Public Lecture Review: “How to Be a Universalist” and “The Best of All Possible Stories: Can It Be True?”

How Not to Argue for Universalism

Hi everyone, sorry for the lack of posts–I got married. I originally wrote this for the Trinity Western University newspaper, the Mars Hill, but they are unable to publish it this issue. They might still publish it in a future one, but I have permission to post it here.

Universalism holds that salvation through Christ will apply, ultimately, to all sentient beingfireflame(maybe even Satan and his demons): Hell will be empty—if it even exists.

In a public lecture on Universalism on February 13, both Trinity Western University’s Myron A. Penner (Ph.D. Philosophy) and celebrated documentary filmmaker Kevin Miller (Hellbound?) agreed that it is difficult to understand the traditional doctrine of Hell and damnation:

For a Calvinist, why wouldn’t an all-powerful, all-loving God elect everyone? For an Arminian, is it really loving to respect someone’s “freedom” to choose Hell? Shouldn’t a loving parent override the freedom of a child who disobeys a warning keep away from danger (how much more so with God)? Moreover, are those who “choose” Hell cognitively aware of it? Surely they would not oppose God if they understood the consequences. More generally, it just seems “out of proportion” for finite sin to merit infinite, conscious, eternal punishment.

In the end, Penner rejects Universalism because there is “no good way to tell what counts as sufficient information and rationality for a morally culpable free choice of this magnitude”; Universalists would need to prove that “perpetual, free rejection of God” is impossible; otherwise, “it is possible that hell is populated.” But Miller pushes back, seeing the full restoration of sinners as morally superior to eternal punishment—even worse, if God allows people to perpetually reject him in Hell, then he is allowing sin to persist for eternity!

So we have three sets of difficulties concerning Hell: emotional unease, philosophical difficulties, and theological misgivings.

Regarding the first, something is of course wrong if we hope that there will be people in Hell. After all, the Lord himself “take[s] no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ez. 33:11). At the same time, I am wary of allowing emotions to influence my doctrine. For me, if theology is nutrition, then emotions are sugars and sin is trans-fat: Scripture teaches that that our hearts are “deceitful… [and] desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9); they are the source of “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries…” (Matt. 15:19); “There is a way which seems right to a person, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12). If emotions were crowned king, we would probably arrive at something like secular humanism: people are basically good; don’t harm or judge anybody; do what makes you happy; make the world a better place.

As a student of Apologetics, I was surprised that Molinism was ignored (named for the Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina [1535-1600])—which is essentially a Calvinist-Arminian, middle-ground position that William Lane Craig uses to suggest that there simply might not be any “feasible, possible world” that God could sovereignly create, in which everybody freely chooses him (reasonablefaith.org). (Probably Penner finds this view unhelpful in resolving the issue.) Although I think Molinism can show that Christianity is not necessarily logically incoherent, I cannot sit through Dr. Archie Spencer’s classes without sensing the Reformed-Barthian critique that Molinism trades too much of God’s sovereign freedom away. Certainly we can use Molinism as an apologetic response to charges that divine sovereignty and human freedom are logically contradictory and therefore Christianity is incoherent. But for theology, it seems best to say that Scripture doesn’t teach precisely how divine freedom and human freedom interact—only that both are meaningful realities. If we were to make philosophy king of the discussion, then I think we might end up ruling out God’s transcendence, the Incarnation, the Atonement, any “objective” meaning of Scripture, and reality itself—depending on how far down the postmodern rabbit-hole we care to tumble.

This brings us to theology’s relationship with philosophy. Now, I appreciate Penner’s defense of the traditional doctrine (It’s great apologetics!), and I recognise that he spoke as a philosopher at a philosophically-themed event; yet, along with Karl Barth, I think that philosophical concepts/categories must be informed by Christian meaning before we can use them in theology (Church Dogmatics III.3.49.2). Donald Bloesch is also helpful here: “The question is whether philosophical concepts and images are baptized into the service of the gospel or whether they alter the apostolic interpretation of the gospel” (The Holy Spirit, 255. I recognize the irony in citing Barth when some think that he himself was a universalist; Spencer thinks that Barth’s universalism has been exaggerated by Donald Bloesch.). Otherwise, philosophy forgets its place. It’s one thing for philosophy (or science, linguistics, archaeology, etc.) to help us distill and understand Scripture’s teaching; it’s quite another for philosophy to “correct” that teaching once it is properly understood. The difference is subtle: science can help alert us to the possibility that Genesis 1-11 isn’t meant to be taken literally (there is evidence for an old earth, etc.), but science certainly cannot deny the Resurrection just because it cannot account for it (what possible scientific evidence could there ever be–apart from discovering the corpse of Christ–that the Resurrection has not happened?). Likewise, just because philosophy cannot account for divine/human freedom does not mean it can correct the doctrine of Hell; philosophy must not “paint its own problems onto the sky,” as it were. Properly informed, Holy Spirit-serving exegesis comes first. (I’ve no reason to think that Penner would disagree.)

(I do appreciate what philosophy can do; Penner’s argument is a great apologetic argument in defense of the traditional doctrine. I’m not trying to set up a theology-vs.-philosophy dichotomy here. I’m only saying that when we discuss doctrine, we are doing theology, and we need to use theology’s toolset– which includes theologically-informed philosophical reflection but primarily relies on sound exegesis as its bedrock. It must do so if we are to avoid simply relying on the “wisdom of the world” (1 Cor. 2).

I appreciate Miller for upholding the centrality of Christ, and I found his observation that “Chronological snobbery is a two-way street” to be particularly insightful and helpful: we should not evaluate any idea simply on the basis of how old or new it is. What I don’t appreciate is that (intentionally or not) he seems to subtly caricature people who believe in Hell as angry and unforgiving–I picked up on this in both his popular documentary Hellbound? and in his talk at this public lecture. (This is no better than if I were to caricature Miller as a bleeding-heart, liberal extremist who wants to throw away the Bible and Christian Tradition.) I don’t want there to be a Hell any more than I want there to be cancer, poverty and war, but I am convinced that the Bible teaches that there is such a place. Miller warns against following majority opinion, but, ironically, his own Universalism is much more palatable to popular culture (with its religious pluralism, humanism, etc.) than the traditional doctrine of Hell is.

However, it is Miller’s subordination of theology and exegesis to philosophy and emotional unease that really strikes a chord with me. It may seem that restoration is morally superior to eternal punishment, but—despite Miller’s (correct!) warnings about how worldview lenses can distort our understanding—he seems to gloss over just how limited and contingent our misgivings really are. This was particular noticeable when he made the comment that we could “put on Augustine’s lens” in addition to our own, so that we have an advantage over the Fathers–What!? we can never put on Augustine’s lens or even each other’s lenses. We don’t have Augustine’s lens–only his books; we can’t breathe the fourth/fifth century air; we can’t visit ancient Hippo; we can’t talk about a gladiator fight as if we can seen one for ourselves; etc. (In fairness, I may be pressing Miller’s words too hard: he seems to be more balanced in his blog.) Take the postmodern critique regarding objective certainty and add to it the Bible’s scepticism about the human heart: we are both blind and biased, utterly impoverished apart from divine revelation; we are not in any position to correct special revelation (once it is properly understood)—if we were, it couldn’t really be divine revelation. Who are we, at all, to say what the “best” story is? Moreover, if we agree with the Reformed conviction that God’s being and his action are unified (cf. 2 Tim. 2:13), then to ask for a God who decrees different things is to ask for a God with a different nature.

Before Jesus, there was no clear articulation of the afterlife. If Universalism were true, wouldn’t Jesus be an exceptionally poor and misleading teacher, given that he basically introduced the idea of Hell? If an eternal punishment seems out of proportion, isn’t an eternal reward also so? If many early Christians were Universalists, as Miller holds, doesn’t that mostly just show that we are prone to downplay God’s judgment in any age?

During the Q & A, I asked Miller how we could make sense of the urgency in the New Testament if there weren’t anything ultimately at stake. His response (if I understood correctly) was that the gospel could do much-needed transformative good here and now. But can that fully explain why the apostles (and others) suffered disgrace, persecution, and martyrdom? Why would Paul warn against false teaching “with tears” (Acts 20:31) and wish to be accursed instead of his Jewish countrymen (Rom. 9:3)? Why should I suffer even one awkward moment for a gospel that doesn’t need to be believed? Why not pretend to be secular humanists (to avoid offense), do some social good while we can, and preach the gospel privately to those who need additional transformation? Do you see how the priority gets reversed? Traditionally, getting right with God was most important, and the results of being transformed–good deeds–were secondary. But if Miller is right, then our only urgency comes from a desire to make the world a better, more peaceful and loving place now–it’s a worthy goal, but is it more important than repentance and belief? Universalism subordinates the gospel to social concerns. Now, if Universalism is true, then, fine, it seems the gospel should be subordinated to social concerns–after all, everyone will be saved anyway, and there will even be situations where preaching the gospel will cause hate, division of families, social rejection of stubborn sinners, and invite persecution, so it is clearly better not to preach the gospel at all when it will cause these socially negative things–if Universalism is true.

People often ask, “How could a perfectly loving God send anyone to Hell?” They rarely ask, “How could a perfectly just and holy God allow anyone into Heaven?” Both questions are answered at the Cross: philosophy and emotions cannot answer them. The Greeks scoffed at Paul because the Resurrection offended their philosophy that matter and bodies were bad; the doctrine of Hell offends our own philosophy and culture—but neither of these is an appropriate starting point for formulating Christian doctrine. A good argument for Universalism must begin with Scripture, not only highlighting the verses that seem to support it (and there are some), but also dealing squarely with the many (I would say the overwhelming majority) that do not, as well as the entire missional, urgent tenor of the New Testament.

Pop-Wisdom vs. Biblical Wisdom

(Sorry for the lack of posts lately – I’m planning a wedding and trying to wrap up some schoolwork these days.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between popular wisdom and biblical wisdom.

Popular wisdom seems to say that we should trust our hearts and be basically sceptical about reason: “what is truth? Everyone has a different opinion. Follow your heart. Who really knows what is best? Do what you think is right. To each his or her own.”

Biblical wisdom seems to say the opposite – that we should be basically sceptical about our hearts, and generally trusting of reason: the heart is desperately sick and evil (Jer. 17:9); it is the wellspring of all manner of evils (Jesus says this in Matt. 15:18-20); God calls us to come an reason with Him (Is. 1:18); we are told to be mature in our thinking (1 Cor. 14:20); and that solid biblical teaching is for those who have learned to discern the difference between good and evil (Heb. 5:14). And yet, at the same time, there are verses that show that human reason has limits and cannot always be trusted, and that we have to submit ourselves to Christ before we can have the ‘mind of Christ’ (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; 2 Cor. 4:3-4; 1 Cor. 2:14-16).

  • How are we to make sense of this? Well, for myself, this is the model that I use in my own thinking:
    • Reason itself (with a capital R) is simply the mechanics of truth, and God is the Truth (John 14:6); therefore, Reason itself is an ally.
    • However, we humans are, apart from God, darkened in our thinking. We are capable of some infallible reason (2 + 2 = 4), but we are also capable of much fallible reason as well, which is most evident in human hypocrisy.
      • When we use logic correctly, we are tapping into that which flows from God’s own nature.
      • When we think incorrectly, we are falling prey to the limitations of our fallible minds.
      • When our sinful motivations cause us to be closed-minded to the truth (e.g. assuming that there must be no supernatural without even investigation historical evidence for such), our fallen hearts are taking over our thinking.
    • I want to suggest that all human fallible reason is, in fact, either due to untrained minds and/or evil intentions of the heart; I think sometimes it is only one of these, and sometimes it is both – we are more than capable of deceiving ourselves.

The cash value is this: popular culture says that we should be most cautious about truth and our minds, while biblical wisdom says we should be most cautious about our hearts. So if we make our moral decisions on the basis of our emotions and desires – on the basis of what seems right to us (cf. Prov. 14:12) – instead of submitting our opinions to the authority of Scripture, then it’s hard to ignore the clear implication: we have simply relocated the authority; we trust our hearts more than we trust God.

Now, it is important to clarify the boundaries of what I am saying here:

  • By “trusting of reason,” all I mean is that the Bible seems to say that once we’ve taken care of the heart problem, reason is an ally, not a foe. This is not to somehow elevate human reason above the effects of the Fall; rather, I would argue that whatever is merely human (whatever does not flow from God’s nature) in human reason is, in fact, not truth-oriented at all. The merely human parts of human reason are those parts which are either mistaken or in service of the deceptive human heart instead of in service of Truth. Whatever parts of reason are not merely human – that is, whatever is not influenced by the fallen human heart or imperfect mind – is, in fact, the mechanics of Truth itself (a.k.a. the rules of logic). I believe that the rules of logic must flow from the nature of God Himself. This does not mean that we humans have an exhaustive understanding of these laws; rather, just like moral laws, they are gradually discovered (revealed!) over time. So, I am not at all saying that human reason is the ally; it is God who is our ally, and true Reason is part of His nature. Truth is not something we can posses, but we can allow Truth to posses us. I don’t have the Truth: the Truth has me. Praise God!
  • When I speak of human emotions as being opposed to biblical wisdom, or somehow the opposite of biblical wisdom, I am not at all saying that human emotions (or conscience) are always wrong; rather, I am saying that if we choose to go with our hearts when they are opposed to the teachings of Scripture, then we are trusting our hearts more than God.
    • That is what makes this such a dangerous area of Christian living: much of the time we can trust our hearts! Murder is wrong; we should give to the poor; racism is wrong; we should help the helpless; stealing money is wrong; we should love others and care for them – all of these things basically agree with the collective ‘human heart’ of western culture (at this point in history). And yet, we also have a number of ‘heart-positions’ that are squarely at odds with Scripture: culture tells us not to judge anyone ever (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-13); that all religions are the same, and sincerity is all that matters (cf. John 14:6; Acts 4:12); that we should do whatever we desire to do (James 1:13-15; Rom. 8:13); and so on.

So, the point is this: we must trust the authority of Scripture first, and submit our hearts to God continually.

What do you guys think?

Oil-Change Apologetics: My Way or the High-Way?

The other day I was getting an oil change, and the attendant noticed my school parking pass. “What are you studying at Trinity?” he asked. (This conversation did take place, but the quotations are paraphrased and idealized, here, for the sake of clarity.)

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“Well,” I responded, “I’m taking a Master’s of Theological Studies focusing in Contemporary Apologetics. One of the things I learn is how to respond to people like Richard Dawkins, who say that Christianity (and all religion) is false, unreasonable, and a bad thing to believe in. It’s a lot of reading, and it’s very personally challenging, because it requires a radical honesty: to do this well, I think, you have to be willing to follow the truth wherever it takes you, and sometimes that means saying to myself, ‘If Christianity isn’t true, then I don’t want to believe it. If it’s false, then I’m willing to go to church barbecues, perhaps, but I’m not willing to look stupid–I’m certainly not willing to suffer for this.’ If I’m not really willing to be honest, then I think this is a big waste of time. That being said, I think there are a lot of good reasons to think that Christianity is true.”

In response, this fellow told me that he is currently studying at a Kingdom Hall to become a Jehovah’s Witness, and I said I’d love to learn more about that sometime, and provided him with my email address. His coworker asked me this: “Having studied all these different religious points of view, do you like your way the best?

This was an interesting question, I thought. In a marketplace of worldviews, it does seem arrogant for the Christian–or anyone, really–to say, “I am right; I have the truth.” The Christian, however, would prefer to say, “I was lost; now I am found. I was wrong, and now the Truth has me.

“Well,” I responded to them, “I think it would be helpful to point out that it’s not really my way. In fact, it’s often offensive to me, too!”

“What do you mean, it offends you?” they asked me.

“Well, just the idea that I am sinful—that I am, by nature, in the wrong, and need to submit myself in obedience to God. That idea is offensive to me. It offends my ego; my pride. It offends what we Christians call our ‘sinful nature’ or ‘flesh.’ The Gospel doesn’t only exclude those in other religions, or only secular humanists, etc.; it actually excludes every possible way of doing life that does not enthrone Jesus Christ as Lord. So, in a way, it offends me daily, because I have to deny myself and submit myself to Christ daily. So the truth about God and humanity is something that I don’t really see as ‘my way’—it’s more like gravity; it’s something that is imposed on all of us, whether we want to believe it or not. We can act in a way that respects gravity, or we can ignore it, but there are consequences either way.”

It was an interesting conversation, I hope this fellow emails me sometime. In retrospect, I should have asked for his email, too.

This reminds me of an old favourite song of mine: “Who” by the Newsboys.

“How we gonna work this out?
To fabricate a God like this no doubt,
We’d end up worshipping a Christ of our own design.
But Jesus doesn’t fit that profile;
His ways aren’t mine.

I’m not following a God that’s imagined,
Can’t invent this deity.
That’s why Jesus is the final answer,
To who I want my God to be;
He’s who I want my God to be.”