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)?
(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.