Love wins? I hope so!

In the last 10 days or so there has been some significant discussions taking place in the bloggisphere and twitterverse, particular since Rob Bell's publishers released a tantalisingly worded preview of his upcoming book. The negative responses posted by those who immediately wanted to label Bell's theology as universalism (particularly John Piper and Justin Taylor) meant that "Rob Bell" began to trend in Twitter. The other reaction has been to the book itself. It hasn't even been released, but as at today it's number 13 on Amazon.com's Top 100 list. As one other author commented "I wish Justin Taylor had labelled me a universalist too".

I've commented in two other posts (here and here) and on both occasions I've stated categorically that I'm not a universalist... but I wish I was. I felt it was time now to nail my colours to the wall and state exactly where I stand on this issue, and why.

As a Salvation Army officer I affirm the doctrines of The Salvation Army, which includes Doctrine 11. 
We believe in the immortality of the soul; in the resurrection of the body; in the general judgment at the end of the world; in the eternal happiness of the righteous; and in the endless punishment of the wicked. 
Whilst I affirm this doctrine, I have to say that I don't like it. In fact, if I were to be completely honest I would say that I hate it. Not because I disagree with it. In fact it's the fact that I do affirm this doctrine that causes such a strong reaction within me. Here's why.

You see I do believe that since the Bible speaks of a place of punishment that it does exist. Certainly there is discussion amongst scholars about the nature of heaven and hell, and differences of opinion have always existed on this difficult aspect of our faith. But, whilst I do believe in hell's existence, I'm certainly far from happy about it. I do not want anyone to endure "endless punishment", no matter how "wicked" they are (As an aside I also wish we didn't end our doctrines so tragically, but spoke of the victory of Christ or similar.... *sigh*). I wish hell upon no one. This is why I wish I was a universalist, because then hell wouldn't be a reality. Or at least it would only have one occupant.

Sadly, the Biblical evidence suggests that there is a place of punishment. The Bible forms and informs my theology.

There is a related issue here, though, which I'm sure is part of why universalism is such a dirty word. That is, "who" will be a part of the righteous, and "who" a part of the wicked. The huge difficulty, which Bell has highlighted in his promo video clip, is that whatever system of theology you affirm you have to face the stark reality that in terms of the world's population Christians make up less than half of the present population of 6 billion people. In fact it's closer to one third. We should also be incredibly uncomfortable with the fact that many of those 4 billion will never be able to hear and respond to the message of the gospel through no fault of their own. By virtue of place of birth, culture, language, upbringing, and so on, they are already excluded from the kingdom. Even if, like me, you stand a long way away from a hyper-Calvinist understanding of "double predestination" in what you believe, because of these people's situation they are, in actuality, born out of reach of the gospel and so in this practical sense are already destined for hell. Whilst that's a motivation for urgent mission, we must know that the job is just too big for us to achieve on our own.

If we believe that there is a means of becoming a part of the family of God we must subsequently and logically believe that there is a group of people who are staring down the barrel of eternity in complete separation from God. If we believe in that scenario, then we have to accept that, as it stands, it appears that more people will occupy hell than will do the new heavens and new earth.

The question that I would want to ask, though, is "What is that means of becoming a part of the family of God?"

Let there be no misunderstanding at this critical point. I believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father. There is no other name in heaven or on earth by which people can be saved. Personal relationship with Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, crucified and risen Lord, is that means of becoming a part of the family of God. Through him we can become adopted children of God and a part of the family of God. At this point I categorise myself as an exclusivist.

Whilst I will always affirm that there is only one way to be saved (relationship with Jesus Christ), I do not believe that there is only one to Jesus himself. At this point I categorise myself as an optimistic exclusivist. What do I mean by that? Let me illustrate by reference to a Biblical example of this, which is the primary source of this theological construction for me.

Read Matthew 2.

I think there's some benefit in reading it now (whilst we're not wearing our "Christmas glasses"). Here we read of the story of the Magi. Here's a summary of what we find.

  1. Their religious worldview was based around reading and interpreting the movement of the stars. Whilst they may have known of the temple in Jerusalem, they certainly didn't worship there. They were "outside" the people of God and worshiped their own gods in means contrary to that contained in the Torah.
  2. They see a new star (note: the star is in the West, because they came from the East. I can't understand why people keep getting that wrong!) and they interpret it to mean that the "King of the Jews" had been born (Note: this was Herod's title. No wonder he was "disturbed") Forget your Christmas cards which attempt to depict this scene idealistically and answer as plainly as you can. What is that star? Where did it come from? How did it "move" and "appear" and "reappear"?
  3. They travel to Jerusalem, but they don't seem to interact with the "People of God". Rather it's the Gentile King Herod (who would later actively and violently oppose Jesus) who has a conversation with the Magi. At best the Scriptural prophecy of the place of the Messiah's birth that the Magi were looking for is given to them second-hand.
  4. They leave Jerusalem at Herod's instruction, which is ironic at this point because whilst he and all of Jerusalem were "disturbed" earlier, it is only Herod that seems to have any desire to know any more (even if his motives are clearly ulterior).
  5. The star reappears and the Magi are overjoyed and continue to follow it. The star does some pretty amazing movements. I don't try and understand this scientifically, but rather theologically. I interpret this as God intervening in the created order and speaking to these Eastern men in a way that they understood, even if we do not.
  6. The result is clear. They kneel before the child and worship him.
  7. They return home, presumably to continue in their way of life (including their worship practices), possibly changed, but we never hear of them again... so we'll never know.
Some major questions remain. Where are the "People of God" here? What were they doing? Where is "proselytising" (evangelism)? Where's the place of incorporating the Magi  into the people of God after their apparent "conversion" (if that's what this is)?

None of these things which I, in my Evangelical mindset have become so accustomed to, can be found anywhere in this story. The reality is that it's all of God and it's got nothing to do with the established religious practices by which the people of God had employed for worshiped before.I'm not saying that those practices were done away with. But rather God broke in upon creation in a new and exciting way, by his own choice and activity, and in a way which these people who once were distant from him in every way could now understand and interpret. The result was that they knelt and worshiped Jesus.

Now before you jump to a conclusion that I'm discounting the need for evangelism, let me say I'm not. We can't just remove Matthew 2 from the rest of the gospel. There is no doubt that Matthew is concerned with discipleship and evangelism, as is clear from Matthew 10 and 28. My desire here is to address the question of what happens to those 4 billion people not included in the known number of Christians in the world.

I believe that as God broke into the lives of the Magi by means that can only be attributed to him, so too he is breaking in upon the lives of people who we consider to be at this time far away from his presence (and his people!). This includes people actively engaged in worship practices that we would consider to be contrary to our Christian understanding of worship. This includes Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Atheists and Agnostics and many more. I'm not saying these worship practices are in themselves a "valid way to the God of the Bible" (remember, I've already said Jesus is the only way). Rather I'm suggesting that the God of the Bible will break in upon the lives of people of all nations and lead them to the feet of Jesus even if we're not aware that it's happening. Quite simply, God is much bigger that I know and he is working in ways that I've never experienced or know about and he is at work in the world, drawing people to Jesus by the Spirit.

I am, and will remain, an optimistic exclusivist. I'm optimistic that even though the numbers we "see" at this point sway in favour of hell 2 to 1, in "faith" I believe that God is already moving in the lives of people that have never even heard of him, drawing them to Jesus where they will kneel at his feet in worship.

So when I enter the kingdom of God (he says in faith!) I hope to be frequently surprised. I want to walk around speaking to people saying "How do you get here?" and be amazed at the stories I hear. If Luke 16 is right and hell can be seen from heaven I'm hoping to look across and see that a very, very lonely devil is sitting there on his own!

As for hell, I do believe it exists. I hate that it does, but I believe it's there. I'm not a universalist, but I pray that God may become one. I pray everyday that God may change his mind about hell. Why? Because I'm an optimist... just like the Ninevites. 
"Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that [they] will not perish" (Jonah 3:9)
 Lord, may it be so.

Comments

  1. Thanks for taking a stand on this issue Adam. I think Christians should get involved in the debate. An attitude of detachment is both non-edifying to the individual Christian and the Church as a whole.

    My main response is on your optimistic exclusivism, and your very generous appropriation of the possibility of God-encounter in other religions deducted from your interpretation of Matthew 2. I am not entirely sure that the three Magi found out or read about the birth of the King of the Jews from a non-Jewish source. We are not aware of the source – it could be because of the Jewish diaspora, or literatures or even oral tradition. But the only logical explanation is that they have “heard” or “learned” about the prophesy from a Jewish source. This “learning from” could be their first contact with the people of God, the Israelites, via the Scripture. Thus, it is certainly not a knowledge arising from other religious worldviews or knowledge, but from the traditions of the people of God!

    I would go instead to Acts 17. When Paul began his speech to the Athenians, it appeared as though he was complementing their knowledge of “the unknown god,” until he dropped the bomb when said: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). Paul practically called the Athenian intelligentsia ignorant, amidst their assumed knowledge of the gods, and their ignorance can no longer be tolerated by God. Paul was the first one to cry sola Christus!

    On a side note, I have a problem with the notion of the “immortality of the soul,” especially if it is considered as an inherent immortality. This is more Platonic than Christian. The doctrine of the creation ex nihilo suggests that all created beings have a beginning (and hence not immortal), and as such (as Athanasius says) are existing solely by grace. What is inherent in all created beings is the possibility of receding back into nothingness, from which we came from. The soul is also a created “thing” because only God is eternal. (Nazarenes tend to think the same way as the SA on this.)

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  2. Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormans, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who do not vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I Have followers who were murderers and many who were self righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and palestinians... I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved"
    Does that mean asked Mack that all roads will lead to you?
    Not at all smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop, Most roads don't lead anywhere. WHAT IT DOES MEAN IS THAT I WILL TRAVEL ANY ROAD TO FIND YOU! (The Shack.. W Young)
    Thanks for a good post

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  3. Thanks for your thought-provoking blog. I got it from Chick Yuill's FB page. I enjoy discussions, so please don't take this as criticism. I appreciate your thoughts very much. Just a few responses for further thought.

    Firstly, the foundation of our beliefs and doctrines must surely be the Holy Scriptures. Quoting from a doctrinal statement of a denomination does not make that statement true. What makes it true, is that it was inspired by the Bible. We should therefore take the Bible as the foundational premise for any evangelical argument. Perhaps it is simpler to argue from a statement of faith, since it by default is assumed to be Biblically based, but it may not be so necessarily. Let's argue from Scripture.

    Secondly, you express a wish that you could be a universalist because then maybe God might relent. Is this not a tendency towards relativism; meaning that if I believe it, then my belief must make it true. Going back to my point about Scripture; is it not the basis for our understanding of God, not our wishes.

    Thirdly, I came across a very helpful response to the issue of Universalism in the following blog, which was very helpful in appreciating God's perspective on sin, righteousness and judgement:

    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/02/26/to-hell-with-hell/

    Fourthly, I doubt your optimism, even though I wish it were so, since my reading of John's Revelations shows that many people whose names were not found in the book of life were cast into the lake of fire with the Devil. He is sadly not the only one present there (Rev 21:10-15) They are "dead", but they are standing and appear to be conscious of their judgement, not annihilated as Dick suggests.

    Finally, I'm sure we both agree that the book has not yet been released. Certainly their publisher has won a lot of interest by the controversy. As they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Let's see what he actually says when the books are opened.

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  4. Nice one ads. A clear, articulate and very thorough analysis in the midst of alot of insane rhetoric!Graeme

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  5. Thanks everyone for your comments.

    @Dick... In response to your comments, as I read Matthew 2 I still have to come to the conclusion that the "Star" (and how it's interpreted by the Magi) is what was critical to their getting to the point of kneeling before Jesus in worship. If indeed they had prior knowledge seems probable (since they knew of the Jews and that they were expecting a king). It's the star that is the "evangelist" here though, which we must attribute to God, not the people of God.

    As for Acts 17, I will have a think about how that interacts with this idea of optimistic exclusivism. I think it does, but I haven't thought it through yet. Thanks for the prompting there.

    With regards to the "immortality of the soul" I'm with you. I chose the word "affirm" deliberately here because I "affirm" what the doctrines point to, but not necessarily to the specific wording contained in them (on a previous blog post I've called for our doctrines to be revised and updated, and this would be one point where change is necessary). The way I read this particular doctrine in the mean time is to recognise that it's written as a "list". As you would be well aware, if we write a list in English that goes beyond two items then we omit all but the last "and" and replace them with commas. That's what's been done here. Mentally as I read our doctrine I simply add the "and" back in so that it reads. "We believe in the immortality of the soul [and] the resurrection of the body..." etc. I also keep in the back of my mind as I do this 1 Cor 15 and Paul's statement that we will be "clothed" with "immortality" at the final resurrection. So whilst we "believe" in the immortality of the soul and the body, this is not a preexistent reality, but rather the hope of what is to come. I realise I'm having to do some theological backflips here to deal with what you have pointed out, but until the doctrines are updated (which I don't think will happen soon, but eventually it will), this interpretation will have to do.

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  6. @Nigel, thank you for your comments. Responding in your order...

    1. I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, if I didn't then I actually contradict The Salvation Army's first doctrine! The main focus was supposed to be Matthew 2 here, and so I had attempted to theologise from Scripture, rather than the doctrine. The doctrine was really meant to be a "springboard" for the discussion. If that was unclear it wasn't intentional.

    2. If I were to rewrite this I would use the term "hope" instead of "wish" (we live and learn). I think it's a much better term and is loaded with theological and Biblical meaning. I agree that our theology must be formed and informed by the Scriptures, that's why I'm not a universalist. My hope (aka wish) will always be, though, that everyone does in fact get saved, but that only through relationship with Jesus Christ. I don't think this is relativism, but optimism as I've suggested in the post.

    3.Interesting post. Classically Reformed in all its points. With regards to the "need" for the "doctrine of eternal punishment" I would refer to Matt Cairns recent post on this blog for an alternative viewpoint on this discussion. As for the rest of it, I agree in principal, but some of the specifics I would have some issues with. If it's OK, I'd prefer to leave my response to that particular link at that for now.

    4. I doubt my optimism too! But I continue to pray to in the way that Jesus prayed in Gethsemane about this issue. "If there's another way please do it... yet not my will, but thine be done"

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