10 Popular Re-interpretations of The Great Commission

  1. “Go therefore and make fools of yourselves, building up walls to protect your children from hearing anything that you disagree with; shoe-horn the Ten Commandments in every public school and set up a Nativity scene on every government property.”
    • Because we all know that Jesus’ Kingdom is of this world, right?
  2. “Go therefore and make cheap, unoriginal parodies of popular music and movies, making Christianity look fun in the name of entertainment, teaching people to expect fog machines, light-shows, and emotional ecstasy during worship…”
    • I am not opposing all Christian music here; there are a number of truly original Christian artists – but there are many “baptized” versions of secular artists as well…
  3. “Go therefore and make the world a better place, joining hands with general humanistic morality, teaching people to live more peacefully with one another and to observe the general tenets of secular humanism…”
    • I have nothing against many social causes – I actually think Christians should be doing many of those things! But these are not the Great Commission; we cannot confuse the message with good deeds.
  4. “Go therefore and make friends with non-believers, acting very nice and hoping that one day they will ask you why you are different…”
    • There’s nothing wrong with making friends and doing “relational evangelism” – except that some of your friends may feel that you’re treating them like a project (because you are). Alternatively, it might only be a relationship without any evangelism. I’m all for choosing the right moment and being wise, but let’s face it: it’s difficult to evangelize, and it’s way more easy to just sink back into a comfortable friendship than it is to actually get the message across. We simply don’t get to be off-duty Christians. We are either all about Jesus Christ or we are slacking off.
    • I don’t mean that every single moment is supposed to be some sort of explicit “Jesus teaching moment” – far from it! But I do mean that every single moment is an on-duty moment. If we are truly being transformed by the gospel, then it transforms all of our lives; it means that it should not even be possible for someone to become your friend without it being really obvious that you’re about Jesus Christ. It should drip off you; it should be both implicit and explicit – according to wisdom in the Holy Spirit. We don’t get to pretend that we’re not Christians.
  5. “Go therefore door-to-door and tell people how evil they are, threatening them with the torments of hell in the name of love, teaching them to fear all that I have commanded you…”
    • I’m not against door-to-door ministry (I admire that boldness!); rather, I am against using fear as a primary motivator for bringing people to faith in Christ. Yes, we need to be honest about God’s holiness, justice, and judgment – but that really isn’t the whole message of the Cross, now is it? Jesus talked about hell, but he talked about a lot of other things, too.
  6. “Go therefore and tell people that God is just love (not really holy), making them feel accepted in the name of community, teaching them to ignore all that I have commanded you…”
    • Loving acceptance is a key component of Christian love – but it is not supposed to be motivated by an “I’m okay; you’re okay” mentality. Rather, it should be motivated by the knowledge that neither of us is “okay,” but that because of Jesus we can be redeemed. We accept others because we have been accepted and redeemed.
    • It is possible to be more liberal than Jesus.
  7. “Go therefore into your homes and have nothing to do with the world, protecting yourselves from the evil around you in the name of holiness, teaching outsiders that you are better than them…”
    • It is possible to be more conservative than Jesus.
    • If you think that avoiding all situations with alcohol, for example, is more important than getting out there and interacting with non-believers, then you are more conservative than Jesus. If you think that you cannot be friends with a non-believer, you are more conservative with Jesus. You cannot plant any seeds (much less harvest) if you’re afraid to go to the field.
  8. “Go therefore and make yourselves rich, teaching people that God will bless them in this life in the name of health, wealth, and prosperity…”
    • Frankly, I don’t even know how this one gets off the ground. Just read about Paul’s life in the Bible – he was probably one of the best Christians ever and yet he suffered greatly.
  9. “Go therefore and prove scientifically that God exists, showing that the world is definitely only a few thousand years old and that evolution is false in the name of Enlightenment Rationalism, teaching them about the conspiracy in modern science…”
    • And its corollary:
      • 2 Tim. 3:16 – All Scripture is inspired [verbally dictated] by God [according to modern, twenty-first century, English-speaking, North American standards of rigid exactitude] and profitable for teaching [science and modern historiography], for reproof [of all non-conservative understandings of Scripture], for correction [of historical allegations], for training in righteousness [rationalistic apologetics];”
    • I have nothing against apologetics per se. But the Great Commission is not about asking people for their intellectual permission to preach the gospel. Apologetics should help remove obstacles to hearing, but it can never finally establish the credibility of the gospel – it cannot and must not pretend to provide a rationalistic foundation for belief. (See more on this here.)
  10. “Go therefore to seminary and learn all the theology you can, posting on Facebook everything you’ve learned in the name of truth, teaching people that they need to think critically about what they believe, forgetting to actually invite people to take a positive step of faith beyond the reach of critical thought…”
    • This is mine. This is the one that I struggle with all the time – both online and in person. I am willing to discuss apologetics with everyone, but I am often fearful to actually say to someone, with confidence, “Listen, Jesus is the Creator and Lord of everything; he can forgive you for the wrongs you’ve committed against him – against God – and he will give you new life. He has died for your sins and for my sins! He is the point of this life, and any way of doing life without enshrining him as Lord and following him is a wasted life. He will come back to judge the living and the dead.
      • Please pray that I would move past mere rational appeal into the realm of confident witness. For all of my opposition to the rationalistic approach I described above, I often fall into the same sort of thing (only not in terms of Creation Science). The fact that my method is perhaps more sophisticated (or needlessly complicated) does not excuse me from the basic charge that I do, in fact, try to make an excuse for the Word of God. But we do not need to make an excuse for the Word of God; we need to be silent and heed it.

Matthew 28:19-20 (the real one) “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”


Faith, Reason, and Apologetics

In the early Middle Ages, the role of faith was elevated too high above evidence; people were probably too quick to believe things without any evidence – sometimes against the evidence. In the early modern period, we learned the importance of evidence, but we quickly forgot the value of faith; we began to think that faith had no role at all simply because we realized that it is possible to put your faith in the wrong thing. In the postmodern period, we’ve realized that the role of faith cannot be escaped: all evidence is questionable, we cannot be *as* certain as we thought we could be.

So there is a three-fold choice before us:

(1) Some, like Richard Dawkins, insist that it does not take any faith to accept evidence, so they just deny the postmodern discovery and go on in their rationalism: if the scientific evidence cannot prove God, then there is no God. This is also the position of many Christian fundamentalist groups, who insist that evidence can be a foundation for the Christian faith – for example, Creation Science and the Intelligent Design Movement agree with Dawkins that evidence comes before faith; they simply disagree on what the evidence is (and I believe that they are wrong about the evidence). “I can have Truth,” this group says.

(2) The postmodern skeptics say that neither faith nor evidence gives us truth, and so they live without holding onto anything as true. Because anything could be false, they won’t trust anything. This group says, “If I can’t have Truth, no one can!”

(3) We can realize that faith and evidence go together. We must have faith in our senses and mind before we can receive any evidence; we must also realize that if there is a God, he cannot be established using any outside evidence because there can be no brighter light, no surer foundation than God himself. This means that the only way to interact with God is by faith (sort of like the fact that you cannot get to know a person unless you first believe that there is, in fact, a person inside that human body – not just some biological robot; you interact with a person by faith, and then you receive evidence of personhood on the basis of your initial faith). This coincides with Hebrews 11:6: “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” This group says, “Truth has me.” Truth is not their own possession to wield; it is God’s unique possession in which we only participate by his grace.

At the same time, the evidence clearly matters. If all the evidence in the world showed that Christianity had been invented as a hoax in the 19th century, for example, we would have to re-evaluate our faith commitments. That is why I could not be a Mormon, a Muslim, or a Young-Earth Creationist (unless my understanding of the evidence radically changed – and that is always theoretically possible, which is why faith must be included; faith goes past where the evidence can go, but it cannot ignore evidence either). Even Christian faith understands that all Truth is rooted in God; therefore the evidence and true faith cannot ultimately conflict – although our human understanding is always incomplete; always provisional. The eyes of faith see past what reason is able to perceive on its own, then giving to reason things “to chew on,” as it were. This is St. Augustine’s crede, ut intelligas: “believe so that you may understand.”

So I take the third position. This is why I see Creation Science and the Intelligent Design Movement as philosophically and theologically flawed (not only flawed scientifically): they agree with position (1) above instead of the more Christian position (3). They buy into the modern myth that evidence must be a foundation for faith instead of a helper for faith. But this is backwards, as I hope I’ve made clear: faith has to be a foundation for reason. Faith and reason are both human cognitive faculties and we need to use them both responsibly. To the degree that we buy into (1) above instead of receiving our teaching from the Bible, we are worldly in our thinking instead of biblical in our thinking.

(Of course, I agree with “intelligent design” in the sense that I believe the universe was, in fact, designed – but I do not think that design can be scientifically detected [which is what the Intelligent Design Movement teaches]. You cannot even detect that a painting was designed by using *only* the tools of science. You have to *first* believe that agents exist who are able to paint – but that is not a scientific conclusion, it is a philosophical assumption. I will have to do a blog series on Creation Science and Intelligent Design sometime.)

What Should Apologetics Do?

Christian apologetics does its best work when, having listened carefully (Prov. 18:13,17), it uses the wisdom of man (1 Cor. 1:18-31) to silence/demolish pretensions against the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 10:5), giving a defence for the faith (1 Pet. 3:15) – In order that it, too, may be silenced (for it does itself rely on the wisdom of man to some extent), so that the Word of God may be heard. It must humbly say, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). It recognizes that even its own ability to believe in Christ is in some sense a gift (John 6:44) – that it cannot do anything apart from Christ (John 15:5).

Christian apologetics does its worst work when it does not listen carefully, tries to use the wisdom of man to lay a new foundation for the faith (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10-15), and tries to make an excuse for the Word of God (or worse, to speak instead of God), for fear that Christianity will not be respectable in the eyes of the world unless it rests on the wisdom of man – as if God needed the permission of humanity before he could speak. It then gloats and boasts triumphantly in its own wisdom, speaking disdainfully of *those foolish people* who will not believe; they must be “irrational” or “stupid” it thinks – as if it has accomplished something for itself by “figuring out” God. This distortion is clearly sinful.

Apologetics, then, is not (finally) about proving God – for when he speaks, there is no brighter light against which to test him; rather, it is about dis-proving man’s worldly pretensions against God. Intelligent Design and Creation Science do not go far enough because they perpetuate one of man’s great pretensions; namely, position (1) above. Unless we communicate that repentance includes repenting of our own wisdom – for repentance must go all the way down – we do not preach repentance at all. To repent is to utter the great, final “I am wrong”; to believe is to utter the great, final “He is right”; to trust is to obey. Martin Luther spoke truthfully when he said that the whole Christian life must be one of repentance; the Church must always be in a state of reform.

Book Review: Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ – by Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace

Bock, Darrell L and Daniel B. Wallace. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007. 237 pages.


Darrell L. Bock is Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. His postdoctoral work in Luke-Acts and in Jesus’ examination before the Jews has earned him international recognition, and he currently serves as corresponding editor at large for Christianity Today. Daniel B. Wallace, also a Professor of New Testament Studies at DTS, has done postdoctoral work in Greek grammar, syntax and textual criticism. Wallace is founder of an organization that works to ensure the digital preservation of all known Greek New Testament manuscripts.


Dethroning Jesus differentiates two competing stories about the historical Jesus. Christianity maintains that “Jesus was anointed by God to represent both God and humanity in the restoration of a broken relationship existing between the Creator and his creation” (4). “Jesusanity,” in contrast, calls him a prophet or wise religious teacher—a good example to follow; “the key is that Jesus inspires others, but there is no throne for him” (5). Bock and Wallace investigate the competing merits of each view of Jesus by analyzing and responding to six of Jesusanity’s major public claims.

1. The original New Testament has been corrupted by copyists.

World-class New Testament (NT) scholar Bart Ehrman presents three lines of argument in his 2005 best seller, Misquoting Jesus: 1) our copies of the NT are so late that the message of the originals is uncertain. Bock and Wallace reply that both the dating and number of NT manuscripts are much better than all of the other ancient texts that today’s historians accept as trustworthy. 2) There are many differences (errors) between NT manuscripts. However, ninety-nine percent of these involve wording and spelling differences and do not viably affect the meaning; the remainder do not affect any orthodox doctrine—e.g. “We have peace” vs. “Let us have peace” in Romans 5:1. 3) Orthodox scribes changed the NT text, altering its basic message. While Bock and Wallace grant that there were insertions, such as Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53-8:11, and 1 John 5:7-8, they counter that Evangelical scholars have known about these “for more than a century, yet no theological formulations have been altered” (64). They conclude that Ehrman has a penchant for publicly inflating these issues, making them more sensational than they really are.

2. Secret gnostic gospels, such as Judas show the existence of early alternative Christianities.

For Ehrman, this fact “reverses everything we ever thought about the nature of true Christianity (99); “orthodoxy” was merely the winning alternative among many. Bock and Wallace agree that Judas is authentic ancient Gnostic text: it centres on secret knowledge and dualism, in which the spiritual is good and the physical is bad—and so is the inferior god who created the physical realm. Here Jesus is a secretive, disdainful figure who speaks ill of the disciples except Judas—whom he instructs to hand over “the man that clothes [him]” (96) to be crucified. There is certainly an alternative Christianity here, but Bock and Wallace point out that this is a second-century text while the canonical gospels are from the first century. Moreover, the anti-Jewish nature of Judas would have disqualified it because the early Christians accepted Hebrew teaching: the one true God had created the physical world. They conclude that Ehrman’s claim is a “historically false…misleading and anachronistic attempt to write a revisionist history” (103).

3. The Gospel of Thomas radically alters our understanding of the real Jesus.

In her 2003 book, Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels expresses her dismay that the Gospel of John rejects any “divine spark” within humanity—it rejects the “good news” of Thomas. Bock and Wallace’ contentions are similar as with Judas: 1) as a collection of 114 alleged sayings of Jesus, Thomas lacks any narrative that may have aided in its dating; it is most likely a second-century text—partly because it appears to borrow heavily from the Synoptic Gospels and 1 Corinthians. 2) Early Christians would have disqualified Thomas for its disdain for apocalyptic prophecy and its elevation of knowledge above faith, among other things. This Jesus performs no miracles, appears to teach panentheism, and says things such as “every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven” (125). 3) That scholars would treat Thomas as more trustworthy than the Gospel of John bewilders Bock and Wallace because this Jesus is “virtually untouchable by historical investigation” (128): Thomas himself is explicitly affirmed as “the only one with [secret] reliable information about Jesus” (128)—information that is so cryptic that it cannot be openly communicated. The Gospels, far from being non-falsifiable, were written anonymously and “give us earlier material, written in a way that subjects the narrative to historical inquiry. And what these gospels say about Jesus is not said in a corner: it is the memory of Jesus of the earliest Christian communities” (130).  

4. Jesus’ message was actually (only) political and social.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan make this claim in their 2006 book, The Last Week. They make a number of number of arguments with which Bock and Wallace take exception: 1) Jesus’ central message of economic and political reform incited his crucifixion. Bock and Wallace agree that Jesus’ most basic theme was the kingdom of God, but they insist that he presented himself as king-messiah—not merely as prophet-messiah. Bock and Wallace agree that the details of Jesus’ execution attest to this much, but Borg and Crossan insist on an either-or approach: “Jesus [either] speaks against the leadership, or…about himself” (This is Bock and Wallace’ summary–not a quote from Borg and Crossan. 140). Bock and Wallace point out that the church would not have invited persecution by needlessly emphasizing Christ as king-messiah; Hebrew teachings on the Messiah anticipate a “ruling or transcendent figure” (139). It is also curious that Jesus is not recorded as saying much about Rome at all, or even as visiting the Roman cities nearby—if his mission were purely political. 2) Jesus’ death was not understood as being “for sins” until Anselm popularized the idea in AD 1097. This claim is simply false. Paul taught Jesus’ death for our sins as the teaching he had received (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). Here is another either-or: either “one participates with Jesus in the Cross, or one is substituted for by Jesus’ act on the cross” (145)—but the NT actually teaches both. 3) The resurrection is best understood as a parable. A plausible case is made for a mere vision of the risen Christ, but this ignores that many people saw him at once, and that Thomas’ doubt was remedied by physical contact. Bock and Wallace agree with Borg and Crossan that “Jesus is against egoism and injustice and for personal and political transformation…[but they insist that] Jesus is the key to this transformation, not just his teaching” (168).

5. Paul hijacked the Jewish reform movement of Jesus and James, creating one that exalted Jesus and included the Gentiles.

In his 2006 book, The Jesus Dynasty, James Tabor teaches that Christianity began with Jesus and John the Baptist’s teachings, in which “Jesus’s person or work wasn’t a central concern” (180); only later did Paul’s teachings, based on his “visionary experiences of a heavenly Christ” (174), become synonymous with Christianity—a very different movement than that of James. Bock and Wallace praise Tabor for some solid historical work, but his key assumptions are flawed: 1) he has an anti-supernatural bias; Tabor decries the virgin birth “dogma” but substitutes his own dogma that “all human beings [including Jesus] have both a biological mother and father” (175). He suggests that Jesus’ real father was likely a Roman soldier named Pantera since Mark does not mention Joseph (among other things). However, this ignores Mark’s literary emphasis on Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 1:1); to focus on Jesus’ earthly father—apparently dead during the events in Mark—might have undermined this. 2) Bock and Wallace also note that Tabor excessively contrasts Christian texts. It is true that there were differing emphases in early Christianity, but this does not imply different faiths. Bock and Wallace also find this tendency in Ehrman, who accepts report of a “divisive” conflict with Peter in Galatians 2 but not the affirmations of unity in the same letter. Moreover, Paul speaks teaching that he has received: “When Paul saw the exalted Jesus and was converted, he had to have known the church’s teaching in order to understand the experience” (190).

6. Jesus’ tomb has been found; his resurrection and ascension were not physical.

In March 2007, the Discovery Channel aired “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” documentary, with Tabor as the primary historical advisor. It suggested that the names found in a tomb unearthed at Talpiot, Israel, linked it to Jesus: “Jesus, Mary…Mariamne…Matthew, Jose (a variation of Joseph), and Judas, son of Jesus” (196). Bock and Wallace point out “a series of historical, cultural, and sociological problems…[,] ones most historians could readily spot” (198): 1) Either this is Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, who offered his tomb for Jesus’ burial, or “Jose” is Jesus’ father; the former squares with the gospel accounts, but only the latter supports the documentary’s claim. If the disciples stole the body and put it in this second tomb, as the documentary suggests, then they later knowingly preached a lie to the point of their own martyrdoms. Neither is there any explanation for why Mathew (not related to Jesus) would be in the family tomb, and not Jesus’ other brothers. 2) The documentary argues that Jesus and Mariamne were husband and wife on the basis that their DNA did not match. This simply cannot be proven by a DNA test; one wonders why they did not instead “test Judas, [supposed] son of Jesus, to see if he matched either or both” (206). 3) Bock and Wallace estimate that about 76,000 different Jesuses were alive in the area at the time—1,500 of which could have been the one in this tomb. 4) The documentary depends on the very late, fourth-century Acts of Philip in order to identify Mariamne as Mary Magdalene, but this conflicts with the first-century Gospel of John. Bock and Wallace also decry the documentary’s “naïve handling of the issue of resurrection” (208), which was presented as not being physical in nature—only spiritual. This ignores the Jewish backgrounds of the apostles, specifically of Paul, “a former Pharisee who held to a physical resurrection, as 1 Corinthians 15:1-58 makes clear” (210). Bock and Wallace conclude that when sensations like this come into the public eye, the underwriters should be more scrutinous and the public should let the controversy play out before passing judgment.

Historical investigation leads Bock and Wallace to conclude that Jesusanity misunderstands historical Christianity; it is “unlikely…that the earliest expression of Christianity had a less-than-exalted view of Jesus” (220). But a negative case against Jesusanity alone does not prove Christianity to be true, so they make three positive cases: 1) the early teaching of an exalted Jesus; 2) Paul’s teaching of an exalted Jesus as received from the church; and 3) a link between the root gospel (Mark) and Peter. Thus they end their book, observing that, historically speaking, “the earliest Christianity taught about the spiritual and personal benefits of knowing the exalted Jesus. An enthroned Jesus, not a dethroned one, is most able to lead us into the knowledge of God—and of ourselves” (227).


Bock and Wallace offer a readable, well-organized, and concise summary and rebuttal of six popular arguments aimed at undermining Christianity’s connection to the historical Jesus. They do so with class by acknowledging the expertise of opposing scholars—even conceding on certain points. Examples of this include agreeing that some passages have been added to the Bible (60-71) and acknowledging that Tabor is likely correct about Jesus having been a follower of John the Baptist before beginning his own ministry (180). They also handle the tension between social and doctrinal concerns quite admirably, given the sensitive nature of the topic.

Some minor concerns include the incongruity of speaking against Jesusanity’s “swallowing up” of the First Great Commandment to love God with all one’s being “by the second…to love one’s neighbour as oneself” (27) while, at the same time, using James’ affirmation of this second commandment as the “royal law” (2:8) as a point against Jesusanity (184); it seems they could have written more to resolve the apparent conflict between (1) denying Jesusanity for its tendency to make the Second Great Commandment the whole show while (2) James seems to do this very thing (on surface). Also, although Bock and Wallace consider the widespread evangelical ignorance of inserted passages as a “bomb waiting to explode” (63), their discussion of Paul and James’ unity (184) may have been a good time to acknowledge and discuss a similar “bomb”: Martin Luther himself considered James to be an “epistle of straw.” But these are minor complaints – the book is aimed at a popular audience, and it is unreasonable to expect them to nail down every possible loose thread.

My primary apprehension with Dethroning Jesus is Bock and Wallace’ apparent contention that Jesusanity is a monolithic movement aimed at dethroning the biblical Jesus. While they are correct that each of these six claims can be used to support Jesusanity, the idea that “Jesusanity” is some sort of driving force behind each of these movements is assumed. If they mean to say that this is the spiritual conspiracy of Satan to present a false Christ, then a brief discussion would have been welcome. But Bock and Wallace claim that “we cannot understand the public discussion about Jesus without understanding that the discussion entails [Christianity and Jesusanity]” (5). Thinking in these terms is a helpful grid for organizing these public claims, but this alone does not prove its reality as a unique movement apart from general sin and spiritual darkness in the world. They may be right, but such is not the case they have made in this book; rather, they seem to have assumed Jesusanity’s existence and interpreted these six claims accordingly. As a result, they may leave the impression that all of these scholars agree with all six claims—but this is surely not the case: if the “Lost Tomb of Jesus” was as bad as they claim, it’s difficult to believe that Borg, Crossan, and Ehrman would take it seriously. If “Jesusanity” is taken to loosely mean “any view that relegates Jesus to a mere teacher” then there is no issue, but Bock and Wallace appear to have taken great pains to establish it as a sociological reality. This runs the risk of having the reader think that there really is some Jesusanity committee somewhere, whose expressed purpose is to spread misinformation about Christ.

Ministry Application

Dethroning Jesus has much to offer in an educational context: its rebuttal of contemporary arguments against the Christian faith in the public square may be useful to both bolster the faith of some and to equip them better to answer questions from outsiders. Apologetics is generally well received by evangelicals, so opposition to this book is unlikely, but there are two related issues to be discussed: 1) a significant portion of evangelicals may be termed “recovering fundamentalists.” For these folks, admitting that certain portions of the NT were added later might as well be heresy; they need to deepen their faith and centre it on Christ rather than on modern ideas about what biblical inerrancy entails, but this book may not be the best way to enter that process: it seems to move on from the issue too soon after raising it. 2) Care must be taken to avoid feeding existing arrogance and triumphalism among evangelicals. Otherwise, those who learn about Thomas’ Jesus being sexist, for example, will simply gain an offensive fact to wave around whenever they speak disdainfully of these other texts. Instead, the goal should be to answer challenges to the Christian faith with “gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (1 Pet. 3:15-16).

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.

Easter: Extraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence

tombAround Easter time, it is pretty common to hear sermons defending the historicity of the Resurrection, and I think this is a good thing. It is a good thing so long as we understand the difference between the reliability of the Christian message, and the Christian message itself – that is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The reliability of the Gospel, is something we humans measure using our tools of historical-critical analysis, philosophical reasoning, archaeology, theology, science, etc.; it is a project on which we embark as humans, which is subject to our own fallibility and only has as much authority as we do – we can make mistakes, we can chase red herrings, and we can be wrong. The Gospel itself is a message that aims at the human heart with the authority of God, and has a self-authenticating property to it; it directly addresses one on a personal, spiritual level, convicting him or her of sin and calling him or her to belief and repentance. It is not subject to human mistakes or limited to human authority. (I am not addressing theories of inspiration at the moment; yes, I believe that Scripture is written fully by God and yet fully by man, not unlike Christ’s nature being fully God and fully man – see B. B. Warfield’s ideas regarding the divine concursus if you wish to learn more about this.)

As you may have noticed, this is a very sticky situation, for there are two very dangerous mistakes we can make:

  1. We can mistake our own human projects for the Gospel itself, and endow our own theology, philosophy, biblical interpretation, science, etc. with divine authority and think them infallible – which sets us up for a crisis of faith if one of these human projects should fail in some way;
  2. We can mistake God’s message for a merely human one – or worse, we can discount the possibility of any message from God altogether.

Two important questions come on the heels of these observations: an important Christian question, and an important Atheist or sceptical question:

Christians may ask, “Since the message itself is from God, with His own authority, why should we even bother with our own projects? What is the point?”

My answer is that we do so for a number of reasons, all of which are for the sake of service to God, intellectual integrity, and truth:

  1. We do so because we are servants of God – not that He needs us to do so, but because it is right; it is and always has been the Christian practice to respond to arguments made against our faith:
    • 2 Cor. 10:5 (NIV): “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
    • 1 Pet. 3:15-16 (NIV): 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
  2. We also do so for the sake of truth itself, because it is our vocation as Christians to follow the truth wherever it leads, with a heart full of faith and a mind fully open to the truth:
    • Prov. 18:13 (NASB): “He who gives an answer before he hears, It is folly and shame to him.”
      • Notice that this means we must listen to Atheists, those of other faiths, etc. before we respond. This is kindness, this is gentleness, this is loving, and this is wise: do not go to atheist conventions to start a fight; go there to listen, learn, and seek truth better, and engage in fruitful, respectful dialogue. Sadly, it often happens that many of the most out-spoken among us Christians – or at least the loudest Christians – are (sometimes) the least thoughtful, the least kind, the least respectful, and the least wise. If Jesus is who He said He is, then we have nothing to fear from seeking Truth, and being civil as much as possible (cf. Rom. 12:18).
    • We must follow the truth wherever it goes, whatever the cost. We are free to do this because Jesus self-identified Himself with the truth (Jn. 14:6), and said that everyone on the side of truth listens to Him (Jn. 18:37); therefore, following the truth wherever it leads, with all your heart, is an essential part of following Jesus (although not an exhaustive description). We must be committed to being open-minded, and open to being convinced of truth; we must lay our pride, opinion, interpretation, and theology on the altar every time – all the time – and trust Jesus when He said that the Spirit will guide us in all truth. The only thing we must not lay on the altar is truth itself – for that is to fall into excessive scepticism; neither must we lay evidence on the altar, for that is to fall into excessive gullibility.
      • But we must also be vigilantly aware of our limits so that we will not deceive ourselves. We must take the warnings in Scripture seriously: we cannot trust our hearts completely (Jer. 17:9); there is a way that seems right, but leads to destruction (Prov. 14:12); many will surround themselves with false teachers, who tell them what they want to hear (2 Tim. 4:3); “woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26); “all men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). Additionally, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).
        • (Side point: thus, I have a sort of “default position” that, generally, the way of Christ will often be at odds with the way of the world. Not always, of course: humanism, for example, has much in common with Christian love, even though it rejects the doctrine of sin. But we have to point out that even humanism has Christian roots, and that ideas of compassion, the dignity of people, etc. were not always widely-held in Western society before Christianity – just look at the gladiator fights! But that’s a different conversation.)
      • So we are in the peculiar position of having to hold that (1) we must always be open-minded and critically-thinking, and yet (2) aware that if the Bible is true, then we aren’t perfect truth-testers either: things like pride get in the way. As Ravi Zacharias often says, “Intent is prior to content.” But the sceptic should not balk at this second point too much, for it is, in some ways, a watered-down, moral version of postmodern scepticism – except for that postmodern scepticism knows no bounds: blindness to the Gospel is specific to morality and God, but hard-core postmodern scepticism is intellectual hemophilia: it bleeds out uncontrollably all over the carpet, causing us to lose any trust of our senses, giving way to unstoppable doubt that causes us to wonder if the physical world even exists. Whatever you want to say against the moral blindness proposed in 2 Cor. 4:4, the same and worse must be said about postmodern scepticism. (So, it’s rather ironic that any postmodern sceptic should be offended at 2 Cor. 4:4, because, leaving aside the fact that he or she doesn’t believe there is any meaning in the text at all – so why should it offend him or her? – the postmodern sceptic already believes that he or she is far more blind and isolated to everything than 2 Cor. 4:4 suggests.) All that moral blindness is saying is that we are blind to the truth about God and the human condition until God opens our eyes through the Gospel. If the transcendent God really exists and really communicates, then it follows that He must initiate the communication, for we cannot reach Him on our own; He must contact us first. I believe this is what happens in the preaching of the Gospel, and in all other special and general revelation.
        • I am convinced that it is unto God’s good pleasure that we be willing to hear any argument, investigate anything, and refrain from elevating our own understanding above scrutiny – this is the very thing of which Atheists often accuse us.
  3. We do so because we love God, and want to respond to accusations of Jesus’ being a liar, a madman, or a legend. To do this we have to be open – at least theoretically – to saying, “If Christianity isn’t true, then I don’t want to believe it; I’m willing to go to the church barbecue, but I will not suffer for something that is false. I am free to say these things because Jesus self-identified Himself with the truth, and if I find that Christianity is false, then Jesus is a liar we should not follow Him.”
    • But this is not us “putting Jesus on trial”; rather, it is the other person who has put Him on trial. It is as if someone had presented you with evidence or argument that your spouse had cheated on you: you wouldn’t just throw out the relationship, or put it on hold. But you would feel obligated to clear his or her good name – to defend your spouse. Well, in doing so, you would have to be open (theoretically, for intellectual integrity’s sake) to the idea that your spouse had, in fact, cheated on you, but that doesn’t mean you love your spouse any less. I do not love Jesus any less while I do the apologetic task; rather, it is because of my love for Him and the Truth – knowing that they are One and the Same – that I do this, and it must be done with the utmost honesty and integrity.
  4. We do so for the sake of our friends and family who need Jesus. While it is true that no one can come to Jesus without the Father drawing them (John 6:44), we should not assume that this is some sort of mechanical process that operates apart from Christians serving God. I think that in very much the same way that Scripture is 100% written by man – through his real thoughts and real personality freely expressed – and yet 100% written by God – through His sovereign providence and Fatherly care over His creation – people are brought to Christ 100% through the Father’s drawing, and 100% through creaturely means within God’s providence. This includes the witness of the Church, the Body of Christ, which, sometimes involves human-presented evidence and argument. It might help to look at this in terms of logic. People often seem to make the following error in their thinking:
    Logically valid but false, since the second premise is false: No C is B.

    Logically valid but false, since the second premise is false: No C is B.

    Premise 1: no one comes to Jesus without the Father drawing them. (All A is B)

    Premise 2: human arguments and evidence are something other than the Father’s drawing. (C is not B)

    Conclusion: therefore, no one comes to Jesus through human arguments and evidence. (Therefore, C is not A.)

    This is an false conclusion. Although the reasoning is valid (the logic is fine), the second premise is false: it assumes that the Father cannot not draw people through – and even speak through – our words, which is biblically false (c.f. Matt. 10:19-20). So the conclusion is biblically false, too.

    Rather, this is a correct syllogism on the matter:

    Some C is B.

    Some C is B.

    Premise 1: no one comes to Jesus without the Father drawing them. (All A is B.)

    Premise 2: some people have come to Christ through human evidence and argument, such as C.S. Lewis. (Some A is C.)

    Conclusion: therefore, some human evidence and argument coincides with the drawing of the Father. (Some C is B)

    • Notice that this means that some evidence and argument is not necessarily the drawing of the Father – only some is (we cannot say that all C is B). Also, notice that we cannot say (on the basis of this one verse) that all people drawn by the Father come to Jesus (we cannot say all B is A) – some people might be drawn, but not respond; nor can we say that all people must come through argument and evidence (we cannot say all A is C) – some people may be drawn by the Father through other means, such as friendship, visions, profound conviction of sin, emotional experiences, love, music, etc. All we can say is that sometimes, human evidence and argument coincides with the drawing of the Father.


Atheists/Sceptics may ask, “Why should we accept that the Gospel is from God, or that God even exists or tries to communicate? Those are extraordinary claims, which require extraordinary evidence.”

extraordinary-claims-require-extraordinary-evidenceWe must be open-minded about these things, and consider what the picture would look like if God exists and communicates with us. We must have our minds sufficiently open to think about how that might look and what sort of evidence might support it – otherwise we have decided beforehand that He does not exist and/or doesn’t communicate with us, and that is not critical thinking: to be excessively sceptical about these things is no more along the lines of critical thought or open-mindedness than it is to be excessively gullible. (← I am loosely quoting someone with this last sentence, but I cannot find the reference at the moment.)

Let’s think about it logically:
Premise 1: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Premise 2: X is an extraordinary claim.
Conclusion: Therefore X requires extraordinary evidence.

Fine, no problem here. But we have to determine what extraordinary means.

For example, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (July 1, 1818 – August 13, 1865), a medical doctor, made the extraordinary claim that if doctors would wash their hands, infection rates among patients would go down. He had this extraordinary notion that microbes were passed between patients by doctors who did not wash their hands, and that this was causing infections. This was an extraordinary claim for which many thought extraordinary evidence was necessary to establish. Over time this was eventually established, but not before Semmelweis endured all manner of ridicule:

Semmelweis“Although hugely successful; Semmelweis’ discovery directly confronted with the beliefs of science and medicine in his time. His colleagues and other medical professionals refused to accept his findings mainly because they did not find it convincing that they could be responsible for spreading infections. The reaction reflected on his job as well when he was declined a reappointment in 1849.” Read more: Semmelweis’ Germ Theory – The Introduction of Hand Washing

Semmelweis’ claim would have been extraordinary back then, but it is not extraordinary at all, now. But for some reason, Semmelweis’ colleagues did not think that the extraordinary claim warranted any kind of extraordinary investigation. Why? I submit that something more is going on, here; it seems that sceptical logic goes more like this:

Premise 1: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Premise 2: X (Microbes, God, etc.) is an extraordinary claim.
Conclusion: Therefore X (Microbes, God, etc.) is not true and we should not bother to take it seriously.

This, of course, is an unsound conclusion. This is not critical thinking, but it simply – dare I say it – dogmatic scepticism. (In fact, I personally suspect that 2 Cor 4:4 has something to do with it, when this flawed logic is used to reject God, but as far as the apologetic task is concerned, that “evidence” is merely circumstantial.) What one group of people finds to be extraordinary may be trivial to another group, and vice versa. Atheists love to say, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” in order to dismiss the idea of God – I believe this quote comes from Carl Sagan in his 1980 book, Cosmos. But, in fact, I find many anti-Christian claims to be extremely extraordinary. Here is an extraordinary anti-Christian claim that requires some truly extraordinary evidence:

Twelve first-century working-class Jews left everything and followed one of the many charismatic messiah figures who gained a following only to be executed around that time in Roman history. But when these particular men realized that their leader was a fraud, who lied to them about things like the kingdom of God and that he would rise – when they realized that he was just another man who made empty promises and then was executed – they did not disperse and hide, or return to their old lives. Instead, they got together and fabricated a crazy story about him rising from the dead – an idea wholly alien and unbelievable to both Greek/Roman and Jewish sensibilities at the time, for which they had no evidence at all – and then these would-be cowards became bold figures, proclaiming their own lie as the truth. They continued to do so under torture, until they were executed for doing so. They were killed for telling a lie that they themselves had made up – a lie that betrayed and blasphemed the culture and religion into which they had been born, and also invited the wrath of the reigning Roman empire.

That claim is psychologically unrealistic, and is very extraordinary. We might tell our kids that Santa is on the roof, but no one would die for that belief, because we all know that it is false. (Sorry, kids.) A suicide bomber dies for his belief, but, he thinks it is true – this is not the same as dying for a lie that one has personally invented. If anyone claims that twelve men would die for a lie that they invented, I think it requires extraordinary evidence, as I have never met a person who acted that way. Think about it: I don’t know about you, but if I were duped into following some guy who made all sorts of promises to me if I would leave everything and follow him, and even said he would rise from the dead, but then, in fact, didn’t rise from the dead, I would not proceed to worship him, pray to him, write religious scripture about him and spend my life telling everyone that he rose from the dead – and then die for that message! Rather, I would become very angry that I had wasted time and resources following him, and I would go back to my old life, and say very nasty things about him on occasion. The idea that the disciples made up the resurrection story is very extraordinary! And thus far, all of the evidence I have encountered in both sympathetic and non-sympathetic sources has pointed to the real, physical resurrection of the man Jesus, which also happens to fulfill prophecies in Jewish literature, going back at least 500 years (if not more like 1500 years, depending on who’s doing the dating) before His birth, not to mention that it is consistent with the words He Himself said – not to mention that the Gospels are more historically reliable than anything else from that time period – not to mention that the teaching in those Gospels relates a self-evidently higher ethic than any other religious teacher in human history: “Love your enemies; do good to those who persecute you” – not to mention that it fills all life and the whole universe with meaning and purpose, and explains all of the happy-accidents of science and philosophy. So, I’m looking for some really extraordinary evidence to overturn all of this. Where is it?

The alternative offered to me by Atheism is basically this:

Life is about nothing; your morals are ultimately a subjective illusion; person-hood is an illusion; meaning is an illusion – so stop asking; natural selection has given us minds that are not simply wired for survival, but are somehow able to produce reliable beliefs and reasoning faculties such that we are able to reason about metaphysical ideas like the fact that God does not exist; the fact that the physical universe accords with mathematical laws is a happy accident – piled on top of the happy accident that humans are able to understand both mathematics and physics *and* notice that they work together *and* think about what that might mean, but, it means nothing; the fine-tuning of both the physical constants of the laws of nature *and* the initial amounts of matter and anti-matter in the big bang is another happy accident – without which planets and galaxies would never have formed, let alone any planets that could support life, let alone any life, let alone intelligent life, let alone intelligent life that can notice these things and appreciate them, let alone any such intelligent life that would also develop a set of morals that seems to be 180 degrees opposite what we would expect if survival of the fittest were our only instinct (like rape being a good thing, and protection of the weak being a bad thing); no, this is all a happy accident because, actually, in reality, there are an infinite number of universes, and of course we find properties that support our existence, because, we’re here aren’t we? But don’t concern yourself with religious claims, because morals, meaning, ethics, person-hood, right and wrong, truth, and anything else you cannot find in a test-tube is ultimately an illusion, so, there is no such thing as sin or accountability, or anything really wrong. Well, actually, one thing is wrong: religious intolerance. Those religious folk who talk about God and meaning are deluded; they don’t know how to think critically, and they appeal to miracles when they encounter something they don’t understand. We know better: life is about nothing, and we are just animals – but it is wrong to kill humans of course, so, don’t do that; we are special animals.

Meaninglessness makes grumpy cat grumpy.

Meaninglessness makes grumpy cat grumpy.

My initial reaction to that is, “Thank God for Jesus.” The above is an even more extraordinary claim; I cannot think of anything more extraordinary than the idea that life is about nothing. We need meaning; we crave it. We would not pay money see a movie with no meaning. (Although, I guess people do pay money to look at modern art – but that is another discussion.) What other animal will go so for as to end its own life for lack of meaning? What evolutionary advantage does a need for meaning afford? The Christian position that we are endowed with the image of God and are subject to universal sin explains our experience far better than the standard naturalistic explanations – especially since we share so much genetically in common with chimpanzees: how can you explain so big of a difference, when there is so little different on the physical level? Christianity’s answer: there are spiritual realities at play, here. All of a sudden, we can explain the origin, morality, meaning, and destiny of humanity (to use Ravi Zacharias’ often-cited formula for evaluating worldviews); Atheism, however, tells us nothing about the actual origin of life or the universe (only the process of its development), nothing about the morality of humans (only that it is an illusion, subject to our evolutionary past, which may have turned out differently), nothing about meaning (there isn’t any), and nothing about our destiny, except for that eventually everything will die with the heat death of the universe.

I do not mean to be unnecessarily uncharitable toward Atheists, but just as Christians perhaps do not always realize how crazy we sound to those who find our claims extraordinary, I think Atheists also do not always appreciate how extraordinary their claims are to us. The fact that Atheism is extraordinary to me does not, by itself, mean that Atheism is false; rather, it simply is a measure of my own “intellectual distance” from the claims of Atheism, just as they are at a great intellectual distance from the claims of Christianity, and just as Dr. Semmelweis’ colleagues were at a great intellectual distance from the ideas he had about hand-washing. The point is that the degree to which one finds a given idea X to be extraordinary is directly proportional to one’s intellectual distance from that idea – i.e. how far removed it is from his or her current worldview – and is completely unrelated to the truthfulness of X itself.

Therefore, let us substitute the words “intellectually distant” for “extraordinary.” Also, we must distinguish between important ideas, and unimportant ones, otherwise, we cannot distinguish between investigating the Santa theory and investigating the Resurrection. I take it as self-evident that if people are getting together and having debates about something, writing books about it, and arguing about it for a sizable part of human history, that it is important. Thus, I propose this logic:

Premise 1: Important, intellectually distant ideas require intellectually distant evidence. No, that can’t be right. Let’s keep thinking:

Premise 1: Important, intellectually distant ideas require extraordinary open-mindedness and careful investigation. (That’s better!)
Premise 2: The Resurrection is an important, intellectually distant idea to some.
Conclusion: The Resurrection requires extraordinary open-mindedness and careful investigation, for some. (And the same is true of Atheism, or any other important and intellectually distant idea.)

Rather than stopping the conversation and investigation, and ruling out possibilities, extraordinary (intellectually distant) claims should invite extraordinary open-mindedness, and careful, critical thought. Otherwise, we would never have discovered the benefits of hand-washing, the fact the universe is expanding, the finer points of quantum physics, a heliocentric solar system, the moral truth that slavery is wrong, and a myriad of other important truths that originally seemed extraordinary in their respective intellectual climates.

Something happened to Jesus of Nazareth that changed the course of human history. It’s worth taking a closer look.  

One helpful and very readable resource I’ve read on this is Gary R. Habermas & Michael R. Licona. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004.

(I should mention this, here: I accept the big-bang, a 13.88 billion year-old universe, and a 4.54 billion year-old earth; I accept evolutionary creation; I think the universe was intelligently designed, but I am agnostic about whether science or philosophy can actually detect that design in a way that can be proven to sceptics – although I do think that a person can existentially recognize and identify the work of another Person; I accept postmodernity insofar as I think it rightly calls us to intellectual humility – but I do not accept the false humility that often comes with it, which undermines all knowledge and common sense. Many of those ideas were once very intellectually distant from me, and it took humility and honesty for me to investigate them. But the same humility and honesty lead me to think that there is far, far more going on than any of these human projects can tell us; specifically, I think that the Bible – God’s self-revelation – tells us of those things which cannot be known through any human project. The same honesty and humility lead me to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and I think also that I have the Spirit of God drawing me to Him.)

Isaiah 9:6-7 (NIV), penned at least 683 years before Jesus was born:

“6 For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.

Praise be to the Eternal King and God, our Lord Jesus Christ, whom God raised from the dead two thousand years ago, in whom our eternal hope is placed, who will not fail us, but is faithful to complete the work He has already started in rescuing us from all sin and death, and in doing so, rescues us from ourselves.  Hallelujah and Amen.

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.

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.)


“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.”