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.
- 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.
- 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"?
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- The result is clear. They kneel before the child and worship him.
- 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.
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.