Hell: Evangelicals and Universalists Share an Error

FireKurt Willems has followed up his interesting series Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares? by publishing a guest post by Dan Martin Burn-them-all vs. Universalism: A false choice. In this post Dan explains why he rejects both universalism, the teaching that no one goes to hell but all are saved, and what he calls the “Burn-them-all” position, that the great majority of human beings are sent to eternal punishment. He also calls the latter “the Evangelical position”, but I would prefer to call the conservative evangelical position, as by no means all who call themselves evangelicals would take this line. John Stott was well known as an evangelical who taught something very different.

To me the most interesting part of Dan’s post is in a parenthesis:

(Note, of course, that the error of universal immortality is one committed by those who espouse eternal conscious torment as well; it’s not just a universalist concept)

This follows his discussion of how universalists seem to assume that every human being, or at least every soul, is immortal, and the only alternative to eternal punishment is eternal bliss. The point of the parenthesis is that conservative evangelicals seem to make exactly the same assumption. But where does this assumption come from? The immortality of the soul is a fundamentally Greek concept, not a biblical one. Dan explains further:

It is quite possible that only God’s followers actually go to heaven–for that matter, that only these win immortality–and that the rest die or are annihilated …  Furthermore, this concept has some circumstantial biblical support…from Genesis 2 & 3 where man is only immortal when granted access to the tree of life, to John 3:16 which posits life-vs-death, not eternal-good-life vs. eternal-bad-life.

I would suggest that the biblical support for this is more than “circumstantial”, but is actually quite strong. It is a consistent theme in the New Testament that eternal life is the inheritance only of God’s holy people. The alternative seems to be destruction: there is remarkably little in Scripture to suggest that the wicked survive beyond the final judgment, when they are thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15), surely an image of annihilation rather than of torment.

Some will surely object by pointing to the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), where the rich man is said to be in torment in Hades. Now Hades or Sheol is where, according to the Old Testament, all the dead went, and indeed we see that righteous Lazarus is in the same place, although in a separate section of it. In the New Testament we learn that this stay in Hades is only temporary, until the general resurrection and the final judgment. It is at that point that, it seems, the wicked are destroyed in the lake of fire, also known as Gehenna or “hell”, and only the righteous are admitted into the fullness of God’s kingdom.

This is basically the annihilationist or conditional immortality position held for example by John Stott. As Kurt Willems notes in part 7 of his series, it was also the view of some of the church fathers. It is more biblical than the traditional evangelical one, which is strongly influenced by Greek ideas of the immortality of the soul, as well as by mediaeval images of torment in hell, which were introduced in a fruitless attempt to frighten people into correct behaviour. In Kurt’s words,

The idea that humans are innately immortal is foreign from biblical thought. Greek philosophy fuels this assumption.

This position also resolves the neatly the apparent contradiction involved in a God of love sending most people to eternal punishment. In Dan’s words:

The idea that immortality itself is a gift to the faithful and not the nature of all souls, actually fits the bill both for the reward of those who love God, and the exclusion/damnation of the rest, without making God into the torturing monster we read in (for example) the works of Jonathan Edwards.

Dan concludes his post as follows:

So…will all but a few burn in hell, or will everyone eventually be saved?  Biblically, probably neither.  But after all, “what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22, out of context!)

Indeed!

Cardboard Cathedrals and VAT on Church Improvements

The proposed cardboard Christchurch CathedralIn Christchurch, New Zealand, it seems that it will be too expensive to repair the cathedral which was badly damaged in last year’s earthquake. Instead, as David Keen and the press report, it is to be replaced by a cardboard cathedral. Yes, cardboard will be the main material for the proposed new 700 seat structure, and its cost will be a fraction of what it would take to rebuild the historic stone building.

Here in the UK, could we see our historic cathedrals and other church buildings being abandoned and replaced with cardboard structures? That is the worrying prospect which is being opened up by the government proposal to charge VAT on repairs and improvement to listed buildings.

The effect of this proposed “Heritage Tax” would be to add 20% to the cost of work on church buildings – at least on those listed as of historic interest. The likely result of this price rise is that many schemes for vital repairs, already hit by the drop in charitable giving during the continuing “double-dip” recession, will simply become unaffordable. This means that more and more congregations will be forced to leave their historic buildings and find temporary alternatives. Also in danger of being abandoned are schemes for adapting outdated buildings to provide important community facilities.

Up to now work on listed buildings has been zero rated for VAT, in recognition of their historical significance and of the extra cost of using appropriate designs and materials. The Chancellor of the Exchequer wants to remove this concession, partly to close a loophole by which rich people living in listed homes can have swimming pools installed free of VAT. But he has been widely criticised for a measure which will also hurt churches wanting to use their resources in ways which the government claims to be promoting as part of its “Big Society” initiative. However, there are now reports that the Chancellor is preparing to make a U-turn on this issue, partly in response to an e-petition Bring back zero-rate VAT on alterations to listed churches which the Church Mouse has been strongly promoting.

I have mixed feelings on this issue. Indeed in response to one of the Church Mouse’s first plugs for this petition, I wrote the following on Facebook on 9th April:

I won’t sign, probably like many other people, because I don’t believe that churches, i.e. congregations and denominations, should be in the business of preserving architectural heritage. If a church can’t afford its building, including paying the normal rate of tax on repairs, it should move into an affordable alternative. If the government then has to pay for the upkeep of the historic building, that’s its problem.

So, yes, if a congregation can’t afford to repair or improve its cathedral, then it should leave it and build a new one, perhaps from cardboard, which would probably meet its needs more economically. Or if the cathedral is really of sufficient historic interest, its administrators should be able to raise the funds for its upkeep from other sources, such as charging tourists for admission. If, however, the historic interest is largely in the mind of the Victorian Society, then they should be responsible for the cost of preserving the all too abundant heritage of their favoured period.

But I am aware that for many congregations there is no feasible alternative to a historic church building. This is most often true in villages, where a mediaeval church may be the only remaining community building. This church is clearly the most suitable focus for continuing Christian witness. It may also be appropriate to alter it to provide other facilities needed by the local people.

Because of this last factor, I have changed my mind and signed the e-petition. I would encourage my readers to think through the issues and decide for themselves whether to join me.

Jonathan Edwards, the Holy Spirit and the Incarnation

Jonathan EdwardsI was fascinated to read today’s guest post on Peter Enns’ blog Jonathan Edwards, The Holy Spirit, and Evolution: Part 1, by Brandon G. Withrow. In fact this Part 1 is not at all about evolution, so I am waiting to read about that in subsequent parts. But it was interesting to read about what Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century hero of today’s conservative evangelicals, had to say about the Holy Spirit, and especially of his role in the Incarnation, i.e. the coming of Jesus Christ as both God and man. It is not at all what I would have expected from a strict Calvinist. The first part is not so controversial, perhaps:

The Spirit, according to Edwards, unites the human nature of Christ to the divine nature and actively maintains the integrity of both, all the while not becoming an addition of a divine being to the person of Christ.

In doing this, the Spirit can ensure that the limitations of the human mind of Christ are maintained, otherwise, if the divine attributes were allowed to mix or rewrite the human nature, he would lose his genuine humanity, since the finite cannot contain the infinite.

Well, that certainly makes sense, and offers a good explanation of why the incarnate Jesus did not appear to be omniscient. It also accords with what I wrote here a few years ago in a post Jesus is Our Fully Human Example, that Jesus had some supernatural knowledge and could perform miracles not because he was divine but because the Holy Spirit was working through him.

The main point I was making in that post is that if this was true of Jesus, it is also true today of us Christians, filled with the Holy Spirit. And Jonathan Edwards seems to have made the same connection, and taken it somewhat further than I did, as Withrow writes with a quote from Edwards:

As the Spirit unites Christ’s humanity to the divine, so also the Spirit unites the human Christian (like Edwards) to God through Christ.

All…communion of the creatures with God or with one another in God, seems to be by the Holy Ghost. ’Tis by this that believers have communion with Christ, and I suppose ’tis by this that the man Christ Jesus has communion with the eternal Logos. The Spirit of God is the bond of perfectness by which God, Jesus Christ, and the church are united together (WJE 13:529).

Christ’s human nature is united to his divine nature thanks to the Spirit’s work. Likewise, the same Spirit unites Christians to the divine.

The implication of this seems to be that, for Edwards, the union between Christians and the divine through the Holy Spirit is of the same nature as the union between Jesus Christ and the divine. This opens up the question of the uniqueness of Jesus as the Son of God. If, as the New Testament clearly teaches, every Christian is a son or daughter of God and partakes of the divine nature, was Jesus really unique, or was he just the firstborn of many brothers and sisters? At first sight, both answers can be found in the New Testament, and in different strands of Christian theology. But the doctrine of the Trinity seems threatened by any idea that the second Person, God the Son, was not unique – or is every Christian an incarnation of the one second Person?

I am not familiar enough with the theology of Jonathan Edwards to know how far he took the implications of the teaching which Withrow describes here. Very likely Withrow explains it further in his book Becoming Divine: Jonathan Edwards’s Incarnational Spirituality Within the Christian Tradition (affiliate link – see also this description), which I have not read. But it seems clear that Edwards by no means followed what has become the traditional evangelical line on such matters, with a rigid distinction between the divine as well as human Son of God and his human and utterly sinful people. And I would suggest that Edwards was the more correct here.

Jim West on Heterophobia and Homophobia

Jim WestIn a post Leftist Ideology and Heterophobia in Biblical Studies Jim West writes:

I find it passing curious that leftist ideologues who regularly smear anyone and everyone who raises legitimate questions about the theological propriety of homosexuality are not themselves treated to the same campaign. …

Furthermore, what’s even more interesting here is the fact that the constant demonization of the views of others by the use of derogatory labels is part and parcel of an awful lot of discussions these days.  …

It’s easy to call someone a homophobe; it’s not quite so easy to show, from a biblical and theological point of view, that homosexuality is a legitimate demonstration of being human.

Well said, Jim. As I wrote in my post How to Ask Churches to Accept Homosexuality as Normal,

the only way for the gay community to win over evangelical churches is by convincing them with biblical arguments,

and name calling is counter-productive as well as wrong.

Drought, Floods and God’s Abundant Provision

The Telegraph today has picked up an ironic contrast which Archdruid Eileen noted as long ago as last Thursday: that ever since the authorities declared an official drought and a hosepipe ban in most of England, it has hardly ceased to rain. In the Archdruid’s words,

We continue to be concerned about the drought. At the moment it’s droughting cats and dogs. For the last week it’s been droughting down in buckets. And yesterday there were a couple of inches of standing drought on the drive.

Students braving the weather whilst shopping in Bournemouth, DorsetAfter a brief respite at the weekend, at least here in Essex, the rain started again today, and is forecast to continue until the end of the week. So quite likely before long we will simultaneously have an official drought and an official flood disaster.

So why the continuing hosepipe ban? Well, I guess this week no one will be wanting to use a hosepipe to water their garden, but they might be tempted to use one to wash their mud-streaked car. But the real point seems to be that the water authorities are more concerned with refilling their reservoirs than with providing for their customers.

I can’t help being reminded of these words which the Lord spoke through Jeremiah:

My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Jeremiah 2:13 (NIV)

Jesus warned us not to worry about storing up treasure on earth, but to trust God to provide. As we have seen in the last few days, God abundantly provides his people with water, and with every good thing, when they are in need – but sometimes he makes them wait until their broken cisterns have run dry, their own resources are at an end. We shouldn’t be worrying now about refilling our cisterns or reservoirs, the literal ones or the figurative ones, but should make good use, with thanks, of the bounty which God sends us from heaven.

On Being Uncertain, on theological issues

In a comment on a recent post here Robert Kan asked me,

How certain are you that a particular teaching in scripture is not relevant for us today because “times” have changed?

I think I surprised Robert with my reply, because he made no further comment on that post:

… The answer is: not at all certain. Christians come to different conclusions on many of these matters, and I don’t think one is objectively right and the others objectively wrong.

In practice each of us finds our own footholds on the slippery slope. I’m not sure that is a bad thing. It’s only a bad thing if we use it as an excuse to break Christian unity or start condemning others for choosing different footholds. Paul outlines the principles of the strong and the weak, and I think they may well apply here.

A clarification here: as the broader context shows, I am not denying objective truth in matters of fact, but rejecting only the objective status of positions on issues of ethics and morality.

In a further comment on the same post, Iconoclast helps me to unpack further Paul’s teaching on the strong and the weak, and how it applies in this case.

Austin and Allison FischerProbably independently, Austin Fischer has written a guest post at Roger Olson’s blog Certainty Not, in which he criticises the theological pretension (not “pretention” – Fischer mixes up the two spellings) of “young, restless and Reformed” neo-Calvinists:

And lots of things go into pretention: pride and projection, arrogance and insecurities, knowledge and ignorance. But at its very core pretention, especially theological pretension, feeds on certainty. We become pretentious when we get certain, when we become convinced that there is simply no way we could be wrong about this, when we cannot see any truth in alternative positions, when we can no longer feel the weight of dissenting voices and as such seek to squelch them out.

But of course when it comes to theology, certainty is impossible. Finite human beings are trying to make sense of an infinite God. We always know God subjectively, never objectively. Perhaps the most certain thing we can say about God is that we cannot be certain about anything. This is not to say we cannot be confident, that we cannot have good reason to believe what we believe. But it is to say that certainty will always lie just beyond our grasp. Certainty? No. Confidence? Yes.

Indeed. Sometimes it is good to be confident that we are right, especially concerning central matters of the Christian faith. But even here we need to avoid the kind of pretentious certainty which only repels others and divides the church. Probably more often we need to recognise that our own conclusions are provisional, based on our own limited understanding of the issues and of the relevant Bible passages.

And that implies that we should treat Christians who differ from us on these issues not as enemies to be defeated or as apostates to be shunned, but as our brothers and sisters in Christ. Concerning our attitude to them the world should be able to say, in the words quoted by Tertullian in the 3rd century (see also John 13:35),

See how they love one another.

Hyrax Intelligence: Scientists Discover Biblical Truth

Did the biblical author Agur son of Jakeh know something which researchers have only just discovered? He introduces a list with

Four things on earth are small,
yet they are extremely wise

Proverbs 30:24 (NIV)

and one of the four creatures he lists is the hyrax or rock badger, which

are creatures of little power,
yet they make their home in the crags.

Proverbs 30:26 (NIV)

HyraxesAs I wrote before, this small furry mammal is considered a pest in modern Israel. But this also makes it convenient for study by that controversial state’s scientists. I didn’t know that the hyrax sings, actually rather like a bird. The BBC reports the discovery of Arik Kershenbaum and others from the University of Haifa that this song is surprisingly complex:

the order of the notes is significant, suggesting that the songs have syntax. …

This research places the hyrax in a small and eclectic group of skilled animal communicators, including primates, whales, birds and bats. …

Dr Kershenbaum said that … the hyrax was not thought of as an intelligent animal …

… but it seems that Agur son of Jakeh knew better when he called it “extremely wise”.

How to Ask Churches to Accept Homosexuality as Normal

The problems with my site were linked somehow to the original version of this post. One issue was that no comments could be made on it. So I am reposting it with a new URL, and deleting the old post. Hopefully this will fix the problem.

I am reposting here, with permission, a comment on my post Why can’t we tolerate post-gays as well as gays? This comment is by “Iconoclast”, who comments here regularly but anonymously:

I am not certain that it is the case that churches ‘fear’ homosexuals so much as fearing sanitising something that up to quite recently, was universally regarded as sin.

If you are asking the church to accept homosexuality as being quite normal for some people and acceptable for christians (so long as it is monogamous and faithful), then you have to appeal to wider themes of love and tolerance and give them precedence over what is specifically said about homosexuality in the Bible. You may even need to go so far as to introduce a new doctrine of marriage.

Rather than just using specific texts, the male/female motif of sexual expression as being normative is overwhelming throughout the Bible and when homosexual expression is mentioned then it is invariably negative. The other approach to take is that the biblical prohibitions regarding homosexuality are culturally determined and we can largely dismiss them today. One problem here is that the more liberalising , concessionary and less restrictive tendencies say towards slavery and women, that is found in the New Testament as compared to the Old, is not reciprocated in the case of homosexuality which continues to be viewed in the NT with strong disapproval.

Do we now consider ourselves to be sufficiently enlightened in the 21st century that we can confidently disregard such strictures? If so, then how can we be sure we can do this?

I am not scared or fearful of homosexuals, but I do fear strongly that the church may sanctify something that God regards as sin. If this is the case, then it must surely have implications for the church as a whole and as with the seven churches in Revelation, we may find our ‘lampstands’ being removed. And that is a fearful prospect indeed.

I think Iconoclast has hit the nail right on the head here, except that I prefer “churches” to “the church” as there is nothing like a united view on this among Christians. The very word “homophobia” implies a charge that those guilty of it, or suffering from it, are afraid of homosexuals, and that this is a psychological condition. But, at least in the case of most Christians, this is a complete misunderstanding of the situation.

To summarise Iconoclast’s comment, if you want churches to accept homosexuality as normal, you have to persuade them to reject the apparently clear biblical prohibitions. And that is never going to be easy in any church which accepts the Bible as authoritative – even if they accept N.T. Wright’s words, as linked to in my post yesterday:

the notion of the ‘authority of scripture’ is a shorthand expression for God’s authority, exercised through scripture.

Such churches, ones which consider themselves in any way evangelical, will accept homosexuality as normal only if they can be persuaded that word of God as found in Scripture does not contradict this. Now arguments can be made, and have been, that the small number of Bible passages which appear to prohibit homosexual practice do not apply today. In this post I am not trying to decide whether these arguments hold water. Rather, my point is that the only way for the gay community to win over evangelical churches is by convincing them with biblical arguments.

CAUTION SLIPPERY SLOPEIn comparing homosexuality with slavery and the status of women, Iconoclast seems to allude to the “slippery slope” argument, that accepting equality in one area will surely lead to accepting it in others. This came up at the same time in a different thread on this blog, in comments on my post A Breakthrough on Paul and Women (1 Timothy 2:8-15), where I wrote:

Sometimes it is hard to know where to stop, and it can look as if we are setting off down a slippery slope. See some comments I made five years ago about A Solid Rock Ledge on the Slippery Slope. But I guess I am not as confident now as I was then that there is an identifiable solid rock ledge that we can hold on to. Underneath is the solid rock, for sure, but perhaps it is all covered with slippery wet grass, and we have to choose and make our own footholds where we believe it is appropriate for our situation. Well, perhaps – more discussion needed.

Perhaps the gay community, or at least the gay lobby, in fact wants the church to fear them. They make threatening accusations against Christians to frighten them into changing their teaching. But if they looked at church history, or even at the current situation in countries like China and Iran, they would soon realise that such tactics of persecution are usually counter-productive, tending in fact to strengthen the church and reinforce its distinctive doctrines. The reason is simple: true Christians refuse to fear any human beings as much as they fear God. And rightly so, for turning against God is, in Iconoclast’s words, “a fearful prospect indeed”.


Sorry!

Sorry for some strange problems on this blog this evening. The blog is not appearing correctly, at least intermittently, and commenting is failing on at least some posts. It looks like a problem in WordPress or at my ISP. No time to investigate further now, so I will have to leave it now until the morning.

Did God sink the Titanic? Thomas Hardy and John Piper

RMS TitanicArchdruid Eileen has posted an interesting poem by Thomas Hardy, The Convergence of the Twain. And it seems that this is a genuine poem, not a Beaker Folk satire. According to Wikipedia, it was published in 1915. And it is relevant today because it commemorates the sinking of the Titanic, 100 years ago today.

What is shocking to read is that Hardy, the 19th century novelist who became a 20th century poet (his last novel was published in 1895 and his first poetry in 1898), clearly blamed God for sinking the Titanic. The iceberg that sank the TitanicIt is “The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything” who prepared the iceberg, and when “the Spinner of the Years // Said ‘Now!'” the collision took place. And Hardy seems to imply that this is judgment on “the Pride of Life that planned her”. But we also note that the poem depersonalises the disaster by saying nothing about the horrific loss of life.

Now Hardy was well known for his religious scepticism, and leaned towards agnosticism and deism. So it is hardly surprising to see a somewhat jaded image of God in his poem.

But I can’t help wondering what John Piper would say about the Titanic disaster. Well, he has tweeted the following, an argument ably demolished by Alan Molineaux:

When the Titanic sank 20% of the men and 74% of the women survived. That profound virtue was not nurtured by egalitarianism.

But that doesn’t apportion blame for the tragedy. Quite possibly Piper is preaching or writing on the subject today. But in the absence of any record of that so far, I can only argue by analogy with what he recently wrote about tornadoes:

Why would God reach down his hand and drag his fierce fingers across rural America killing at least 38 people with 90 tornadoes in 12 states, and leaving some small towns with scarcely a building standing, including churches?

… God alone has the last say in where and how the wind blows. If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command.

Tornado near Dallas, Texas, April 2012So Piper’s God commanded these tornadoes to devastate towns and kill many people. Presumably he would also say that God told the iceberg to cross the path of the Titanic. But where Piper disagrees with Hardy is that he doesn’t see such disasters as judgment of specific evil. Rather, they are a word to everyone, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

But is this God who chose, for no fault of their own, 38 people to kill with tornadoes and 1,514 to kill with an iceberg really the Christian God we learn of in the Bible? In his article about the tornadoes Piper quotes verses about God sending winds and others about people being killed by winds and other disasters, but none of these passages say explicitly that God sent the winds or other means which killed people. He quotes Matthew 8:27, but ignores the context in the previous verse: if God sent that particular wind, why did Jesus rebuke it? The language used in such passages hints at demonic activity in that storm on the Sea of Galilee. And if in that storm, why not also in destructive storms and other disasters today?

I don’t claim to know what caused these disasters. Perhaps we should put the blame mainly on humans, who took the risk of living in areas known to be prone to tornadoes and of steaming at full speed across a sea known to be studded with icebergs. For some the risk did not pay off.

But in the end what matters is not the anyway inevitable death of our mortal bodies, but that through Jesus Christ we have eternal life and the hope of new and glorious resurrection bodies.