On October 1, 2016, I published an article entitled “What My Universalism Is and Is Not.” I did this as a way to explain, among other things, what I truly believe about the end, because it seems that more often than not, people don’t actually understand what universalism (in the Christian sense) actually entails. So, I wanted to clear the air so to speak.
Now, a growing number of people have been sharing this piece (to which I’m super grateful), but not all because they like what I have to say. In fact, some are quite worried for my soul and the souls of those I’m leading astray with my “bad theology.” In this piece, I wanted to respond to 5 concerns one particular detractor had.
Here they are, in the order they were received:
- The scriptures plainly teach the eternality of hell and impossibility of repentance after death and judgment (Luke 16:19–31).
When it comes to eschatological matters, the Bible doesn’t plainly teach anything. Indeed, a plain reading of the Bible can easily lead one toward one of three positions, namely eternal conscious torment (ECT), conditional immortality/annihilationism (CI), or universal reconciliation/redemption (UR). That said, let me tackle the passage this person uses as “proof” for the correctness of their infernalist view.
First, I believe Luke 16:19–31 is a parable, a tale meant for pedagogy. However, let’s assume I’m wrong and that it is an historical account of how a rich man goes to hell. Indeed, many Christians use it as such, in my mind simply because a prima facie reading of the text can certainly leave open that possibility. As verses 22–23 tell us, “The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.” Sounds like hell, doesn’t it? But then it gets worse. Abraham tells the rich man that “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” Game. Set. Match. Amiright?
Well, not so fast.
Doesn’t this raise the question: What of the cross? Is the cross of Christ not the means by which the great chasm is defeated for all of us? A high Christology certainly says it is. Moreover, when Jesus preached the gospel to the dead (1 Peter 3:19; 4:6), what exactly do we think he was doing? Was he not emptying out Hades so that, in the end, both death and Hades could be done away with forever so that God may be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:20–28)? I believe he was.
Now, I could delve deeper into this passage, but I don’t really have the space for that. But what I want to emphasize is that nowhere does this story say that the rich man will be tormented in Hades forever. Indeed, there is a great chasm that no one (at least not at the time) could cross. For my money, however, the cross fixes that.
*For a deeper look into this parable, please see Thomas Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God, pp. 86–88.
- The patristics overwhelmingly taught the eternality of hell http://www.bible.ca/H-hell.htm.
Um, no they didn’t; as even Augustine admitted that “indeed very many” affirmed universal reconciliation. A quick snapshot of the most influential early Christian Universalists, from Patristics scholar Ilaria Ramelli, certainly reinforces this notion:
“The main Patristic supporters of the apokatastasis theory, such as Bardaisan, Clement, Origen, Didymus, St. Anthony, St. Pamphilus Martyr, Methodius, St. Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa (and probably the two other Cappadocians), St. Evagrius Ponticus, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, St. John of Jerusalem, Rufinus, St. Jerome and St. Augustine (at least initially) . . . Cassian, St. Issac of Nineveh, St. John of Dalyatha, Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, probably St. Maximus the Confessor, up to John the Scot Eriugena, and many others, grounded their Christian doctrine of apokatastasis first of all in the Bible.” (Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena, 11.)
To remain ignorant to this is no excuse.
- The effect of such universalism is not a spur to the pursuit of repentance from sin, holiness, and reconciliation with God.
A statement like this really piss me off because it completely diminishes my directed experiences. When I was an infernalist—for 25 years in fact—I never felt free from sin. Indeed, fear was not a great motivator. However, to now know I’m wholly forgiven, no matter what?! Are you kidding me? What liberation! I’ve never felt so free from sin, which in turn makes me free to love, to forgive, to show compassion and mercy and grace to those I used to sin against.
And I know I’m not the only one. In fact, a year or so ago I received the most touching card in the mail, in which one of my Facebook friends told me how, prior to reading my universalistic material, she was “damn near an atheist.” Now, however, she was joyously walking again in the Way of Jesus.
- It makes light of sin and it does in fact misunderstand the justice of the holy and eternal God as described in the scripture [sic].
No, it doesn’t make light of sin. It just elevates the work of Christ. As the apostle Paul taught, where grace abounds, sin abounds all the more. Oh wait, that’s not what he taught. He taught that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.
Now, regarding my supposed misunderstanding of the justice of God, I’ll simply leave you with this quote from a recent blog entry:
“If we are going to make the claim that God IS love—not that God is merely loving, but that God is the very essence of love—then we are going to have to be really careful not to talk about God’s other attributes outside of this context. Indeed, justice and mercy are two sides of the same coin we call love. In the same way that we wouldn’t choose which attributes to evoke when reprimanding our kids—that is to say we should always reprimand in love—God doesn’t choose which attributes to evoke when chastising us. It’s always in the context that God is love. Hence, God’s justice is loving. God’s wrath is loving. God’s holiness is loving. And God is always seeking to restore us, to reconcile with us. All of us, all the time.”
- It robs the cross of its meaning and power to actually save men from the wrath of God and hell and turns it into a good example of good behavior, good will, and forgiveness rather than the propitiatory, substitutionary once for all sacrifice for the salvation of the elect, which it is.
What I take this final point to mean is that my view of the atonement—which is a sort of mish-mash of Christus Victor, moral influence, and Girardian theory (I’ll discuss all this in my forthcoming book, Heretic!)—is wrong, while the 16th century Calvinistic view is correct. Now, if one wants to affirm this, then that is fine. That is their prerogative. But are we really content to say that purpose of the cross is to save us from God? Really? Is that how Jesus viewed it? Is that how the writer of Luke-Acts talks about it? Is that how Paul talked about it? I don’t think so (but again, I’ll discuss this in my forthcoming book). In the meantime, for those interested in learning more about a more Christlike atonement theology, I recommend the following:
Stricken by God? Edited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin
The Slavery of Death by Richard Beck
Christus Victor by Gustaf Aulen
Saved from Sacrifice by Mark Heim
A More Christlike God by Brad Jersak