Theological Wrestling: Addressing Definitions and Presuppositions

Theological Wrestling: Addressing Definitions and Presuppositions February 12, 2018

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I’m a Universalist and I affirm hell. I’m a Universalist and I affirm justice. I’m a Universalist and I affirm the wrath of God. I’m a Universalist and I affirm . . . well, you get the picture.

If what I just said makes perfect sense to you, then the following will be nothing new. If, however, it doesn’t make any sense to you—how can one believe both clauses in each sentence?—then the following is for you. Hopefully by the end of this piece, you’ll know where I’m coming from (even if you don’t agree with me).

So, what in the world do I mean when I say “I’m a Universalist and I affirm hell?” Well, let’s start with some basic definitions.

First, when I call myself a “Universalist,” what I mean is that through Christ Jesus, God will, in the end, redeem the entire cosmos to God’s self; which, of course, includes all human beings, too. In other words, Universalism—as I’m defining it—is the doctrine that states everyone will ultimately be restored to a right relationship with God.

So, how can I then also affirm a doctrine of hell? Simple: I don’t believe hell = eternal conscious torment, or that hell = eternal separation from God, or that hell = a place where sinners burn either literally or figuratively for time everlasting. Instead, I, like the universalistic church fathers Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa, believe that hell is remedial. It’s not simply there to torture people forever and ever, rather it is for the burning away of all impurities that keep sinners from a right relationship with God. That is simply to say hell has a purpose. And that purpose is correction, chastisement, and ultimately, restoration.

This brings me to my next issue: justice.

Many who come across my theology have a hard time with it because they suggest that it lacks justice. They seem to think that if all are ultimately restored to a right relationship to God, that sinners have gotten away scot free. “So, Hitler is just going to waltz into heaven?” some rhetorically ask. Well, no, he isn’t. But neither are you or I.

As I just said, some are going to go to hell. In fact, one could argue all of us are going to “go to hell” at some point. Take a look at Mark 9:42–50, a favorite proof text for eternal torment (emphasis mine):

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Did you catch that last part? Everyone will be salted with fire. Not just the sinners. Not just the wicked. Not just “them.” Everyone. And the salt is good. Which means, by logical necessity, that the fire that does the salting is good.

The same theme is picked up by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (emphasis mine):

“Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been build on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.”

So, in other words, all the worthless crap that we build gets burned away, and will cause us loss. However, we will still be saved, but only because of the fire that does the burning away of said worthless crap.

Do you see the logic here?

So, back to the issue of justice.

What we have to realize is that when we discuss justice, we need to be clear as to what we are actually talking about. Are we talking about vengeance? Are we talking about retribution? An eye for an eye? Or, if hell truly is everlasting, something much, much more than retribution? Or, on the other hand, are we talking about justice that reconciles? Justice that restores sinners to God, victimizers to their victims?

Surely, we must specify and not presuppose one definition over the other. Indeed, it is important to understand all the various definitions and wrestle with which ones best fit the startling New Testament claim that “God IS love” (1 John 4:8), and that the resurrected one—Christ, the first fruits—is the one who confronted his enemies with nonviolence and forgiveness (cf. Luke 23:34; John 20:19–23).

The same thing goes for our understanding of the so-called “wrath of God.”

Too often, this theological claim is laden with grotesque anthropomorphisms that lend us to believe that God is just like Jonathan Edwards claimed: as one who takes delight in holding our wretched asses over a flame like some sociopath who gets off on torturing insects. But, what if God’s wrath should be understood as something much more nuanced? That instead of asserting how the wrath of God is violent—full stop—we assert that it is violent only in that it is a giving over to the violence we humans partake in? That seems to be how Paul thought of it when he writes: “But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom 2:5, emphasis mine). In other words, for Paul, the wrath of God is not God swooping in and kicking the living crap out of us if we continue to sin—or, worse yet, burning us alive for all eternity—it is the handing over of sinners to the consequences of their sin.

So, which stance do we take? Which definition is most fitting? Again, whatever we say as Christians, it should be in the context that God IS love and that the resurrected one is the one who confronted sin with nonviolence and forgiveness.

At the end of the day, we are perfectly free to fling around words like hell, justice, and wrath, and assume there is a one-size-fits-all definition. However, just know that others are working with different definitions, and that no definition should simply be assumed. We must wrestle with all the various ways in which these concepts are approached so that we can make the most informed choices about all of them.

Until next time.

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