How to Talk about the Afterlife (if you must) 2

How to Talk about the Afterlife (if you must) 2 July 14, 2011

Ten Theses to Guide Debate on the Afterlife

This post is by D. C. Cramer, who is a PhD student in religion with an emphasis in theological ethics at Baylor University, a pastor in the Missionary Church denomination, and a regular participant in the Jesus Creed community. Part one can be read here.

Where do you agree or disagree?

The following are some theses—in no particular order—that I believe should help guide discussions of the afterlife, especially those debates currently raging over universalism and hell. These thoughts are purely my own (and even I’m not sure what I think of all of them). By stating these theses, I am not advocating or endorsing any of the views of the afterlife discussed.

(6) The practical differences between these views shouldn’t be overestimated. Whether an unbeliever suffers forever, is completely destroyed, or suffers for a really long time, it is not a state of affairs that one would desire. So if our evangelism is going to be predicated on the fate of those who don’t accept Christ (which I’m not sure should be our primary motivation, but that’s another discussion), then there shouldn’t be a practical difference between the major evangelical views of the afterlife. Even if one believes—as universalists do—that ultimately all will be saved, one would still want to save people from all the unnecessary suffering they would face in the penultimate afterlife. And as Christians, we would hopefully want all to experience the fullness of Kingdom living now, which should be motivation enough for evangelism regardless of our views of the afterlife.

(7) The theological differences between these views shouldn’t be underestimated. Most of us believe that God loves everyone and that God is perfectly just. But clearly, what one who believes in eternal conscious torment and one who believes in ultimate universal reconciliation mean by terms like “love” and “justice” are going to radically differ. On the eternal conscious torment view, one has to reconcile one’s definition of love and justice with the notion that God torments (or allows to be tormented) unbelievers eternally (that is, after all, the very definition of the term “eternal conscious torment”). Other views of God necessarily follow from eternal conscious torment, for example, that God doesn’t ultimately get everything he desires: minimally, that all should be saved (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Of course, one might say that God desires some things more than he desires all to be saved, but then that too is saying something about God and his character. On the annihilationist view, one has to reconcile one’s view of love and justice with the notion that God destroys (or allows to cease existing) unbelievers after death. One also has to deal with some of the same theological ramifications as the eternal conscious torment view discussed above. On the universalist view, one has to reconcile one’s definition of love and justice with the notion that God will give second (and possibly third, fourth, fifth . . .) chances to those who die in utter defiance toward God and utter hatred toward fellow human beings. Even if these postmortem chances include much suffering (see (6) above), this view is clearly working with a different notion of love and justice than the other views. The question then becomes: Which notion of love and justice is most consistent with the whole scope and tenor of Scripture (as well as those nitty-gritty details of Scripture that the exegetes deal with)?

(8) Each of these positions has both subtle, scholarly articulations and shallow, popular descriptions; care should be taken to distinguish the two. It is always best to take on the best form of an argument and try to refute it than to merely refute popular forms of an argument. However, since popular forms are so, well, popular, it is okay to discuss and refute those too, as long as one specifies that in so doing one isn’t taking on the best version of the argument. So, if popular formulations of eternal conscious torment suggest a sadistic view of God, it is okay to point out the flaws in that view of God. And if popular formulations of universalism suggest a lax view of God, it is okay to point out the flaws in that view of God too. But the most subtle forms of eternal conscious torment try to avoid divine sadism, and the most subtle forms of universalism try to avoid divine laxity; and in debating these issues eventually one will have to deal with these more sophisticated views head on.

(9) We all have motivations for holding the views we hold, but unless someone explicitly states his or her motivation for holding a view, it is best to leave discussion of motivations out of it. Sure, some universalists probably grew up in oppressive fundamentalist churches from which they are trying desperately to break away. Sure, some who hold to eternal conscious torment can’t stand the idea of someday worshiping next to Osama bin Laden in heaven. But not everyone who holds to these views does so for the same reasons or with the same motivations. Speculating on one’s motivations, then, is just another form of the old ad hominem fallacy, and fallacies are generally best to avoid.

(10) None of these positions are clearly unorthodox or unevangelical. This may be the most controversial of these theses, but here me out: This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been a dominate view in the Christian tradition generally or the evangelical tradition more specifically. But it is to say that (perhaps because one view has been most often assumed) none of these views has been univocally ruled out by the tradition. There have always coexisted minority views, and while some particular denominations have settled on one view or another, the major stream of Christianity has always allowed for some variance. And even within evangelicalism, the story of historically competing views may have been suppressed, but it is still there to be read. In short, personal eschatology just hasn’t been the focus or core of Christian teaching and doctrine, and that’s probably how it should be.

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  • Thanks again for sharing these ideas. I particularly like this line ::

    “And as Christians, we would hopefully want all to experience the fullness of Kingdom living now, which should be motivation enough for evangelism regardless of our views of the afterlife.”

    I agree that the ‘now’ aspect of the kingdom of God should be emphasized more in our reaching out to others. If hell is a reality, whatever form it may take, it still falls outside the pale of our collective understanding and experience (we’ve never been there). Focusing on the ‘now’ aspect of the kingdom of God and living out this kingdom vision of Jesus in the present ought to consume the vast majority of our witness to Christ. Not the hell that ‘awaits’ and one that cannot be accurately measured in the present, especially the idea of an ‘eternal’ conscious punishment. We have nothing in our world that reflects such a concept.

    I like these ideas and hope we can reflect on each one a little more as we attempt to move forward in more productive ways than current debates seem to be taking us.

  • D.C.,

    Thanks for these cogent and fair thoughts on the afterlife. Now comes the hard part for all of us: applying these and their consequences in our conversations.

    I especially appreciated your last thesis because the story of Christian history is often retold by evangelicals to exclude any position but eternal concious torment and this simply isn’t an accurate portrayal of the way things happened. In Galli’s book he perpetuates the myth that universalism was condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople, but in doing so he errs by noting the wrong year (543 instead of 553) and doesn’t take account of the nuance involved in what actually happened prior to and during that council.

    One minor expansion I’d add to thesis eight or either as an additional thought is this: we must make sure that we accurately understand the other’s position before we attempt to critique it. This is another faux pas I’ve seen in recent discussions. Assumptions are made on either side and then those assumptions, instead of actual positions are discussed and critiqued. This is very similar to what you’ve said in eight, but with a bit of shading. It’s odd that we’d avoid discussing the real issues and working through those and not caricatures.

  • Joe Canner

    #6 is where I frequently land when discussing this issue with people. If indeed God is going to judge sin in a meaningful way* it is something I would like to avoid at all costs and help others to avoid, regardless of its exact nature. I am sure that just standing in the presence of a holy God for a few seconds could feel like an eternity of torture. I also agree that relieving hell on earth is something that is needed ever bit as much as rescuing from eternal judgment.

    * I wonder, though, how much we are really going to care about “justice” (humanly defined) when we are with God for eternity. I suspect that we are going to be so grateful for God’s forgiveness that it won’t bother us if God forgives those who don’t “deserve” forgiveness. Despite the example of Jesus and his words in the Sermon on the Mount, we are still so bound up in tit-for-tat justice, that we have a hard time imagining how things could function otherwise.

  • Excellent read.

  • I agree D.C. and appreciate your appeal for civil and even gracious discussion on this heated topic. Concerning #6, a friend just asked me last night what the differing motivation for evangelism is between the three, and specifically how the motivation for evangelism and mission is different for the universalist. I said that there is no difference. All should be motivated out of love and a desire to see those so loved translated from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, delivered from the dominion of sin, Satan, and death into eternal life!

  • Amos Paul

    @ Theses 6 & 10,

    People really tend to forget these. Even in the Eastern Orthodoxy, arguably the most conservative branch of Christianity in preserving old and longstanding practices/beliefes, their position has consistently been that adherents can believe almost any of these views of the afterlife. It doesn’t affect their corporate faith and there is some mystery to it.

    We shouldn’t even be having afterlife discussions unless we genuinely believe it’s going to help us grow personally or corporately.

  • John W Frye

    D.C.,
    Thanks, again, for these clear, helpful theses. Taken together, they highlight the complexity involved in debating/dialoguing seriously held views, in this case, about hell and the afterlife. What I perceived is that it really matters for us all to realized where we start from and now stand in the discussion. Those of us from the very conservative (even fundamentalists’) stream have been conditioned that not only is the Bible inerrant, so are our confidently received and held views. Thus, other views are immediately ‘suspect’ at several levels–biblically, theologically, motivationally and applicationally. It’s this initial starting points that prompts “God is lax and missions doesn’t matter’ or “God is an monsterly abusive parent.” I appreciate the thought you put into these guidelines for us.

  • John W Frye

    I apologize for the sloppy grammar in comment #7. I need to edit before I click ‘submit.’

  • Thanks for the feedback so far, everyone. A couple initial comments:

    Randy (#2): I definitely agree about the importance of “accurately understand[ing] the other’s position before we attempt to critique it.” I state as much explicitly in (4): “We can’t argue that these readings are ‘proof texting’ until we understand their entire biblical framework and can describe it accurately and sympathetically.” But I agree that this is an important one that probably merits its own thesis.

    John (#7): Thanks for your generous comments. While it may not necessarily be clear from my activity on Jesus Creed, I too come from “the very conservative stream” of evangelicalism. My wife got her B.A. from Moody, so I lived on Moody’s campus for two years while working on my M.Div. at TEDS. The Missionary Church denomination, in which I pastor, also has some borderline fundamentalist views and approaches to these issues. While I’ve tried to distance myself from some of the attitudes that we’ve been “conditioned” into, as you describe, I still respect a lot of folks from that stream and consider many of them personal friends. Also, it should be noted that liberals can be every bit as confident in the “inerrancy” of their views. That’s why I appreciate Scot’s attempt at carving out a “third way” in theology, which is where I would hope to land myself. John Howard Yoder’s theological approach has been particularly helpful for me in this regard.

  • This is good. Real good.

    But still not as good as THIS Kramer:

    http://www.taintedcanvas.com/seinfelds-hell/

    🙂

  • Thanks, D.C.! How true. And how humble this should keep us. We need to listen well, and continue to dialog, rather than cut the other off, and divide as if we have the truth while others don’t. At the same time, we should seek to ask the hard questions, and be open to them. As in iron sharpening iron.

  • Excellent post. And helpful for many of us casual readers wrestling with these tropes. Thanks

  • Richard

    Can we summarize these into a “Theological Rule of Life” and post them above our computers?

    Great points DC

  • One minor issue that my friend pointed out: on (10) “…but here me out…” should, of course, be “but hear me out….”