Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Scriptural Review of Universalist Concepts

The following are just some thoughts regarding some common objections made by universalists in regards to hell, eternal punishment, etc. This is neither meant to be a complete nor ultimate review of universalist beliefs, only a brief review of what I've encountered in the past year or so.

Concept #1: A loving God would never send anyone to hell

Of course, whenever someone brings this up, my first question is: are you therefore saying that Ted Bundy, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin and even Adolf Hitler are in heaven right now? That Judas, Caiaphas and Pilate are in the company of the same Lord whom they betrayed and executed? That any unrepentant murderer, rapist, or insane dictator is with the Son in all His glory? That the sinner who went to his deathbed cursing the very name of the Lord is in the same company as the martyr who died to uphold the Lord's name? The sensible person has to immediately backtrack and admit that perhaps not everyone goes to heaven, or at the very least some people receive some kind of punishment in the afterlife. Still, many believe that, after some time, even the worst of us will have a chance to enter the company of the Lord.

In any case, the fallacious nature of this concept is two-fold:

1) It takes one attribute of God (love) and extends it beyond its appropriate boundaries. While many leap to the words of the apostle John and declare "God is love" (1 John 4:8), they err in making it interchangeable. That is, they make it out so that "God is love" is equal to "love is God." The problem is that John is not describing what God is, but merely one attribute of God which he is expounding upon in this section of his epistle. To explain further:
The author proclaims in 4:8 ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν (ho theos agapē estin), but from a grammatical standpoint this is not a proposition in which subject and predicate nominative are interchangeable (“God is love” does not equal “love is God”). The predicate noun is anarthrous, as it is in two other Johannine formulas describing God, “God is light” in 1 John 1:5 and “God is Spirit” in John 4:24. The anarthrous predicate suggests a qualitative force, not a mere abstraction, so that a quality of God’s character is what is described here. [from the NET notes for 1 John 4:8]
Throughout the text of scripture, we find that God has many more attributes than simply love: He is likewise judge (Psalm 7:11, 50:6), an avenger of evil deeds (Psalm 99:8), holy above all things (1 Sam 2:2), jealous (Exo 34:14, Deu 4:24) and avenging and wrathful (Nah 1:2). He is much more than just a squishy concept known as "love," and for many people, on that day of judgment, they will realize that God is not a grinning bearded man in the sky. On that day, when every knee on earth bows before Christ (Phi 2:10), there will be some to whom Christ will say, "Get up, and do not be afraid" (Matt 17:7), and many others to whom Christ will declare, "I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness" (Matt 7:23). Matthew Henry once put it best in his commentaries: "It is a fearful thing to be thus turned over to the Lord Jesus, when the Lamb shall become the Lion."

2) This universalist argument is based entirely on the logical fallacy of appealing to emotion. That is, it is meant to work on the emotional reactions of the reader, thereby leading them to the desired conclusion from empty feelings alone. To demonstrate the thinking behind this:
God must be x.
God could never be x if He did the horrible, terrible, evil, nasty, no good thing of y.
Therefore, God cannot possibly do y.
Let me give an example to explain why this thinking is fallacious. Imagine you have a veteran police officer. He is overall a decent guy; a fairly nice and humble man. He is kind to his wife and is always there for his children. To his fellow officers he is courteous and understanding, and to his superiors he is honorable and respectful. Now imagine if, in responding to a bank robbery, the policeman saw one of the robbers aim a gun right at a fellow officer. Seeing his comrade in danger, the policeman pulls out his own gun and fires, killing the bank robber. A liberal reporter hears wind of the story and, in a scathing article, writes: "What kind of an officer would shoot someone in cold blood like that? I've heard this man is loving, but what kind of a loving person would do such a thing?!"

Immediately the reader will recognize some errors in the reporter's argument. For one, the policeman obviously is a "loving man," but the circumstances called for drastic measures. For another, the policeman didn't shoot someone "in cold blood," he shot them to defend another officer. There was reason behind his actions. Yet the reporter's line of thinking is the same as the universalist who appeals to emotion to argue against hell: a loving person would never shoot anyone, and the officer shot someone, therefore, Q.E.D., the officer must not be a loving person.

The biggest fault in the reporter's thinking is that they invented standards isolated from the true circumstances; in a similar manner, the person who supports this universalist concept throws out all the factors in place regarding man, God and judgment, and invents an emotional standard to be adhered to. They ignore, for example, that scripture teaches "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" (Rom 1:18), and that "both Jews and Greeks are all under sin" (Rom 3:9). They ignore the lament of King David who, speaking of his transgression against fellow men, said to God: "Against You, You only, I have that You are justified when You speak and blameless when You judge" (Psalm 51:4). They ignore the prophecy of Daniel that "many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt" (Dan 12:2). They forget the words of John the Baptist, when he said: "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him" (John 3:36). Likewise, it is foretold in scripture that men will be judged for their deeds, and that some will experience "disgrace" and "everlasting contempt." This is not even covering the passages in Revelation which speak of the final judgment and those who will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:15).

The judgment of God is against the sin of man, of which all men are guilty in the eyes of the Lord. This is not a "new theology" that speaks of an "evil God," but the very teaching of scripture itself. Therefore, those who wish to appeal to emotion and argue in this manner are committing the same error as the reporter and are attempting to pass judgment on the Biblical God with standards separate from the Biblical text in toto.

We should not preach that a loving God would never send anyone to hell because (as we've shown) this is both logically and scripturally unsound. Instead, we should recognize that God has shown His love, and this love is visible in the fact that "while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son" (Rom 5:10). We know God is a loving God because of the grace bestowed upon us while we were undeserving of it. As the apostle Paul put it: "God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thess 5:9).

Concept #2: Hell is a redemptive state where people are eventually reconciled to be with God

This is a popular belief among Christian universalists (and one promoted in William P. Young's book The Shack), but like the previous concept it is simply unscriptural.

Scripture continually attests that those in hell will be there for eternity. Christ warns us that "it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire" (Matt 18:8). In regards to the goats of the church, Christ says they "will go away into eternal punishment" (Matt 25:46). Christ likewise said: ""If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched'" (Mark 9:47-48; reference to Isa 66:24). The apostle Jude writes that God has kept fallen angels "in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day" (Jude 1:6). The devil, beast and false prophet of Revelation are described by John as being thrown into the lake of fire where "they will be tormented day and night forever and ever" (Rev 20:10).

I am aware that many argue the use of "eternal" in the original Greek does not actually mean eternal in the perpetual sense. However, even while playing the "lexicon game" (where one goes to the lexicon and finds their favorite alternate definition for a word) even the context clearly makes it plain that this is an eternal punishment. How else, for example, can we say the "worm does not die" and "fire is not quenched" unless it is to be said in a perpetual context? Furthermore, those who use this argument are inconsistent with how they treat the word "eternal": they will butcher the language to make "eternal torment" not really eternal, yet they will not do the same for "eternal life." If the torment of the damned is not eternal, then it leads one to conclude that our eternal life is not eternal as well - what then becomes of the afterlife?

Concept #3: Christ is able to save in the afterlife, and therefore even unbelievers, after death, may have a chance to repent and go to heaven

This is another common concept among Christian universalists and inclusivists, and is especially popular in trying to deal with the issue of those who have died never knowing of Christ. It essentially teaches a kind of "post-mortem repentance," in which a person, after death, is either: a) given one more chance to respond to the Gospel; b) is informed of the Gospel, and thus allowed to make a decision.

A common verse used to prove this "post-mortem repentance" is found in Matthew's gospel:
"Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come." [Matt 12:32]
However, the error here is both grammatical and contextual:

Grammatical: The person arguing that this passage supports post-mortem repentance makes the error of taking the first part and including it with the conclusion of the second part, so that they read this passage as: "Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him...either in this age or in the age to come." However, that is not how the sentence is structured. The first part deals with "a word against the Son of Man," whereas the second part is about "whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit." It is this latter part wherein the addition "it shall not be forgiven him" is emphasized with "either in this age or in the age to come." This leads us to the next part:

Contextual: Christ is talking about the unpardonable sin, which is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. People had become amazed after Christ healed a possessed man (v. 22-23), but the Pharisees shrugged this off as Christ casting out demons by working with them (v. 24). Christ responds first by pointing out the illogical nature of the argument (v. 25-26), then its hypocrisy (v. 27), and then declares that this is a sign that the Kingdom of God has come upon the Jewish nation (v. 28-29). This is followed by a strong address from Christ, declaring "He who is not with Me is against Me" (v. 30), followed by the statement: "any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven" (v. 31). Then comes verse 32, cited above. It is plain from this that Christ's address is regarding the severity of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Contextually speaking, the "in this age or in the age to come" is not addressed to what will be forgiven, but what will not be forgiven. This is further shown in the parallel verses in Mark 3:28-30, where Mark focuses solely on the blasphemy against the Spirit, saying one who does so is "guilty of an eternal sin." He also adds afterward that it was "because they were saying, 'He has an unclean spirit.'"

Another popular passage  is found in Peter's epistles:
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. [1 Peter 3:18-20; NASB]
Part of the problem is in simple context: if this is to prove that Christ preaches to the dead, why then does Peter isolate this only to the people who died during the days of Noah? It would then lead one to conclude that this reference is for a specific purpose, namely the preaching of repentance during Noah's time. Some explanations regarding this:

1) The clarification of how it was delivered: "in spirit; in which also He went..." (v. 18) - That is, in spirit, through the preaching of Noah, who during his entire time building the ark was warning others about the oncoming danger. It was the preincarnate Christ preaching words of repentance in an event that would foreshadow the coming judgment.

2) The current state of the spirits: "now in prison" (v. 19) - That is, those spirits were not in prison before Christ preached. If Christ had preached to the spirits and they had come to repent, or some of them had come to repent, why would they still be in prison? The reason is because the people were preached to during Noah's time to repent, they did not, and therefore they perished in the flood and were then sent into the prisons to await the oncoming judgment through Christ.

The fact is, nowhere in scripture is a kind of "post-mortem repentance" taught. We are told by the author of Hebrews that "it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment" (Heb 9:27) - that is, men die once, and afterward comes judgment. There is no second chance - that is why the result of this life is so important. Whenever judgment is spoken of in scripture, it is always in the context of what occurred during the person's life, not what they did after dying.

We should not strive to tell others that there is no judgment, or to downplay judgment - eternity is a long time. The chances of a person getting a last minute chance after death are very, very slim, even with supposed scriptural references. Do we really want to risk the souls of others on such a slim chance?

Concept #4: Heaven and Hell are descriptions for the here and now, and what we make of it

This is a popular concept among Emergent Church (such as Rob Bell) and Social Gospel groups, who attempt to focus more on the here and now rather than the soon to be. It essentially teaches that whenever the Bible speaks of heaven or hell, it is not speaking of an afterlife but a condition or state-of-mind that we create either through good deeds or bad. One might say this is the result of muddled eschatology: the belief by many that the kingdom of heaven is already here and the belief in a later day of judgment are mixed together in an unhealthy fashion, so that the end time events are made conditions for the present time.

The problem is that Christ always speaks of a future date of judgment, where punishment and glory in heaven and hell will be given. The parable of the wheat and tare is said to happen "at the end of the age" (Matt 13:40). The parable of the dragnet is said to take place "at the end of the age" (Matt 13:49). The example of the unready servant (Matt 24:45-51) takes place when the Master returns - an obvious allegory to the second coming of Christ.

I'd also like to pose the same conundrum I posed to Rob Bell when in regards to hell descriptions being contemporary metaphors: are angels behind them? Why do I pose this? Because in most of the parables Christ uses where hell is described, angels are active parties in the throwing of individuals into hell. Rob Bell had attempted to say that the Rwandan genocide, where people had arms and legs hacked off, was an example of a contemporary "weeping and gnashing of teeth" - so were there angels going around Rwanda hacking off limbs? I say this not to make light of the genocide, but to demonstrate how, when reviewed to its full application with the verses, these arguments simply do not make sense.

Concept #5: We should just leave it in the hands of God and not worry about it

We are ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor 5:20), and the role of an ambassador is to deliver the message of his king in toto. This means that, even if we personally don't like the message, we still deliver it in toto. In ancient times an ambassador was liable to be executed for delivering his king's message if it was displeasing to the receiver. However, the ambassador also knew that if he changed the wording to save his own life, then his own king would execute him once he returned home.

This is why Christ warned us: "Whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory" (Luke 9:26). We should not be ashamed by that part of the message which involves hell and eternal punishment, for Christ Himself spoke on it and taught it. As such, we likewise should not feel ashamed to discuss it with others or warn them about it. If we are displeased with the topic of hell, then we are displeased with He who taught on it. Or to put it this way: Christ Himself was not afraid to warn people of hell...why should we?

Of course, as with any topic, there are certainly wrong ways to present it to others (the Westboro cult or "Street Screachers" being examples). However, this extreme does not permit us to head towards the opposite extreme. The scriptural matter is that Hell is a real place, Christ Himself warned people about it, and it influenced the theology of the apostolic era church. We cannot pick and choose what teachings from scripture to leave out - our Lord's theology is not a buffet.

Let us all, universalist or otherwise, remember that our mission is not to give what we think would best help humanity, but what the Lord gave to humanity according to His will and purpose. God bless.