Friday, January 18, 2008

More on the doctrine of hell

First of all, thank you to all the friends and family who've emailed me and/or commented here on the blog. While it was fun and relieving to finally write about some of the things that have been on my heart for so long, it is always nerve-wracking to introduce topics that in other settings can become explosive and divisive. That hasn't happened here, and I thank you for that.

I've also received some good questions and would like to use this post to give further explanation on my journey and my views. Rather than address the inquiries one-by-one and possibly make someone feel singled out, I've decided to write about four common Christian responses to ideas such as universalism. (This post will contain only the first two common responses -- the final two will follow in a couple of days.)

I believe these are common responses because I had them myself when I first started looking into the topic. Jamie had these same responses when we talked about it more than a year ago. Almost every Christian I've talked to has had these same responses. So there must be something there, and here's how I've personally worked through them.

To beat a dead horse, these are my own thoughts. You may not go through this same process and end up where I am, and I respect that. I'm sharing my soul so that you will understand my path, not so that you will follow it. Because through understanding we grow closer, and in the end that is my goal.

2 common Christian reactions to universalism:

#1 -- I believe in hell because I believe what the bible says

I won't spend too long on this one since my post on four views of eternity hopefully made a decent case that all four of those views had some biblical support. I may not hold any of the four views, but I've tried to at least see where they're coming from.

So if I believe that hell is real because of Luke 12:5, I have to deal with verses like 1 Corinthians 15:22 that seem to show God will save all humanity. Then if I get on board with universalism, there are issues with Matthew 5:30 (hell) and 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (destructionism). No matter which I choose, there's biblical support. And biblical conflict. And all views can claim that "it's what the bible says".

We all read the bible as we are, not 100% as it is. Have you ever read a part of the bible, and then read it again later and come away with something totally different? Happens to me all the time! The words didn't change -- I changed. And as I've changed, I've come to a different perception of the bible's overall story of God's relationship with creation.

There may be people reading this who can't get on board with that, and would respond with "but my view is the only real biblical view." That's fine -- I'm not going to challenge you on that. You need to work out your own understanding. Where I'm coming from, though, I see thousands of denominations all claiming to follow the bible, yet with very different interpretations. How can I tell which one is the "real" church?

I have relationships with people from many of those denominations and relationships with people from many other non-Christian religions. People who for the most part are genuinely seeking God and seeking to follow what they perceive as divine guidance. I had to search my own heart and ask, "Did I really believe that people with different doctrines would perish forever?" It was a long process of research, introspection and discovery, a process that was detailed in the previous blog post. The journey was necessary because I was literally in despair over every face I saw throughout the average day. Faces that for most of my life I thought were destined for eternal torment.

So my heart eventually released that burden and I came to the place where I don't believe the stakes include trillions of years of pain. The stakes are still very high, though... next response...

#2 -- What's the point of Christianity if people can do whatever they want and still go to heaven?

I've had two personal struggles with this one. First, I had to look at this world (and the bible) and work out what's really at stake here on earth. Take someone who's quietly lived the Christian life and found joy and peace in it. Then take whom we would consider some of the worst people on earth -- repeat criminals, for example. They've left a signature of pain and death in their wake and are now in prison waiting to be executed. I had to ask myself -- are there still some pretty serious consequences for our actions here on earth?

I came to the conclusion that yes, this universe has a way of dishing out reward and punishment pretty well. In Luke 17 Jesus said, "The kingdom of heaven is within you." When I follow the two greatest commands (love God and love your neighbor) I have experienced what I would call the kingdom of heaven within me. I have also, due to either my own faults or some uncontrollable circumstances, experienced the kingdom of hell. Within me. Take a look around the world and see if you find anyone who is pretty much living in hell on earth already. In my opinion, despair like that should not be discarded as "minor" just because it only lasts for a few decades.

There's also a principle at work here of the punishment fitting the crime. Parents understand it, and we use discipline with our children to shape behavior and shape their character. But the discipline ideally fits the crime, and the purpose is remedial in nature, not punitive. In the bible, even in the Old Testament, the punishment was supposed to fit the crime (eye for eye, tooth for tooth). Does trillions of years of torment seem appropriate as punishment for anything a depraved human could accomplish in 80 years? And is there anything remedial in that, or is the purpose simply to punish forever? If imperfect human parents understand that discipline has its limits, and that its purpose is to build up, then I believe God does that and more.

My second struggle is a very personal one. I eventually discovered that my response of "why should 'bad' people get to go to heaven" was actually a case of sour grapes. I was saying that Christianity was hard sometimes, and somebody who didn't work as hard as me shouldn't get rewarded anyway. This was a tough attitude to explore and accept in myself.

The biblical stories that convicted me were:

1) Jonah -- he was angry that God would show mercy to the people of Ninevah
2) Parable of the vineyard workers (Matthew 20) -- men who worked all day were angry that the vineyard owner would give the same pay to those who only worked an hour
3) Prodigal son (Luke 15) -- the "righteous" son was angry that his wayward brother was thrown a party when he returned home after living the wild life

You may be thinking, "Yes, but in all three of those stories there was still something required of people to get the reward!" True. I'm not worried about them -- I was identifying with the sour grapes of Jonah, the all-day workers and the faithful son. My attitude was full of bitterness that God might have the nerve to save the bad people.

I still don't know what God's going to do with the people we would consider evil, but today I hope he shows them all mercy. My hope admittedly changes nothing of eternity but it has made all the difference in the way I treat others. When I saw how much the paradigm-shift improved my empathy and gentleness, I took ownership of it.

The next post will cover what I see as the other two common Christian responses to universalism:

#3 -- If everyone is saved, what was the point of Jesus?

#4 -- What bad sin are you trying to justify by taking away hell?

p.s. -- Remember that my conclusion to the previous post was that I probably don't qualify as a real universalist. My final answer on eternity is "I don't know."

Grace and peace,



MamaRose said...


My thoughts on Jonah & the Vineyard workers & the Prodigal son's brother was THEY WERE ALL IMMATURE at that point--because as we mature in Christ, we WANT EVERYONE WHO POSSIBLY CAN BE SAVED!

And, definitely their bitterness was/is NOT 'Christ-like'/FULL of LOVE & COMPASSION for our 'brothers'--and also reminds me of the Pharisees who wanted to stone that 'bad'/sinful woman & Jesus 'sent them away'--well, they all LEFT--AFTER he said--'THOSE OF YOU WITHOUT SIN, THROW THE FIRST STONE'--THAT'S WHERE WE ALL ARE!!!!

One thing in Romans, though, where it talks about the Gentiles, then, 'living/being a LAW UNTO THEMSELVES'--talking about them 'living right'/what they understood to be right--I think is 'the ANSWER' to how God can/will SAVE MORE folks than WE first thought--NOT EVERYONE HAS TO EVEN HEAR ABOUT JESUS--they will be 'judged' by God on WHAT THEY KNEW & then HOW THEY LIVED--if accordingly or not!!!!!!!!!

YES! It is OUR 'CALL'/mission to 'TAKE GOD'S WORD TO THE WORLD'--but, there have already been & will still be SOME, maybe even LOTS who do not HEAR about Him--to me, that does NOT necessarily mean that all of those folks will be lost--or that's HOW I think NOW!!!!

In any case, it will NEVER be OURS to 'judge'--although, there is that verse that says 'we WILL judge the Angels'--always confuses me--not sure HOW that's gonna happen--we really KNOW so LITTLE!!!

SO, WE KEEP TRUSTING GOD & OBEYING HIM & speaking to as MANY folks as will LISTEN to us--about 'THE HOPE THAT IS IN US' & we 'sow the SEED' & 'water it' & then others/maybe even US, sometimes, get to SEE the 'FRUIT' blooming out/folks GIVING THEIR LIVES OVER TO GOD!!!!!
It TAKES ALL OF US/GOD'S CHURCH to do just that & OUR GOD'S DIRECTING it/US ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Michael, you have a VERY SENSITIVE HEART that FEELS for ALL those folks who have not & will not EVER hear God's word--to GET to MAKE A CHOICE--and, THAT'S A GOOD THING!!!
THAT'S A VERY GOOD THING!!!!!!!!!! BUT, don't 'take it on' as a GUILT-thing, please!!!!

As long as we are DOING EVERYTHING WE KNOW TO DO, that is right, and that SPREADS GOD'S WORD THROUGHOUT OUR WORLD, that's ALL HE ASKS OF US!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Some/lots of folks 'take' YEARS to 'convert'!!!!
And, it's NEVER been our 'job' to PUSH Jesus on ANYONE!!!!!!!!! Just let them know THE WORD & then it's ALWAYS THEIR CHOICE/DECISION!!

Ya'll are a BLESSING to US!!!!!!!!
GOD BLESS YOU ALL!!!!!!!!! Love, Mom

Don R said...

Michael- You did a great job of explanation. We are all at different points in our journeys. I can't believe how my beliefs and views have changed in three years,after 59 years of stagnation. I don't expect to be in one more year where I am today. A relative told me what I was doing is great, BUT, someday I have to acquire my set of beliefs and settle on them. I said WHY? God is revealing Him/Herself to me every day and I intend to search more and more. I believe the more I search and find new things about God the more I find new things about myself because God and I are the same "stuff". He created me and is in and part of me. I believe we are here to find out who we really are, and as a bonus, we find out more about who He/She is.

RedWifey said...

I've been purposefully quiet so far, but I just wanted to say that this statement


proves in my mind that we as Christians don't believe that 90% of the worlds population (past, present and future) are going to burn in the hottest fires ever imagined for the rest of the un-imaginable future. We just don't live like those are the stakes at hand, meaning we don't have our Keds on out beating the streets everyday, with the message that hell is eminate.

Hal Johnson said...

Fascinating, Michael. Thanks.

Don R said...

Mom- Since you said the following:
"I think it's very good to study 'other things'/religions, translations, histories and the Hebrew & Greek versions, too--but, since I believe that our ALL-POWERFUL GOD made sure we received, into our hands"

thought you might find this interesting:

I don't agree with all the points, but very interesting all the same.

Mike said...

"...even in the Old Testament, the punishment was supposed to fit the crime (eye for eye, tooth for tooth)." Good point! Often the lex taliionis is used in an attempt to prove God was inhumane, when in reality the law of retribution served to mitigate cruel and unusual punishments common to OT societies.