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.

Would God Send a Good Person to Hell? A Personal Answer

The other day, my professor at ACTS Seminaries, Paul Chamberlain, asked me to sit on a panel and answer questions from the audience following a talk on Hell given by one of our graduates. Thankfully, a New Testament scholar was on my left, and the man who had given the talk was on my right! Nonetheless, I did have a couple of unique things to say, and I thought I would flesh-out one of my answers here.

The question was, “If I’m a good person, and I don’t believe in God, would he still send me to Hell just because I didn’t believe in Him?”

This is a loaded question, because it paints God in a very dark light from the start. Frankly, it makes God look petty, egotistical, and even spiteful – almost like He would be enacting a sort of prideful revenge on these hapless, innocent people who simply didn’t think there was a good reason to believe in Him. Now, my answer to this question tries to paint a personal – even emotional – picture of the matter. But before I get to it, I should acknowledge a number of “standard” responses:

  • The Bible doesn’t allow for the possibility that there are actually any “good people.” God’s standard is the only one that matters, and the best of us still utterly fall short.
    • Romans 3:10 – 18:

      “There is none righteous, not even one;
      11 There is none who understands,
      There is none who seeks for God;
      12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
      There is none who does good,
      There is not even one.”
      13 “Their throat is an open grave,
      With their tongues they keep deceiving,”
      “The poison of asps is under their lips”;
      14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”;
      15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood,
      16 Destruction and misery are in their paths,
      17 And the path of peace they have not known.”
      18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

    • The fact is, you cannot actually think of the true God while at the same time putting yourself over Him and judging Him, because if you’re looking over someone’s shoulder, that person cannot be God. God, by definition, is higher than you; He looks over your shoulder!
  • God is a gentleman, and while sin is a self-destructive choice, it is still your self-destructive choice to make; God will not force your hand. The person who goes to Hell has chosen him or herself over God, and there are consequences for that choice. Someone who chooses drunkenness all the time does not want the self-destructive end of that choice, but they still wanted to be drunk each and every time.
  • The “C. S. Lewis” answer is essentially that Hell is locked from the inside: those in Hell would not want to be in Heaven, because they hate God so much, and God respects that – He gives them what they want: to be separated from Him.
  • Many are quick to say, “What kind of an all-loving God would ever send anyone to Hell?” Of course, they rarely ask the other side of the question: “How could a perfectly just God allow any evil person into Heaven?” The resolution to this problem requires an understanding of what happened on the Cross of Christ: the perfect love and perfect holy justice of God intersected on the Cross. He is the God who underwent the greatest humiliation in all of history, suffering and dying for the sins of the world. Only the true, perfectly-just God could demand justice for my sins; only the true, all-loving God could and would pay the price.

Okay, so, sometimes these answers fail to really “do it” for me. They feel a little hollow at times, and I’m not sure that they really connect with people all the time. We always put a face on the issue, and imagine a “good person” who is the victim of God. But there are at least two faces on this issue – Man’s and God’s. So, here is an answer that I believe is an original one of my own (if I didn’t come up with it, then I heard it so long ago that I don’t remember hearing it).

Suppose you had a son, and that he was perfect. I mean really perfect: he voted for all the parties you wanted him to; he made perfect grades in school; he did well at his job and earned a substantial income; he was well-respected in the community, and had married a wonderful, confident woman. Everything he set his hand to caused you to delight in him, and you could not be more proud.

Now, suppose that in spite of all of this, your son wanted nothing to do with you. Maybe he disagreed with a choice you made; maybe he was angry with you. Or perhaps he simply didn’t care to have anything to do with you – maybe a lack of time, or perhaps he was ignorant of you and your desire to connect with him. But in any case, suppose that he completely ignored your every effort to communicate, and taught his children that you didn’t even exist.

The question is, Would you consider him to be a good son?

And moreover, Would it be loving of you to force your way into his life anyway? If he utterly rejected you, would it be loving and just to force yourself on him?

You see where I’m going with this: regardless of your son’s perfection, he still would not be a good son. This is because you don’t simply want moral perfection from him – you want relationship; you want proper acknowledgement and involvement.

Well, in the same way, I would argue that even a perfectly moral human being (although such a thing is impossible) is still only a good human being if they relate properly to God. And that we, as humans, need this relationship with God for our eternal well-being. Sin is both disease and crime; it is both moral disability and moral crime. We are both victims and perpetrators. Sin is a spiritual cancer with eternal consequences and we need God to get out of this predicament.

“But that’s not fair!” you might say, “everyone knows they have a father – it’s obvious! But we don’t know we have a God!” And to this I would reply that we ought to know we have a God, because there is a wealth of evidence for Him – just as you ought to know you have an earthly father, even if you had never met him. As a species, we should know that we have a God. Romans 1:18-25 relates this idea, saying that we have turned from the Creator to focusing on the creation:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honour Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonoured among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

Now, what is this evidence? That is another matter for another time. But the point here is that if the Bible is to be believed, we also have a sort of moral blindness about us; we tend to see moral issues as we want to see them, and we avoid admitting our fault. In verse 24 you can see that God is a gentleman who will not force Himself onto people who reject Him; however, He will not prevent them from experiencing the consequences of their actions.

In conclusion, I’ve tried to show that we are not being good people simply by being decent toward one another, because if God exists and we ignore Him, then we are being incredibly indecent toward Him. If we have a Creator who made us to know Him and enjoy Him, then we quite literally fail at the whole of existence if we ignore Him – that is what is at stake in this discussion.

I hope that this helps to “put a face” on the issue: God’s face.