(I wrote this back in 2011, I think, and never published it because…I don’t remember why. I just stopped caring or something or other. But I found it while digging through an old hard drive. So I publish it here and now as one more archival piece for when I’m dead and the three people who want to know who I was and what was on my mind in 2011 can enjoy one more interminable screed howled into the wind like I do.)
From one of my favorites—Jacques Ellul, anarchist, genius, Christian:
I believe that all people are included in the grace of God. I believe that all the theologies that have made a large place for damnation and hell are unfaithful to a theology of grace. For if there is predestination to perdition, there is no salvation by grace. Salvation by grace is granted precisely to those who without grace would have been lost. Jesus did not come to seek the righteous and the saints, but sinners. He came to seek those who in strict justice ought to have been condemned. A theology of grace implies universal salvation. What could grace mean if it were granted only to some sinners and not to others according to an arbitrary decree that is totally contrary to the nature of our God? If grace is granted according to the greater or lesser number of sins, it is no longer grace–it is just the opposite because of this accountancy. Paul is the very one who reminds us that the enormity of the sin is no obstacle to grace: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20). This is the key statement. The greater the sin, the more God’s love reveals itself to be far beyond any judgment or evaluation of ours. This grace covers all things. It is thus effectively universal.
We read constantly that God does not reject forever. He “will not keep his anger forever” (Ps. 103:9; Jer. 3:5, 12; Mic. 7:18). On the other hand, his mercy endures forever (Ps. 106:1; 118:1; 136:1; etc.). These two great theological proclamations rule out the idea of a God who damns, for that would mean that he keeps his anger forever.
Frankly, I couldn’t pick Rob Bell out of a lineup, and can’t really get all that exercised over what he believes or teaches on this subject. And for the record, I am not a universalist. First of all, some kind of postmortem punishment is clearly taught in Scripture (although the duration of the punishment is a matter of interpretation—a fire may continue to burn after something has been purged of its alloys or sufficiently cooked). And second, I appreciate symmetry: this life is filled with misery—why wouldn’t the next one be too? As Ellul adds:
God being who he is, hell is impossible. It is an impossibility. Nevertheless, you Christians must realize that nothing is impossible for God. Hence the possibility remains that he might decide for this punishment and penalty. You must retain, though not as a dominating factor, a fear that God will make possible that which according to his revelation is impossible.
WARNING: This is going to be a long post. And if doctrinal hair-splitting makes you throw up a little in your mouth, then flee. Flee now. I’ll have more fun silly stuff soon. Also, I’m really thinking out loud here and not looking to get into yet another knock-down, drag-out fight on predestination. Been there, done that—both here at Strange Herring and at the old Evangel blog that Joe Carter used to oversee at FIRST THINGS. I ask these questions in all sincerity, because I have wrestled with these issues more than is probably healthy for any one soul. So with that in mind, here goes:
Why are so many of the Reformed heavy hitters so upset with Bell and this new book of his, which supposedly defends universalism. I mean, what do they care? So what if it’s false teaching — the elect cannot be deceived, correct?
In short, what the hell does hell have to do with anything in the Reformed construal of salvation?
Douglas Wilson, over at Blog & Mablog, has this quick take on the purpose of hell in light of the Bell controversy—but it presupposes something that I believe is strange coming from within the Reformed camp, namely, the idea of choice, the idea that a sinner chooses sin and so must suffer the consequences, whether he thinks those consequences are fair or proportional or what not.
The sinner—and we’re really talking about the “lost” sinner, as opposed to the Elect sinner—may want to sin, may want to defy God, but what is his choice? A choice implies a real alternative, and if we’re talking about salvation, the alternative is repentance and a trusting faith in God, which the lost are incapable of even desiring, never mind doing.
This is shorthand here, and there may be nuances to be observed between prelapsarians and infralapsarians, but according to Reformed theology, the elect go to heaven because God has decreed it, making hell irrelevant for them, as they were never about to go there in the first place (except perhaps theoretically qua sinners who are by nature under the wrath of God).
As for the lost, they’re not destined for hell because they don’t believe in God, or Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. They’re not even destined for hell because of their sins, really. They’re destined for hell because God wants to punish them for their sins as opposed to the Elect, who will not be punished for their sins. It has absolutely nothing to do with anything intrinsic to them as individuals, never mind the choices they made. So what difference does it make if you teach, preach, or believe in some place or state called hell? You can’t scare the lost with it, because if they really believed in such a thing, they’d most probably be numbered among the Elect and wouldn’t be going there.
Do you see my point?
Universalism, by definition, leads to the question of the extent of the atonement. Whom does God love? For whom did Christ die? Did Christ save only the Elect at the Cross, suffering their punishment in their stead, or did he objectively secure salvation there for those who would effectively, ultimately believe? And who ultimately believes? And what of those who never hear the Good News? Are they ipso facto numbered among the damned?
So, again: Why are the lost lost? You could start with the notion that they were born dead in trespasses and sins. But of course, no one, including the lost, asks to be born, never mind with a fallen nature—a nature that will ensure that they cannot not sin. They have no control over this state, and no control over ameliorating it. So to say that they deserve their horrific fate, because their condition will inevitably result in a sackable offense, so to speak, is like saying infants born with inherited congenital defects deserve the inevitable consequences because they chose the wrong mother. (If this analogy seems unjust, because infants can’t choose anything, well, again, are there infants in hell according to some Reformed thinkers? Yes, indeed. And, again, do even adults among the lost truly choose between equally viable alternatives?)
“But the lost never wanted to know God, never wanted to repent of their sins!” Well, that’s like saying I don’t want to be nine feet tall because of the inherent inconveniences, but only people nine feet tall get into heaven. What possible control do I have over how tall I am? And what has height got to do with ultimate destinies and the meaning of life? It makes no sense. It’s silly and arbitrary. Why nine feet and not eight feet, or ten feet? “Ahh, but divine thoughts are not human thoughts, so stop thinking about it, because it will only drive you to despair and can only ever seem unfair, unjust, even insane. That’s how you know it’s true. If you could understand it, it wouldn’t be divine—it would only be an example of human self-deception.”
Well, if the inability of the human mind to comprehend God’s ways is a sign of a doctrine’s truth, that I guess that makes Scientology the truest religion in the world. It’s also makes nonsense of the very idea of revelation, if words lose their meaning when applied to God.
If the only possible answer to these questions is that God is so far above us that what he calls fair and just and holy and righteous and good and bad and right and wrong and what we call those things bear no resemblance to each other, then words mean nothing when speaking of the things of God, and God is ultimately unknowable, and his will is ultimately unknowable, and so agnostics have it exactly right: there is no point in talking about the whole god thing anymore. What’s for lunch?
But, strangely, I’d like to believe that the Eternal Word made flesh not only knew how to communicate but also that he was God’s final word, best word, most pellucid word, and that he had no time for subterfuge, what with crucifixion always in his field of vision.
Once more: Why are the lost lost? It’s obvious that they do not want to be saved, but I think it’s fair to say that’s because they cannot see the need of it, or the point of it. The “rules” of any one religion can only seem arbitrary and meaningless in the face of so much human suffering and the dizzying array of disagreements not only between religions but within religions. Which faith has the key to salvation? And if it’s Christianity—is being Russian Orthodox OK with Orthodox Presbyterians?
The only way the lost could ever truly understand their condition—and the scandal of the particular that is Christ—is if God were to cut through the tangled brambles of their earth-bound, incurvatus in se thinking, that is, if God were to grace them and open their eyes. (Unless you believe that every person has the innate capacity to believe and need only exercise it as an act of the will. Charles Finney, call your office.) But in the world of high Calvinism, God has chosen to do no such thing in the lives of the overwhelming majority of humans who have ever rolled their eyes at a knock-knock joke. And not because they’re worse sinners than the Elect. And not because they could have believed but chose not to. They clearly could not have believed, nor repented, nor even come to a point where they wanted to do these things. What it comes down to is this: salvation was never in the cards for them. And that by divine design. It’s a game rigged against them.
So, again, what does hell have to do with anything in the Reformed world? It’s just the eternal garbage dump for the losers of the election lottery. If you’re not an annihilationist (and I hope you’re not, as Ellul says: “If God is, he is all in all. There is no more place for nothingness”), then the miserable wretches have to end up somewhere. But why even bring it up in a Reformed pulpit? To scare the Elect who don’t yet know they’re elect into believing? But what about the “i” in TULIP—the irresistibility, which is to say the inevitability of it all? One’s election can neither be chosen nor forfeited. So what you’re asking the Elect to believe is a lie—because they were never headed to hell in the first place. You’re trying to scare the only people who really matter with something that is not real for them. It’s like telling a child he will be guillotined if he doesn’t fall asleep within the next two weeks, which of course he will inevitably do, and honestly, you were never really going to chop off his head. There’s a whole lot of divine dissimulation, not to mention convolution, going on here. And that is what so many of us find so disturbing about Reformed theology. Everything seems so utterly phony.
I guess you can argue that no preacher knows who’s in and who’s out, and so the consequences of obdurate unbelief must be emphasized, and that even the Elect can’t be 100% certain of their salvation themselves, at least not until some real soul-searching is done and fruit is born, and not even then a lot of times, because we can deceive ourselves pretty good, never mind outsiders, and so hell is just a “motivator” to appeal to the emotions when the more ratiocinative stuff fails to do the trick.
But why would the more ratiocinative stuff fail to do the trick if the saved are going to be saved inevitably, and the lost are going to be lost no matter how horrific you make hell sound? Why can’t the Elect come to faith just as easily from hearing how much God loves them instead of how horrible hell is? They’re going to wind up in the same place anyway.
I can see why hell matters to Catholics, to the Eastern Orthodox, to Arminians, and yes, even to Lutherans—Luther’s Bondage of the Will notwithstanding. As a matter of confessional fact, Lutherans believe that salvation is by a grace that can be forfeited through unbelief. It is a gift that can nevertheless be returned, stamped “unwanted.” To say that this amounts to salvation by works is, of course, unsupportable biblically, because faith is never a work, and this because Scripture always contrasts it with works. Paul warns about boasting before God because of perceived merits, but faith is the counterpoint to merit. Why some believe and some do not is answered by Jesus in Mark 4, not in a glib retort about how everyone deserves to spend eternity in agony, so be grateful that anyone is granted saving faith. (Gee, could you spare the grace? Is the supply that limited? Who’s in charge of the grace wells? Jack Benny?)
There’s a reason Lutherans place a great emphasis on the means of grace—both the preached Word and the Sacraments—and not in some purely subjective “feeling” as to whether you’ve been regenerated quite apart from those means. The objectivity of the salvation secured by Jesus, the Elect One, at Calvary is mirrored by the objectivity of the Sacraments. Which is why Luther counsels all who fear for their salvation to look to their baptism—in which we are regenerated and made children of God. (Now the Reformed often chide Lutherans for a contradiction in their theology: a monergism that denies a predestination to damnation. What else could be the consequence of someone being passed over by God except damnation? It’s not like Buddhists or Hindus or animists had a choice about whether to persevere in a faith they were never baptized into in the first place.)
Let’s imagine for a moment that, yes, all are ultimately saved, and that gehenna is a place of only temporary punishment—worse for the Hitlers and Stalins, less brutal for your annoying know-it-all aunt. What would that say about God? Consider first how we usually think about eternal judgment. God created heaven and earth as an act of pure freedom, and in some interpretations also out of overflowing love from within the Godhead. Yet it all went pear-shaped rather quickly in the Genesis account of things. Again, if we take Reformed soteriology at face value, the capstone of his creation, man, is so defective that even given the unfathomable sacrifice of God’s only begotten Son on the Cross, most men and women are still headed straight for the cosmic garbage dump. What does that say about God’s competence as a creator, that the creatures uniquely fashioned in His own image became so warped, so depraved, and that utterly, that the overwhelming majority of the samples had to be literally thrown out? (And Wilson is right about that: It is God who does the tossing. We don’t send ourselves to hell, per se, any more than Bernie Madoff locked himself in prison for massive fraud. The authorities did that. Finally.)
But most Christians, to the extent that they have thought about it at all, recognize that a “limited atonement” implies that God’s “victory” over sin and death is relatively pathetic—if we’re counting heads.* Unless, of course, that’s the way God always wanted it. In which case, what does that say about the Christian argument for the sanctity of human life. Most of it is thoroughly disposable, and this as an act of cosmic justice. If that’s true, again, let’s throw any notion of human responsibility out the seminary-classroom window. Life, death, and the restaurant at the end of the universe are as meaningless as they are in any atheist’s deterministic system. We’re all trapped in somebody’s else Super 8 horror movie.
Now imagine again that something a tad more interesting, heroic, and magnificent is going on, that the drama of creation/redemption is not some pre-scripted exercise in waste disposal. Imagine that the true mystery of the ways of God has less to do with how double predestination is reconciled with His not being the ultimate author of sin and the primary cause of every evil, and more to do with the extent, depth, and wide-ranging promiscuity of a creative love that is never finished with its work.
Could this be why so many Reformed teacher-preachers jumped so quickly and with such vehemence at the red meat waved in front of them by Bell’s publisher? Because Calvinism, taken to its logical conclusion, if you believe that God is love and not ultimate justice, leads to universalism? Hmm. After all, Ellul was a Reformed thinker—although no conservative American Reformed theologian would abide him today (any more than they want anything to do with another theologian often accused of teaching universalism: Karl Barth).
OK, so, where does this leave us? I know: If you’re not within the Reformed tradition, and you’re not a universalist, is there any reason to preach about hell? Yes, as a potent reminder that choices have consequences. And given that we were not meant to be mere puffs of smoke that drift across the horizon for a moment and then, poof!, are gone, those consequences are, most probably, eternal ones. But that makes sense only if you also believe that we do not have IRREDEEMABLE—DO NOT RECYCLE stamped on the bottom of our foot as we emerge from the womb, that the deity in charge of planet Earth has not crafted a strange entertainment to satisfy an insatiable craving for glory—in other words, that he is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. That God finds his glory not in notions of absolute sovereignty but in his identification with human weakness, for love’s sake. That God died to save—wait for it—sinners. And who isn’t a sinner?
A God who loves like that has no truck with limits on the extent of the atonement: And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
That is what is so amazing about grace.
I know perfectly well that there are problems with “unlimited” atonement, too. Let’s consider just a couple real quick:
1. One Reformed argument you hear most often goes something like this: If God wanted every last person to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, and assuming you are not a universalist, then God’s will is thwarted by evil human desire. What kind of God is that? Isn’t that the picture of a rather shallow and pathetic deity? Yes, unless Jesus, the Crucified One, is the perfect image of God. In which case, a deity who freely and under no compulsion imposes limitations upon himself for a greater salvific purpose is certainly conceivable. (Anyone who has read classic arguments defending the Puritans’ “covenant of grace” should appreciate this.)
2. Another argument, one I used to make when I was part of the Reformed world, is this: If we are free to reject God’s grace, and so be lost, we must do so for a reason. And if God wants all to be saved, wouldn’t he remove any such obstacles as would cause us to fall into unbelief, and so save us from falling from grace and going to hell? If you know a believer will lose her faith in a loving God when her only child is kidnapped, raped, and murdered, why not thwart the crime and reassure her that God’s angels watch over little ones? In other words, why bring someone into the world if you know she will ultimately reject salvation, turn away from God, and suffer the horrific consequences? Wouldn’t it have been more compassionate to bring into the world only those who would stand fast in faith and so be saved—again, if that really were God’s perfect will for everyone?
This one is trickier, and depends on how far we are willing to go in arguing for human freedom. Classic Arminianism, ironically, is actually much closer to Calvinism than one would think, which is why the notion of prevenient grace is essential to understanding how Arminians get around the problem of human obstinancy and the inability to “choose” for God. Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have greater faith in human ability, no doubt aided and abetted by grace. Lutheranism has as jaundiced a view as Calvinism of any natural capacity to believe God’s promises, to repent of sin, etc.—and so believes that the Spirit accompanies the means of grace, enabling those to believe who, at the same time, do not resist, which is what we in the medical establishment call a paradox (and the Reformed call an outright contradiction). If I am naturally inclined to resist, what then enables me to submit, except the grace of God, which, if resistible, would always be resisted, given man’s sin nature, but if not resistible, would means that everyone who is baptized is saved, unless you can lose that salvation through unbelief, but faith is a gift, which I can return, unless—Harcourt Fenton Mudd!!!
And so, when all is said and done, are we left with a big shrug of the shoulders? Failed attempts to reconcile true human responsibility for real choices and divine fiats propounded as just judgments?
I found the arguments of Robert Shank very compelling for a long time. But I would prefer to preserve the paradox inherent in affirming God’s universal salvific will (against particular redemption or limited atonement), his sovereignty in salvation (what do you have that you were not given?), and the possibility of genuine apostasy—the idea that a regenerated believer can fall from grace through unbelief and be lost—which makes the doctrine of hell both necessary and important. (My imagined scenario of relative punishments depending on the depth of sin in the individual admittedly smacks too much of a quantitative approach to sin, along the lines of penance, and so has its own problems, although there seems to be some biblical warrant for it: Luke 12: 47–48, Revelation 20: 12–13 and all those verses that speak of punishment according to one’s deeds.)
Trying to resolve the paradox—either by saying that God does not want everyone to be saved or by referring everything back to the inviolability of human freedom—does not do justice to all of the scriptural testimony. The best we can do is lay out the entire biblical witness, and pray for wisdom. And, of course, mercy, because he does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked but rather that they turn from their ways, and live (Ezekiel 18:23).
*Doug Wilson would no doubt demur here. His postmillennial beliefs imply that, when human history is finally written, the number of the saved will so vastly outnumber the lost that it is the vast majority of humans who will enjoy eternal felicity, and it will finally be understood that God’s eternal purpose for creating was a joyous salvation from nothingness and pain, not, well, nothingness and pain.
February 15, 2019: The more I think about the very notion of hell, the more I wonder to what extent we’re reading things into the spare Bible accounts. What did first-century Judaism believe about the afterlife, about Gehenna? Was it a place of eternal punishment, or temporary punishment? What role does 1 Enoch, a noncanonical and very weird text, have to play in the very concept of Gehenna (as opposed to Sheol/Hades)? Why does Paul never once mention Gehenna in any of his uncontested letters? What role did the post-Constantinian church play in emphasizing the terrors of hell for all those unwashed pagans flooding into the pews, and to what extent did the Reformers simply take those images and ideas over?