back. ~Peace~

  • Percival

    Luke #49,
    Thanks for the correction. It was indeed Edwards that I should have attributed the quote to. He has plenty of company unfortunately.

    Joey #47,
    I apologize for the misquote of Calvin, but at least I didn’t misquote you! And I don’t think I misunderstood you.

    I was trying to say that a belief in eternal wrath makes eternity with a wrathful god an unpleasant place, even if we name it heaven. Because, even if the infinite wrath is directed elsewhere, at His beloved Son or at humans, it remains. And heaven is a place or dimension where we dwell in the presence of God, experiencing Him forever.

    I don’t think that is the picture of God we get from the Bible. However, it is consistent with some kinds of theology. Infinite wrath? Where is that written about?

    I used to believe that Hellfire was the eternal state of the unbeliever. I thought scripture necessitated that view and I figured I would never understand how it could be consistent with God’s character as revealed in Christ. However, my heart never embraced it (as apparently Jonathan Edwards and others were able to do). I don’t believe it is tenable to continue to really believe in ECT unless your heart can fully embrace it. I guess I shouldn’t question the sanity of others (like you) who embrace that view, I just know that I had a hard time giving my heart fully in love to my Father when I thought He was like that. Submission? Maybe, but I probably would have ended up insane.

    I do admit your argument is coherent, but the power of coherence is that it leads us somewhere. Your coherent argument leads us to a god whom I do not recognize as the true God. Sorry, that sounds so strong, but living among Muslims for 20 years has sensitized me to the dangers of a god whose malice is disguised as holiness.

    Another thing that puzzles me. Doesn’t it seem very un-Protestant to you to leave Christ on the cross for all eternity?

  • Percival,

    Ok. That is a pretty devastating link with quotations. I will have to take some time with those. Still, I am not going to venture to challenge single quotations from such great theologians and contributors to the church with comments on a blog, and actually, it is beside my point to do so anyway. I am less concerned here with how those in heaven will view those in hell, but rather more concerned with what I see to be an incomplete understanding of God’s love, which has to include His wrath for the cross to make any sense, at least to me. I realize that this will quickly take us to our disagreements, which will not be solved quickly, and it seems could even take us backward from some constructive criticism of the recent efforts by the likes of Rob Bell to deny hell and promote universalism; not the least of which from our very own Scot McKnight. But that you admit my argument is coherent is really enough for me. I wish you hadn’t included a “but” after this, though.


    No! I don’t think the members of the Trinity “express wrath” among themselves eternally. What I think and what I said is that the concept of wrath is infinite and necessary for the holiness, love, grace, and mercy of God to be realized, which are attributes that are “expressed”, as it were, among the Trinity and among the saints forever. And the “expression” of wrath in Jesus Christ was infinite, so no one can “express” anything about God’s holiness, justice, love, grace, and mercy without acknowledging the wrath of God. So maybe “acknowledged” is a better word for how we understand wrath in eternity. It is not “expressed” anymore because it already has been within the Trinity (on the cross) on our behalf – that is the Gospel!

    Richard and Percival,

    I cringe at taking single Bible verses out of context to prove a point, or to attempt heavy interpretation in a blog comment, but here goes nothing, in response to your questions on where infinite wrath is in Scripture:

    Hebrews 10:14 – For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. What was the offering? Christ’s sacrifice for sins. What was the sacrifice? Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. Why suffering and death? That was the will of the Father. Romans 3:25-26 – (Christ Jesus), whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Can you define propitiation without describing wrath? Further, 2 Corinthians 5:21 – For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Making him “be sin”, considering our infinite sinfulness, is a pretty infinite statement. Yet, it of course does not mean that Christ is “still on the cross”. Just as we can celebrate the infinite grace in the event of the cross, and resurrection for that matter, without “leaving Christ on the cross”, we can acknowledge the infinite wrath that was absorbed on our behalf in these events, in our experience of God’s love and holiness for all eternity, with Christ as Risen with us. But Christ did not rise after an ordinary death. He rose as assurance that His sacrifice was approved by the Father and sufficient for us. So we remember the sacrifice, forever!

    What does it mean that the offering was single? It happened once and for all (Hebrews 10). How is it infinite? Because it perfected for “all time” those who are being sanctified. How else? John 3:16-18 – For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. In what way did God “so” love the world? By giving His infinitely perfect Son for infinitely sinful man. If Jesus’ perfection was infinite, and man’s sinfulness is infinite, and God’s love in bringing these contradicting things together is infinite, how could the sacrifice not be infinite? John continues: 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.

    Beyond that there are the phrases throughout the Bible that speak of infinite or eternal wrath: Mark 9:44 – unquenchable fire; Daniel 12:2 – everlasting contempt; 1 Thes 1:9 – eternal destruction. There are so many more. If Jesus’ sacrifice saved us from all that, how could it not also be infinite?

    I’m sure some could tear that all to hermeneutical shreds, as perhaps they should, since this is not realistic to explain as new information in a blog. I’m just trying my best in this limited forum.

  • DRT

    Joey#54, you said “…which has to include His wrath for the cross to make any sense, at least to me.” What do you mean? I don’t understand.

  • Sherman Nobles

    Having come to believe that Jesus really is the savior of all humanity, especially we who believe, I’ve become increasingly aware how exclusive most churches are. I mean, it doesn’t matter that I love God with all my heart and love people. It doesn’t matter that I am a faith husband, loving father of 4 and currently foster parent to 3. Because I have faith in Jesus not only for my salvation but for everyone’s salvation, I cannot be a member of most churches. Most churches have a statement of faith that one must believe in order for one to be a fully accepted member. And usually that statement of faith affirms the certainty of damnation for some others, thus I cannot be a member of that church.

    So, though I have faith in the love of God and trust that I am a member of the Body of Christ, I cannot be a member of most local fellowships. Faith in Christ and a desire to follow Him with all my heart is not enough. I must also believe that Jesus fails to save some or most of humanity, that the Atonement of Christ is limited in either scope or effect. But based on my understanding (or misunderstanding) of scripture, I do not believe the Atonement is limited and this most glorious expression of love ultimately fails to reconcile the lost, so I cannot be a member of most local fellowships. This grieves me terribly.

    I’ve come to accept this for myself, but it continues to sadden me because of my children. We as a family love being involved in the local community of faith, but that involvment is severely diminished when the father cannot be an accepted member.

    Well, anyhow, I mention this simply to put flesh on this discussion and as a plea to other pastors to reconsider opening your fellowships to those who believe in UR or annihilation by removing from your statement of faith the necessity to believe that love ultimately fails to reconcile some of humanity (however that is worded in your statement of faith). Why can’t loving God and loving people be enough!

  • DRT,

    Long time! I just mean that if the cross was something less than (I know it was more) Jesus taking the wrath of God that we deserve, my understanding of God’s love as Savior is seriously weakened, and not uniquely different from “God’s love” expressed in other religions.

  • Gregory of Nyssa had the best ancient orthodox interpretation of hell.

  • Sherman Nobles

    I suppose if all I took into consideration were the passages that speak of judgment and the penalty of sin, I’d likely believe in conditional immortality (annihilation). But when I consider the passages that 1) speak of the salvation of all humanity and reconciliation of all things, and 2) seem to indicate that judgment and punishment of sin can be remedial, and 3) reference or allude to post-mortem repentance, and 4) affirm the unlimited power and universal scope of the Atonement, and 5) affirm the character of God being love, just, and merciful, I can’t help but believe that Jesus does not fail to save anyone, that Jesus truly is the savior of all, that the sacrifice of Christ is truly greater than the sin of Adam and all of our sins! And this is truly Good News for everyone!

  • Nicolas

    Just a plea to everyone: let’s keep the two words “eternal” and “everlasting” separate.

    When we want to talk about the idea of “never-ending” then let’s use the word “everlasting”.

    And let’s give proper respect to the word “eternal” which has its own meaning: “belonging to the age to come”.

    This means, when someone asks what ECT means, we reply “everlasting conscious torment” — not eternal.

    When philosophers see us theologians constantly interchanging eternal and everlasting, they must despise us !!