Hoping Dark Thoughts are not the Last Word

Hoping Dark Thoughts are not the Last Word May 20, 2005

In yesterday’s very active blog about Dark Thoughts some commented on what they “hoped” while some others thought such “hopes” were unbiblical and misplaced. I offer here not so much what I believe and what I will eventually state in these blogs, but why it is that many of us really do “hope” Dark Thoughts, as traditionally stated, are not the Last Word. I grieve over those who think we shouldn’t “hope” such things, as if our “hoping” is somehow inconsistent with faith in what the Bible says. Paul hoped that the Last Word on his people was not the Last Word.

Please, what I am writing is about what this “hope” is all about; not what I believe finally. But, this “hope” deserves a hearing, at least the way Job’s thoughts deserved a hearing. (And his were finally defeated; better yet, transcended; which is what we hope, too.)

Preface: we don’t hope beyond what the Bible says, we don’t long for the Bible to be proven wrong, we don’t avoid what the Bible says, but it is just because we know what the Bible says that we wonder if we might not be getting it right. I, for one, am willing to live with and submit to what the Bible says, but I am always willing to listen again to what it says. Why? because human interpretation is not infallible, and maybe we need to look again.

So some of us hope that the traditional way is not completely right. We hope this, but we know that our hoping could be misplaced, but we do so for a variety of reasons and I give some of these (you may have others) and some of these are your thoughts and some of them are my thoughts.

Why? Because we have read much on this and we know that many fine Christians who love the Lord and the Bible have taught other things — including such things as conditional immortality and annihilationism. (I do not speak here for universalists, for that I’m not.) Maybe they are wrong, but they deserve to be listened to.

Why? Because we think the logic of an eternal punishment for a finite sin and a finite human seems inconsistent — and we believe with many that humans simply cannot — in space and time — commit infinite sin and that finite sins against an infinite God are still not infinite sins.

Why? Because we cannot bear the thought of humans we love or know or speak with or have known or know about will spend Eternity in such graphic pain and misery. Those who love their neighbors, at least as much as themselves, cannot look with glee or triumphalism or joy and vindictiveness on Dark Places. We can imagine the horror and it terrifies.

Why? Because we know the grandeur of God’s embracing grace, we know the glory of that grace, and we wonder if maybe, somehow, God might even turn hell inside out and upside down — even though we do not understand it or comprehend how it might be just or know how it would be good. We are among those who fell the pull of God’s final grace — the way Paul feels its glorious pull in Romans 5.

Why? Because we know the ground of reality is the perichoresis, God’s interpenetrating love and mutual indwelling of the Trinity in love — which has been a consistent theme from Gregory of Nyssa to Jonathan Edwards to Miroslav Volf, and we wonder if God’s Love might be able to turn human sinfulness into divine grace and glory. And we want that Love to hold our hearts in its embracing grace.

Why? Because we know that the Old Testament does not speak of hell, because we know that what many say about hell is rooted in passages that are about God’s historical judgments — in time, in space, on earth, judgments against his people’s unfaithfulness, and because we know that many people today think Jesus was speaking about 70 AD in Mark 13 (parallels) and that the parables attached to that chapter might be speaking of that in-time, in-space, in-history judgment against Jerusalem and because we know that we could be wrong about this interpretation too (but maybe not), and because there is not as much in the New Testament about hell as there is about historical judgment, and because the one book that seems to talk so much about it — Revelation — is front to back apocalyptic and metaphor and imagery and symbolism and we just wonder, if maybe even judgment imagery ought not to be taken too literally.

Why? Because we know that even when Jesus speaks about hell he uses graphic physical imagery and we know that human bodies can’t go on burning for ever and ever because they will be incinerated, and because we know that “fire” is an image and a metaphor quite often in the Bible for judgment and for purgation and maybe isn’t literal. And that therefore we wonder what it might be an image about — and we wonder and we hope and we do this because we believe in the Bible and hope that it might refer to something as simple as separation (as Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce).

Why? Because we believe God is Sovereign, and that it is his judgment (not ours), and that what he wants to do will be Goodness itself, Beauty itself, and it will always be consistent with his glorious person. We want what he wants.

Why? Because we might be wrong, and we’d like to be wrong because it pains us to hear our brothers and sisters talk the way they do about hell and final judgment as if it doesn’t matter and as if humans are dispensable and as if these brothers and sisters have got things so right and that they know they are on the right side — when the whole Bible points its fingers at attitudes like that.

These are some thoughts — and I am speaking for my own heart and the heart of others when I say these things, and I know what the Bible says and I believe what it says, but I’m with a lot of brothers and sisters who know that what it says is not that clear and that we ought to be more humble about it all and that we ought to spend our time loving our neighbors and not assigning who to where. I know what I think the Bible says but I hope that what I think is not what will happen — why? Because it is unbearable, friends, unbearable.

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  • Anonymous

    what grounds the ontological weight of sin is less it’s action in finite sapce and time and more its offense against infinite being. This is Edwards’ argument.

  • Anonymous

    Paul hoped that the Last Word on his people was not the Last Word.What do you mean?

  • I will say what I’ve said before and it is that “anonymous” isn’t an ideal world for me to communicate with. If you don’t want to sign up for a blogger.com account, that is fine — but many Anonymous writers give a name at the end. But, I accept the weight of Edwards — and those who have considered this question and its significance — that finite beings sin against an Infinite Being. But, I’m with the many, and Carson’s book on Gagging God brings this into the picture from a different angle, who think finite beings cannot sin infinitely because they are finite. And that an Infinite Being’s holding finite sin worthy of infinite judgment is problematic.That is why I said in an article I wrote way back in the mid-80s (in a book called Through No Fault of Their Own) that the logical necessity of infinite/eternal judgment is ongoing sin. That I can accept as reasonable and logical and rational and all that. The Last Word is a play on the words of Brian McLaren’s book on this topic. Which I’m reading.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Scot,Apologies, I did once sign my name but when you replied you said ‘Dear Anonymous’ so I didn’t think posting my name made much difference.What if sin continues in eternity AND sin is infinite because it’s against an infinite being? (I know the latter needs defense; I’ll leave that to Edwards).By asking about the last word thing I meant what do you mean by Paul hoping it was not the last word on his people, what are you thinking of?Kim

  • Kim,Romans 11:12, 23-24, 26andRomans 5:18I’m no universalist or a pluralist, but I see hope in these passages.He hoped that though they were cut off now that they would come back.

  • Wow. Great post, Scott! Both poetic and profoundly theological.Kim, I think that if u look at the reasons given for eternal judgement they are always for the works that we do in this lifetime. The “they go on sinning” argument is an effective one against the charge, but it’s not a biblical one, as far as I can see.

  • Scot,In the Great Divorce, I think Lewis’ position was that it was not so much God who consigned people to Hell as much as it was their own choice to be there. It has been a while since I’ve read the book.I really don’t see his idea as unbiblical. There’s only one sin–Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit–that Jesus says is unforgiveable. One.I’m not much more than an armchair theologian, but it seems to me, that whatever this “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” sin is, it is more a matter of the heart, a decision made and never retracted, rather than some behavioral, finite blip during our sojourn on earth. How this works “procedurally” I haven’t a clue.

  • Scot, the last two posts have been very good. Honest wrestling and very fair to different views. I really appreciate that, and I look forward to more in your responses to McLaren.Steve McCoy

  • Great post Scot.This tension between the weight of biblical data and the internal horror at the possibility is not easily resolved. If there were one aspect of biblical theology that I would like to take a sharpie to, it would be this.Why would God reveal something so awful, so far beyond human comprehension if not in service of some other greater necessary understanding? Maybe our comprehension of the cross can’t come into proper view without a proper view of hell. Not an emphasis on the cross as saving people from hell, although that is true, but on hell as the exemplar of the suffering Christ endured.Sincerely,Anonymous.

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  • I’ve gotta say it again – this post is great! :-)I’ve just plugged it on two other blogs and read it through both times. Damn, I wish I’d written this! ;-)Would you be happy for me to put it up as an article in my resources section at Leaving Munster (with proper attribution, of course)?

  • Anonymous

    Scot, if a finite person is not capable of doing an eternal evil, then a finite person is not able to do an eternal good either, right? So will rewards not be eternal either? If the offense of a man is to reject the offer of God for an eternal relationship in the here and now, why would he have to reject it for eternity in order to merit eternal separation? Should we hope for the devil and his angels too?I believe in separation, but your argument that bodies can’t burn eternally I think doesn’t take into account the ressurected body and the fact that even the unbeliever has a body that doesn’t perish. We frankly don’t know the construction of the resurrected body for unbelievers (and have little for believers for that matter) and therefore can’t say what they are or are not capable of enduring.I think we should also point out that Paul says that he could wish to be cut off, not that he hopes he is. As it is true throughout Church History, those who deny the eternal punishment of hell (whether by flat out rejecting it or just placing it in an agnostic category) go off to diminish the importance of the necessity of theological and moral unity in the Church. If I really hope that God will not punish eternally, I can be less concerned (no matter how much I declare I still should love people and bring them into a relationship with God) about what people place their trust in.—JohnMark

  • Anonymous

    C.S., who would ever eternally reject God? Honestly, this type of argument is absurd. Once people see things the way they are, who would continue in it. Why would the rich man now say from the flame, I don’t want to be where Lazarus is? He certainly did want to be there, but he couldn’t be. So how can there be any unforgiveable sin? No one would stay in that state and yet there is a sin God does not forgive. How does that work?-tooaugust

  • In the midst of all this: congratulations on the Christianity Today award.

  • John Mark,We differ on the finite human and finite sin being punished infinitely by an infinite God, unless we add into that the sense of sinners sinning forever and refusing to turn. So, we might as well not return to that.But, I can’t buy the ad absurdum argument. Some, to be sure, who deny eternal punishment do see very little reason for evangelism.But, John Stott is but one example of many English Evangelicals who do not believe in eternal punishment (eternal in consequence but not in consciousness). So, the ad absurdum argument, which is an easy-to-use-because-so-many-fall-for-it argument, is not effective here. There is no logical or necessary connection.John Mark, don’t confuse me with those who believe such things: I’ve maintained the view I am maintaining for over 25 years. And, so far as I know, haven’t changed a bit.Which leads me to say what I’ll blog about tomorrow on this topic: Hell as a Warrant and its Postmodern Challenge.

  • John,I was calmly sitting at my computer this morning, editing away, when I was notified of it, and it led to about 25 e-mails and a couple of phone calls. Thanks for noticing.Might as well clarify: CT book awards came out today and honored The Jesus Creed. Mighty honored at this end.

  • Congratulations, Scot!

  • Anonymous

    Scot, 1. I wasn’t talking about annihilationalists like Stott. I was talking about temporal separationists.2. If people still place THE SAME importance on evangelism as those who do not think punishment is temporal, then they do it as an inconsistency. I didn’t say they place no importance on it.3. John Stott, nor any other person is the measure for what is true. You’re assuming everyone, who you take to be a Christian, is and therefore whatever they hold (as long as they’re those who love God–I take it apart from the truth in matters) should be considered as just other Christians with other opinions. Not sure where the devil as angel of light and ministers as children of light thing comes in. The purpose of 2 Cor is that we look past what things look like to what things are according to God’s wisdom and eternity. Do we just say everybody who “loves” God should never be placed into question for unorthodox views (BTW I noticed the change from orthodox to traditional). Has the Church been wrong for 2,000 years on such a vital doctrine? And I mean that as a question, do you think so?—JohnMark

  • Anonymous

    it sounds more like your doubting than hoping

  • JohnMark, what 2000 year old doctrine are you speaking of?And if we’re talking about Orthodox views, the Eastern Orthodox have held out the possibility of temporary separation for nearly 2,000 years. And they are perhaps more insistent on theological and moral “unity” than anyone else.

  • stu

    john mark, are you an ‘angel of light’ or the devil in disguise? you must think that you aren’t, that you are being true and that we should credit that to you. but we don’t know you from a bar of soap, so why should we give you the benefit of the doubt that you clearly want (it’s implicit in the mere fact of you offering your opinion)?it would be helpful if you didn’t argue from extremes. Scot is not saying john Stott is the measure, rather that he is someone who is working out his faith with integrity : well as much as we can tell from anyone. if it came down to a competition, let me assure you, i would put more stock in John Stott, than anything you say.Having said this, and this is important to hear, your contribution to this discussion is clearly worthwhile and i don’t think you are the ‘devil in disguise’. As for orthodoxy, which orthodoxy did you have in mind? 20th century evangelicalism? Augustinianism? Anselmism? Incidentally tied to the heart of Anselm’s penal subsitituion theory (what John MacArthur considers is the orthodox position on atonement: anything else is heresy), is that God’s great project of redemption is to replenish the hosts of heaven that occured with the mass exile of the dark angels with Satan. is that in your orthodoxy? or will you only take a pinch of anselm and a smidgeon of calivn? how conflicted it must be to try and negotiate your way to the absolute answers but i digress…A hand is not a foot, yet they are part of the same body. broadening our theological horizons a bit doesn’t hurt, it just takes humility.I sincerely admire Scot for his humility…it’s so refreshing. thanks scot for this post : it superbly expresses many of my own doubts and also gently admonishes me for being so flippant at times with people’s eternal destiny.

  • Anonymous

    Stu,Amazing you think Scot is humble and he coincidentially holds your views? I guess I was arrogant for holding the “traditional” one without doubt. But I digress.Augustine and Anselm and MacArthur have the same orthodoxy. You are talking about doctrines held that do not bear on the orthodoxy of individuals, so your argument is of no effect. One thing can complement another. And the things you mentioned are not a part of orthodoxy itself (God replenishing heaven from the amount of angels fallen is not a matter of orthodoxy. It’s one of Anselm’s scholastic speculations).My point with Stott is that it is begging the question to say that because Stott is Christian what he holds is within the realm holds is in the realm of orthodoxy, for a Christian would never be outside of it, so we should accept the position he holds as within that framework and not without. That is an illogical argument. It begs the question. Secondly, your statement is simply an appeal to special authority (why would you consider what Stott says over me or anyone else?). Because YOU attribute authority to him in some way? That’s more of your personal opinion than an argument.All I’m saying is I find it very interesting that once again everyone is so understanding of those who deny the importance of the doctrine of hell, but not so understanding of those who affirm it and see it as much of a good thing as the redemption of men. Why? Because God does them both and He only does what is good. No one is saying they’re happy about it. We’re just saying it is good as painful as that might be, and to deny it is to take a huge piece out of the puzzle of Christianity that is seriously needed.—JohnMark

  • Anonymous

    to add:I assure you as the father of 3 children, it is on my mind a lot, not knowing whether they will be saved. It is not a flippant answer I give. I am highly grieved over the possibility of their loss.—JohnMark

  • Well, some of the fellas are getting a little testy so I think it is about time to step in and call some of this off.First, thanks everyone for reading this and speaking your mind. Second, I’m not game for responding to facetious comments or ad absurdum arguments.Third, I’m glad some think I’m humble, but I’m not. I’m trying to be fair, and I’m trying to think aloud, and I’m not worried about being wrong and right here: just a seeker on this question. If I had “answers,” or if I thought they could be “had,” it would appear elsewhere too.Fourth, about John Stott: if you read the piece I wrote about annihilationism you will know that I differ with Stott. What you attribute to me is unfair to me. But, and here we may differ, I respect that the Church has had (Stott being one) voices that go in other directions. This, John Mark, we have to respect because they were otherwise entirely orthodox (some with a big “O”). This does not have to be one of those big bad liberal vs. conservative discussions.Fifth, I’m not sure it is inconsistent for them; it would be from your premises and conclusions. I grant you that (and we may be together on this one).Sixth, I’m a little put off that you think you know whether I am doubting or hoping. Knowing another person’s heart and mind is not so easy and I’d like a litte trust on this one.Seventh, John Mark I accept your point about how some lean hard to hear views that challenge traditional views — and I’m not saying these things for those reasons. I genuinely have struggled with this question since the early 80s and I’m glad it is kicked up again and I hope we can converse clearly enough and charitably enough to keep it going.Finally, the personal comments need to be avoided fellas. This isn’t honoring to the Lord or to any conversation we need to have.

  • stu

    fair call scot, but i wish the smile in my eyes could’ve been seen in what i was writing (you know the same smile that is in exuberant discussions during a seminary break). i’ll work on that in the future. 😉