Saturday, April 16, 2011

How I reconcile different biblical views of eternity

Instead of using words like "traditionalism", "universalism" and "Calvinism", I'd like to change the language into something more approachable. How about these words:

1) Judgment
2) Mercy
3) Divine plan

I think we have a love/hate relationship with those three things:

1) We love judgment sometimes because it fulfills our sense of fairness, but we'd hate that to mean that we or our loved ones must suffer in eternal torment.

2) We love mercy because, well... who wouldn't? But we hate that it seems to conflict with our sense of justice, and isn't all this stuff on earth a charade if God's mercy just sends everyone to heaven anyway?

3) We love that God has a master plan, but hate the idea that any of it might overrule our free will.

My picture of eternity embraces all three of these concepts without conflict. Here's how:


I've never met a human being who was 100% pure, good and blameless. We all have junk, and we'll still have some of that junk when we die and will carry that junk right to the gates of heaven on judgment day.

So what happens with our junk when we get to heaven? I don't think God snaps his fingers and makes it vanish, because even though the junk is bad it's a very real and core part of my soul at that point. To delete it like a rotten computer program not only fundamentally changes my personality, but it does so in the cheapest way possible!

I do believe that God wants me to release my baggage, but I think it will be a process. One that is undeniably painful, possibly slow, but ultimately much more rewarding and powerful than just having my issues washed away.

I think God will give us perspective to see how our faults have hurt others and hurt ourselves. He'll give us the ability to empathize powerfully and see ourselves through the eyes of our friends and enemies. We'll gain understanding in whole new ways about the consequences of sin, and how our bad choices caused so much hardship.

When it's my turn, God will probably show me things like how my anger crushed my children's spirits. How my emotional apathy left others cold and unfulfilled in their hour of need. How my selfishness held me back and caused me to miss so many beautiful moments and relationships that would have blossomed in the cause of shared generosity.

This will suck, no doubt. It's judgment; it's not supposed to be fun. But I think it awaits every one of us, and that the purpose is redemptive.

God doesn't want us to just make it to heaven however possible so he can erase the bad stuff. He wants us to genuinely progress into the best version of ourselves that He intended all along, and will give us the tools, the time and the support to get there.

That's why I believe the stakes of righteousness are indeed high in this life. The lessons we learn now save us pain both today and later on. The ripple effects continue through eternity.


I've never met a human being who was 100% vile, evil and free of virtue. We all have spots of nobility, and we'll still have that when we die and will carry that right to the gates of heaven and beyond.

But in the section above I said that I also think we'll bring baggage with us into the next life. And if we're still walking around with baggage, we're going to need lots and lots of God's mercy.

I think He'll have more than enough, and it will work seamlessly with his judgment.

Think about it -- judgment left to run untethered means massive consequences for small offenses. You call me a name, I have you fired. You cut me off in traffic, I shoot you. You hurt my child, I kill your whole family. You make some bad choices for a few decades, I condemn you to eternal punishment with no chance of escape? Those sentences don't fit the crimes.

But if mercy runs untethered, then no growth happens and the lack of justice saps the meaning out of our choices. A kid gets whatever they want, they turn spoiled. A man of power lives above the law, he never confronts his personal demons. A female celebrity listens only to her adoring posse and feels like a helpless victim when things go wrong in life, because surely it's not her fault.

We need both mercy and judgment working together to become better people. I do help my kids experience consequences for their actions, but only in the context of a relationship with me that includes unconditional love. I'm a very imperfect father but I understand that for my kids to be their best, I have to display mercy, and give them the confidence that they are always mine, no matter what. That there are very few guarantees in life, and one of them is my love.

God does that too, and will keep offering us His love and mercy as we move through His judgment.

Divine Plan

We ascribe a lot of different character traits to God based on the bible: love, faithfulness, righteousness, even jealousy! But one I rarely see, and I believe is a crucial and endearing part of His character, is stubborness.

It takes a stubborn soul to peg Moses as a leader after 40 years in Egypt and 40 years as a secluded rancher. It takes a stubborn soul to stick with the nation of Israel for centuries as their faith wavered up and down. It takes a stubborn soul to look at 12 fishermen, yokels and backbiters and say with confidence, "this is my tribe, and I'll make something great out of them."

I can't read the bible with all the obvious stubborness of God and think that He'll give up on the majority of His creation on judgment day. That soul by soul, eternity is sealed after a few short years of human life. He's too stubborn for that, and I think He'll wait us out.

I believe the bible passages that say God is redeeming all things back to Himself, and that this whole universe is a one-way road headed home. There are plenty of exits and detours along the way, but God's got all the time in the world. There's no need to force people to do anything, or overpower our free will. He'll offer a path of judgment that will make us face up to our shortcomings, all within the context of mercy and patience.

So I do think eternity will include judgment. For everyone.

And I think eternity will include mercy. For everyone.

And I think that everything is going perfectly to plan, and that your free will is 100% intact and you can take things at exactly the pace you want in your walk towards God. The slower you go, the tougher it might be and the longer it will take, but what is time to God?

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The battle over eternity

I have a knack for taking two opposing views and finding some things of great merit in each of them.

I also have a knack for taking two opposing views and finding glaring weaknesses in each of them.

Basically, on any given day both sides might love me or hate me. And for my own opinion, it usually ends up somewhere in the middle, and I choose to not play the game of polarity.

The battle over eternity is no different. Traditional believers in heaven/hell, annihilationists, universalists, Calvinists... all have had their days in the sun over the past two millenia. And each can easily cite scriptures to support their views, and rightly so. Each one has merit based on biblical texts. Yet each view of eternity also has serious problems reconciling fully with the biblical texts.

Actually, I understated that. Each view cannot possibly reconcile fully with the biblical texts. Because the bible says things like this:

Matthew 25:41 -- "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."

2 Thessalonians 1:9 -- "They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power"

Colossians 19-20 -- "For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross."

Revelation 20:13 -- "The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done."

I picked just four passages but already I wish anyone good luck in reconciling them all, especially if you want to get deep into the historical, cultural and language contexts of each. So in this fight between hell and universalism, between free will and predestination, between eternal souls and annihilation... I choose not to play. I think it's a false choice.

Maybe the bible has all those different statements because each viewpoint of eternity is partly true!

Traditional view -- I think you're right. There will be judgment on judgment day, and it won't all be pretty and graceful.

Universalists -- I think you're right. The final story will be more beautiful than we can possibly imagine, and in the end, the gospel (GOOD NEWS) will prevail.

Calvinists -- I think you're right. God knew what he was doing with this universe right from the beginning, and it's going perfectly to plan.

Annihilationists -- I think you're right. There are pieces of our souls, and perhaps even parts of creation, that will one day be destroyed forever.

But I also think that in other ways, every view has it wrong. And to take any one view as the only truth leaves out some important elements of who God is, and what He has in store for us.

To me it's a false choice. There's another way.