Universalism: The Dangers of Postmodern Theology in the Church


“The notion that a creature born imperfect, nay, born with impulses to evil not of his own generating, and which he could not help having, a creature to whom the true face of God was never presented, and by whom it never could have been seen, should thus be condemned to everlasting torment is as loathsome a lie against God as could find place in a heart too undeveloped to understand what justice is, and too low to look up into the face of Jesus. It never in truth found place in any heart, though in many a pettifogging brain.”
– George MacDonald

Universalism, the concept that all people will eventually be reconciled to God and experience eternity in heaven, is not a new idea. Universalist teachings have been recorded as early as the third century in Christian literature, namely from the early church father, Origen. Its popularity has fluctuated since then, but now seems to be especially high. Many people attribute the recent upswing in support to theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher and George MacDonald. These theologians, who both came from Calvinist backgrounds, spent a great deal of time arguing for a universal salvation. These theologians, as well as some others, certainly did well in spreading the view to people, but I believe the main reason why universalism has done so well recently has a lot more to do with our culture’s leaning towards postmodernism than anything else.

At the heart of postmodernism is a rejection of a knowable, universal truth. The postmodern viewpoint is an intentional move away from the scientific mentality and objectivity which was established during the era of the enlightenment. With the rejection of these principles, people are free to form their own views about truth and reality.

This may not sound like our culture because, at first glance, we seem to be very scientific-minded, but upon closer inspection, there are certain areas of thought in which postmodernism flourishes. Among these areas of thought, religion is the most relevant to our current discussion. Though postmodernism is much more apparent in secular views regarding spirituality, Christianity is not immune.

Postmodern thought is very common within the church, albeit in a slightly different form.

We have a bad habit of trying to shape christianity into what we want it to be. If we don’t like a certain verse or doctrine, then the solution is simple: deny, deny, deny. We shape our theology around what we think is most desirable, and then we find anything that might be evidence in support of it.

This is something that I have tried to search out and eliminate within my own views recently, but realistically, this kind of “build-your-own Christianity” is ubiquitous.

I believe that this kind of postmodernism within Christianity is at the heart of universalism today. We seem to have such a hard time coming to grips with a God who is angry. We have a hard time accepting that He will send people to hell to suffer for an eternity. George MacDonald puts this very clearly in the quote above. We don’t like the doctrine of hell, so the opportunity to brush it off as “a lie against God,” is tempting.

We look to God as the ultimate embodiment of love and it’s not a surprise that there can be difficulties incorporating hell into that picture. But, what are we supposed to do? Should we abandon the teaching of hell in order to make Christianity more appealing?

The problem with that as an option is that scripture speaks of hell as a reality. It may be easier for us to abandon the teaching of hell, but in doing so we abandon the teachings of Christ as well. Jesus spoke quite clearly of the dangers of hell and quite often. When sending the disciples out into the world, Jesus says, “Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28, HCSB).” Although we may not like it, Jesus preached the reality of hell.

We must come to the point of accepting that an absolute truth in regards to this issue exists. What we want to be true has no bearing on what is actually true. I may want to believe that I don’t have to pay any bills this month, but reality will not accommodate that desire. Just the same, I may want God to save everyone, but that doesn’t mean that He will. If we hope to grasp the gospel in its true form, then we must look upon it as it is and accept it, regardless of whether or not we like it.

This may not seem like a satisfying position to hold, but we must know what the reality is before we can truly understand it. We can ultimately come to a place where we understand God’s heart in this, but we wont ever get there if we are trying to make God fit into our current sphere of understanding. If you want to know God and understand His plan for humanity, then you have to be willing to meet Him where He is.

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  • Anonymous

    Excellent post Eric. I’m convinced that the plethora of views that exist both inside and outside of Christianity have their root in conditions of the heart; not blunders of intellect. Having said that, I think that the concept of postmodernism has to be clarified a bit. Postmodernism teaches that truth (that which corresponds to the way that the world actually is) is determined by the subject not the object, which is summed up in the statement “it’s true for me”. An example of this would be rape. Is the rightness or wrongness of rape tied to the object (rape itself) or is it tied to the subject (the individual or the culture). Is rape just as wrong in Chinese culture as it is in American culture? Would rape be wrong no matter where it took place (granted there might be “lesser of two evils” scenarios that we could come up with, but let’s leave those aside for now)? Or does the individual or the culture get to decide the rightness or wrongness of rape. If this is true, then the same action (rape) could be morally wrong in America, but morally acceptable in China. We have to be careful when it comes to toxic lens of postmodernism. A great resource for anyone who wants to know more about this subject is Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air by Greg Koukl and Francis Beckwith.

  • Eric

    I agree with your definition above. I believe that part of us thinks that we can choose reality and define truth based on which doctrines we hold to. In essence, what I am saying is that people try to determine truth subjectively (our opinions on salvation) instead of relying on the object itself (God’s chosen mode of salvation). Do you think that I applied the term incorrectly?

  • An interesting read to be sure. Would you mind unpacking and explaining a bit more in detail the relationship between Universalism and Reformed theology. I find this terribly ironic.

  • Eric

    It is rather ironic given the recent dealings with Bell; however, I think it makes sense if you really think about it. A lot of opposing viewpoints arise from applying concepts in different ways. That’s exactly why Paul had to be so intentional about correcting people when they used his teachings in the wrong way (“Should we continue to sin that grace may abound?“).

    In this case, the five points of calvinism are applied to the doctrine of salvation, but with one slight alteration. Total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints are all applied without alteration. The limited atonement though is qualified. Universalists agree with limited atonement in that the atonement is only offered to those who God elects, but they also suggest that God’s election includes everyone.

    When I was reading about universalism, it was quite surprising that all of the major theologians who held to universalism were either reformed or brought up in the reformed church. Friedrich Schleiermacher and George MacDonald are good examples of this. Some have also criticized Karl Barth for holding a belief in universalism and being vague when he discusses the issue.

    Perhaps the reason why the reformed church is so up in arms about Rob Bell and his new book is because of the link between reformed theology and universalism through history.

  • Gavin

    So what do we do when our church says the body of chist is a symbol and not truly flesh and blood as Christ teaches?

  • Eric

    There are bound to be disagreements within the church. I am not prepared to make a claim that all controversies would be solved in favor of a particular side if only we stuck to the scripture. There are inevitably going to be differences in the way that we understand scripture. The main point that I am trying to make is that, when we attempt to come to the proper understanding of scripture, we leave our own personal opinions and biases at the door. What we would like to be true should never dictate our views on doctrine.

    In terms of the subject of communion, the depth and specificity surrounding doctrines such as transubstantiation and consubstantiation are almost entirely extrabiblical. I believe that we need to be honest with how much of this discussion truly comes from scripture. Most of the discussion really comes from theological reasoning which is applied to scripture. Personally, I think that Luther’s reasoning on this issue is valid, though this is not a subject that I have researched in great depth.

    “Why then should we not much more say in the Supper, ‘This is my body’, even though bread and body are two distinct substances, and the word ‘this’ indicates the bread? Here, too, out of two kinds of objects a union has taken place, which I shall call a ‘sacramental union’, because Christ’s body and the bread are given to us as a sacrament. This is not a natural or personal union, as is the case with God and Christ. It is also perhaps a different union from that which the dove has with the Holy Spirit, and the flame with the angel, but it is also assuredly a sacramental union.”
    – Martin Luther, Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper

  • Good stuff. I enjoyed reading your thoughts!

  • Kurtormsby

    What a refreshing article. Someone actually saying the words “absolute truth.” God Bless you sir!

  • Rowseven

    Eric – yes, Jesus said it and the more I study the more I tend to agree that there is a hell(obviously) if we believe the Scriptures and the words in red. But in that very quote you used maybe there is something else to notice –
    “When sending the disciples out into the world, Jesus says, ““Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28, HCSB).”” Although we may not like it, Jesus preached the reality of hell. ” My first thought is about the word “destroy.”
    …… that word “destroy” speaks to me of something that is over, destruction is eternal in the sense that once something is destroyed it is ‘no more’ forever, as opposed to alive and living an ongoing torture. And what of the unmentioned spirit? I hope I can put this issue to rest soon in my own life.
    As it stands I can deal with total destruction of good people who haven’t had the light of Christ break through, but eternal suffering …? I know that these are simply my subjective thoughts and just my thoughts at this moment in time. They will probably be updated after I press “enter”

  • You bring up a good point. The idea that God will punish people in hell for a set time and then “destroy” them in a sense of annihilation is called “Conditionalism.” I have thought about the concept of Conditionalism some, but don’t feel prepared to really challenge this point. I think that Sinclair Furgison does a much better job than I could anyway. You can see where he speaks of Conditionalism about 2/3 of the way through this sermon: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/conference-messages/universalism-and-the-reality-of-eternal-punishment-the-biblical-basis-of-the-doctrine-of-eternal-punishment#/listen/full

  • Eric, I think you are getting at something that is important for discussion.  Universalism is not helpful for the faith.  However, I find your unilateral appropriation of postmodernism to a lack of belief in ‘universal truth’ and therefore to a belief in universalism to be misinformed.  Postmodern thought is much more nuanced than that.  I ascribe to a more ‘postmodern’ view and certainly do not hold to universalism.  I invite you to read my article on PostModern Biblical Authority here and to get the book s I refer to as sources… http://theooze.com/theology/postmodern-biblical-authority/

  • Thank you for the link. I greatly appreciate your style and depth of writing and you have given me a lot to think about regarding biblical authority in light of postmodernism. I will de finitely be spending some time on your sources as well.

    In reference to your comment, I think you may have misunderstood me just a bit. While I do suggest that universalism has roots in postmodern thought, I am not suggesting that the inverse relationship holds true. A person may very easily be a postmodernist without being universalist. Also, I tried to make it clear that this “type” of postmodern thought is only existent in a certain form. It appears to me that those who hold to universalism often have postmodern tendencies, not a fully developed understanding of postmodernism.

    I must say though that I do wonder how you understand the biblical authority to be infallible without communicating objective truth. It would seem to me that, if we deconstruct a passage in scripture to the point of irreducibly contradictory interpretations, at least some of those interpretations must be fallible.

    Also, while I understand that the origins of Christianity would not qualify as a meta-narrative, that certainly wouldn’t still apply today. Christianity is no longer just a marginalized voice in the Roman empire. Much of Christian theology has been developed in a position of power and authority, which has often been used to silence the Other. If we are to embrace the skepticism toward the Meta-narrative and offer favor to the Other, then on what grounds would we suggest that universalism is not helpful?

  • Your welcome.

    Here is a short answer. Objective vs subjective truth is a false dichotomy of modernity that we teach high school kids in our youth groups, quite ignorantly. I know, I was a product of such ministries and led youth for 5 years. I would urge you to keep exploring other options as it could easily be said that none of the respectable Christian scholars of our day (NT Wright, Greg Boyd, Scot McKnight, Olson, Richard B Hays, etc) hold to the sort of “positivism” that Objective truth arguments assume. In fact, most scholars would define this view like the following:

    – Naive Realist – (or Foundational Realist) direct correspondence between truth and experience of, interpretation of truth. There is truth and it can be evaluated objectively (implication is all would be able to confirm, see it same way.)
    This basically means that you have: Objective evidence → Objective Truth

    A better option would be to hold to something like:

    – Perspectival Realist – (or Critical Realist, or Post-Foundational Realist) The way one sees the world affects the way truth is seen/experienced and thus how it is judged, articulated, etc. There is truth, but it will be interpreted differently.

    Truth can be perceived differently by various viewpoints and various experiences
    Bouquet of roses in the middle of a room seen from various angles…

    Unfortunately, the issue that I have with your article is not the “type” of postmodernism you are critiquing which I would call:

    – Radical Perspectivalism – (or Post-Foundational Antirealism) Truth is constructed, perspective is all there is.

    My issue is that you assume the “naive realist” categories and seem to play by such rules. I really encourage you to check out the book: Whose afraid of Postmodernism.

    Finally, you make a keen observation about Metanarrative. Yes, Christendom is not a marginal voice… but we are heading there. England has certainly evolved into a Post-Christendom society and the US will catch up as a whole, but is there in many of our cities. I would say that Christendom is a problem, and in itself is a meta-narrative. But, I come from the anabaptist tradition which has always been a counter-voice to the post-Constatinian marriage between Empire/Power and Church. Emerging and Anabaptist groups are calling out Christendom for what it is… a destructive force of violence that has hindered the gospel. For more on this see: 1) The Naked Anabaptist – Murray, 2) The Myth of a Christian Nation – Boyd, 3) Jesus for President – Claiborne, and 4) The Shaping of Things to Come – Hirsh and Frost. This critique is not to say that “nothing” good came from Christendom (Metanarrative faith) but that it has been exposed as oppressive and looking a lot like Rome and not much like the organic first century subversive movement of Jesus radicals.

    Hope this helps!

  •  PS – I wrote a quick article based on our interactions here.  I am pointing people towards your post and posted our conversation on my site.

  • I believe I understand your perspective a bit better now, but I would like to readdress my questions once more. First, I must say that you make quite an extraordinary claim to say that none of the respectable Christian scholars of our day accept positivism; but more importantly, in making such a statement, you are committing a fallacy of association. The caliber of people who reject positivism has no bearing on the truth value of it. Secondly, I don’t accept that objective and subjective truth is dichotomously opposed to each other. I would suggest that, while the objective truth is what it is, subjective truths may or may not align with that reality. I also don’t necessarily hold to the position of foundational realism because I do believe that the way that we interpret information can affect the way that we understand an objective truth and our ability to know objective truths.

    That being said, I believe that there is one reality, one set of universal truths, and, at least in some areas of study, those universal truths can be known, in close approximation if not fully. I believe that the advances that we have made in science and medicine are a testament to that.

    But I would like to return to my question regarding the authority of the Bible because I believe that this is also one of those areas that we can know at least in close approximation. Though I can see your argument that an authoritative scripture may be possible, at least in some form, under postmodernism, I have a hard time understanding what you mean when you say that the Bible is infallible. When you make a claim to the infallibility of scripture, you are not only establishing a belief in an underlying, universal truth, but you are also making a judgement on the ability of the Bible to accurately communicate that truth in terms which we are able to understand. Infallibility implies that our differences in perspective and interpretation of scripture is owing to our personal failings in coming to a proper understanding of scripture, not a fundamental inability to know and understand the truth which God is communicating to us. Because of this, I must again ask, what it is that you mean when you say that scripture is infallible.

    I also believe that you may have missed some of the weight behind the fact that Christianity has become a meta-narrative. We are not dealing with an authoritative Christianity that has also produced theology. On the contrary, it is precisely the authoritative position of Christianity silencing the Other that has produced much of our current theology. If we are to supposed to reject this type of self-authenticating suppression of subjective truths, how comfortable can we be with the current state of our theological beliefs? On what grounds would we be able to reject universalism or even claim that it is not helpful for the faith?

  •  Thanks for spending time in this conversation and for giving us a plug on your blog. It is greatly appreciated!

  •  I added you to FB so that you can get in on the conversation happening on my Wall.  That may be quite worth your time

  •  @simwaves1:disqus ,

    This is fun!  I don’t know how many rounds I am gonna last, considering I am no expert on philosophy and well, you make me think too much!!!!

    Okay, first you talk about the fallacy of association.  I must say this without being a rude jerk… that kind of jargon about logic and reasoning doesn’t really peak my interest.  I am not a formal debater, just a young theologian / pastor type.  So, I have found it helpful to point to folks more credible than I to demonstrate I am not on my own.  I would venture to say, that you are probably a traditional reformed guy and that may be the gap between us on this :-)  I am an Anabaptist arminian, so we may just be coming from different angles on this…. (side note: we both agree that Universalism is not good for the church, so we agree more than we disagree).

    Second, I believe that the only “objective truth” that exists is God… but that we can never know him absolutely as he absolutely know us.  We will only catch a glimpse of him.  And even though I believe that he is Truth, I also know that such a conviction is fully dependent on a relational epistemology… I know truth insofar that my experiential grid, influenced by the Holy Spirit (I hope!), tells me such convictions are true.  This is completely subjective.  I can never know something, if I am being intellectually honest, with absolute certainty.  If I did, faith would not matter too much I suppose.  And based on your remarks to me, it seems that our language may be the only thing keeping us at odds on this point :-)

    Third, Universal Truth is fine but it cant be “proven.”  God is a universalizing truth but again, as I said in my above comment, that is my belief about an absolute Being whom I will only know in part, like staring in a dim glass.

    Fourth, on biblical authority.  I believe that biblical authority is more demonstrated by the way that the Scripture is exorcized as authoritative in one’s life… intellectual authority is second to that.  I do, as best as I understand, hold to infallibility (although I recognize that this is a term that the Bible does not use of itself).  I make a distinction from infallibility and inerrancy.  I don’t believe in an inerrant Bible.  You can see my view on this here: http://www.thepangeablog.com/2011/01/24/dear-reader-thinking-out-loud-about-biblical-inspiration/ 

    On your final point, I honestly don’t know where you are coming from.  Meta-narrative for me has more to do with actions and less to do with abstract theologizing.  I guess on your issue of constructing theology… we must admit that all theology is constructed and must have the bravery to constantly deconstruct the supposed “right answers.”  When we have deconstructed all we can, it means we are close to the truth I suppose.  I believe that I am on the right path, but I do so through a grid of humility (as I am sure you do as well).

    Finally, I am not a universalist as I said before.  But, lets be clear that universalism can be traced back to the second century! This is hardly a result of relativism or the kind of postmodernism your post critiques.

    Ultimately, my concern is with anyone who uses the label “postmodern” and associates it with “bad theology.”  That is taking a broad term and unilaterally applying it.  This is why so many conservatives are so afraid of that word.  I think you could have been more nuanced and instead of saying “The Dangers of Postmodernism in the Church” you could have said “the dangers of relativism” or something else.  Why dismiss the whole when it is only a certain form that can be bad.

    A couple of good reads for this discussion of epistemology.

    1) My friend Carson Clark’s post on post-foundationalism: http://carsontclark.wordpress.com/2009/09/04/i-think-im-a-postfoundationalist-evangelical-christian/#comment-1585

    2) NT Wright’s “the Bible for a PostModern World” http://www.biblicaltheology.ca/blue_files/The%20Bible%20for%20the%20Post%20Modern%20World.pdf

    Grace and Peace!!!!
    – Kurt

  • I think you are right that we both agree on a lot, and I think that God as objective truth is a very important one. I must say though that it is precisely because God is truth that I believe that absolute truth exists in His creation. If God wishes to communicate to us about Himself, it would follow necessarily that the information revealed to us is absolutely true. Furthermore, such revelation must be communicated sufficiently to be able to produce accurate knowledge and understanding in its recipients. After all, if we consider God to have wanted to reveal something to us and we are incapable of fully understand that revelation, then God’s will becomes ineffective. It seems clear to me that, if we accept the Bible as divine revelation, the infallibility of scripture follows naturally from the absolute truth of God’s being. While I agree that we can not know God in His entirety, we can fully know that which He has revealed to us.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith in saying that “the whole counsel of God is either expressly set down in Scripture or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” I also agree with your distinctions between infallibility and inerrency. I believe that God can accurately and completely reveal himself in a medium that contains trivial errors. Whether Jesus was walking into or out of the Decapolis when he performed a miracle seems entirely irrelevant. 

    While I believe you would agree with what I written above, this doesn’t seem entirely consistent with the views that you espoused in your article defending a PostModern Biblical Authority. Deconstruction, which will inevitably lead to various interpretations which are irreducibly contradictory, cannot be understood to be a proper representation of a text that accurately conveys the infallible truths of God.

    With regards to my point about metanarratives, what I am really trying to get across is that orthodoxy itself is a metanarrative. The early church was plagued with bad theology. It wasn’t until Constantine called the first ecumenical council that real standards for orthodox Christianity began to take shape. Local narratives were discarded and the metanarrative of orthodoxy was established. It seems to me that a postmodern system in which we are told to be incredulous to the self legitimating interpretive framework of orthodox Christianity promotes heterodoxy, perhaps not to the extent of establishing heterodoxy, but much more than I believe is merited.

    Your concern with equating postmodernism with bad theology is valid. It certainly would have more specific if I had referred to relativism. However, I do see a potential danger in the manner in which postmodernism is applied in the lay church people. Not from people like you, who go to the length of understanding postmodernism, because I believe that people who properly understand postmodernism also have the sense to apply it properly. But most of the church is not like you and what I have seen more often than not is people who create their own God based on what they want Him to be.

    If nothing else, I am glad that my somewhat inappropriate application of the term caught your interest. I have enjoyed this conversation with you greatly!

  • You make some valid points here.  I think we agree quite a bit.  Honestly, it has been since 08 that I have engaged this stuff on any legitimate level.  I am rusty on philosophy. I hope you will at least read “Whose afraid of Postmodernism.” Most helpful book I’ve read on this subject…. 

    Anyway, you are a great conversation partner and its late so I will simply say goodnight and I will look forward to future conversations!!!!!!!

    Grace and peace to you bro!

  • I’m fascinated, Eric, by two comments you have made in this exchange, that seem to me contradictory:  a couple exchanges back, you said: “it is precisely the authoritative position of Christianity silencing the
    Other that has produced much of our current theology.” 

    Now in this comment you say “The early church was plagued with bad theology. It wasn’t until
    Constantine called the first ecumenical council that real standards for
    orthodox Christianity began to take shape.”

    As I have stated repeatedly on my own discussions of credalism, I tend to agree with your first comment–that the Church has shouted down opposition and defined orthodoxy (and it’s own authority to judge orthodoxy)–more than the second, in which you seem to imply that the Constantinian resolution of these controversies is accepted as true and correct.  But which are you saying?

  • Eric, as a decidedly non-Postmodernist who has significant problems with the “orthodox” doctrines of hell, I think you may be mixing two not-quite-related topics here.   While you are correct (I believe) that many Postmoderns are attracted to theologies that minimize hell and maximize Universalism because it feels a whole lot “nicer” and “open-minded” and such, it is inaccurate to paint the entire current discussion with a Postmodernist brush and therewith dismiss it.

    There are legitimate Biblical objections to classic hell doctrines: for example, the fact that Jesus’ teaching of hell tends to be directed largely, not at the “ignorant” or “unsaved,” but rather at those religious authorities who self-righteously “know” they are in with God.  It is also important to recognize–again based on Biblical authority alone–that there is not a single phrase or command or statement in the entire New Testament that links the eternal destiny of the lost with a command or duty to evangelize (these commands are usually linked to the fact of Jesus’ exalted authority).  Nor is eternal condemnation part of any evangelistic sermon we have recorded in or Acts.  The notion that we must “turn or burn” is a much later innovation and itself largely extrabiblical.

    I would encourage you to be a little more careful in separating these disparate strands within the sloppy theology of today:  Universalism is taught as a feel-good, don’t-worry-be-happy notion of God.  This is not biblical and needs to be addressed.  Postmodernism can (note, “can,” not “always does”) lead to a lot of fuzzy thinking that tends to the “whatever works for you” hermaneutic.  This, too, is sloppy thought.

    But along with both of these streams–which, frankly, have existed before if only with different names–there is also a re-examination of Biblical truth using Biblical authority, that likewise calls into question some pretty dearly-held beliefs of “orthodoxy.”  This latter path is important, and should not so lightly be dismissed.

    Pax Christi!

  • I certainly don’t believe that the ecumenical councils functioned as meetings in which everyone got together and agreed on proper doctrine. Constantine practically decided the Arian controversy by himself.

    That being said, I don’t see your statements above as mutually exclusive. I believe that Christianity accepts the Constantinian resolution as true and correct even though it was an act of suppressing the opposition.

  • I don’t have a problem with people questioning the orthodox beliefs regarding hell, I have a problem with people rejecting them. 

    It seems that the primary issue that you are communicating is a rejection of the approach to the practical preaching of hell rather than the substance of what is being taught. I find this interesting because, to the best of my knowledge, there is not an established orthodoxy of when you should or should not bring up the doctrine of hell. It seems that you are taking issue with something that is more based on preference and common patterns of preaching rather than on orthodox beliefs. Of course, the fact that the “turn or burn” type of preaching was absent from the gospels and the rest of the new testament doesn’t mean that it wasn’t used. The new testament deals primarily with an audience of believers, so your observations regarding the preaching of hell is expected. On the other hand, a great portion of the old testament shows us that God certainly has no problem saying, “turn from your wicked ways or be judged.”

    I also think you may be applying the term of orthodoxy a bit differently than I am. If you hold to the position of inclusivism or conditionalism as it seems from scanning over your blog articles, that may be a rejection of orthodox evangelical Christianity perhaps, but not orthodox Christianity. I believe that your opinion that my words in this article are directed toward you is mistaken.

  • You’re right, Eric, that I am primarily objecting to the Evangelical use of hell, not that there is none.  On the latter point, as I have written and you obviously read, I remain ambivalent…but tending toward annihilationism, not universalism.  Within even that, I tend to think the punishment of scripture, whether annihilation or eternal torment, is reserved for those who willfully and negligently misrepresent God, not those who’ve never been given the chance to meet him (these latter, I suspect, may be extended a mercy we do not comprehend).  But neither of these is a universalist position.

    And in response to your statement that God said “turn or be judged” in the O.T., in fact we find that in the N.T. too…but conflating “judged” with “eternally condemned” is an extrabiblical synthesis not supported in the text.

    So maybe I’m neither fully orthodox nor fully heterodox?  Hmmm…

    Nevertheless thank you for your reply & your gentle tone in it.

  • Fair enough. In your interpretation, I would suggest that Christianity accepts too much of the Constantinian/Nicaean/Chalcedonian resolution without further critique…though I don’t dispute that they indeed so accept it.

    I certainly grant that it is possible God might (as he has done throughout history) use deeply flawed processes to achieve his good outcomes.   I dispute, however, that this is what happened in the various fourth-century councils.

    I come back to the position that even “settled doctrines” ought to be repeatedly re-examined in the light of scripture…and that is something few churches have the willingness or courage to do.

  • What, then, do *you* think the church should be teaching about hell?  That it’s real, obviously, but then what? 

  • What is eternal condemnation if not judgement?

    I am curious to how you interpret Romans 1. I’m not sure I accept that there is anyone who has never been given the chance to know God. Paul tells us that God has made Himself known to everyone.

    All in all, we can both agree that God is just and no person will be punished out of proportion to what they deserve. Personally, I see no problem with that punishment being everlasting.

  • You know, I’m not really sure. I’m not a pastor and I’ve never taught anyone about hell, so I can’t say that I know what the proper approach is. I do believe that it is something that should be preached more often (at least that is true at my church), and that it should be preached accurately. What that means to me would take a bit of explaining. Perhaps I should write an article about it…

  • Oh, eternal condemnation is certainly judgment, but the converse is not necessarily true.  My objection was to the idea that all occurrences of “judgment” in the Bible are necessarily eternal condemnation.

    Which actually is an important point for your question about Romans 1.  It’s interesting to look at what Paul is calling out in the  Romans 1 sinner.  These are people who fail to honor the God who has been revealed in creation, and instead worship the created, and also get wrapped up in all sorts of venal immorality.  Two points here:

    1)  Those who worship a grand Creator because they’ve been able to see in the general revelation that the universe must exist due to a Creator, but who have not actually heard the names of Yahweh and Jesus, seem to me to be people who have, in fact, responded in humility to the very revelation they have been given.  As I’ve said in the past, the heavens declare the glory of God, but they do not give us his name.  I would suggest that to claim these folks are lost…who have responded to all the revelation they’ve received as faithfully as they can…is to go well beyond what is written.  This leads me to:

    2)  The discussion about the rank immorality Paul describes in vv 24-32 is interesting, in that it’s unclear to what extent the depraved behavior is merely the willful sin of those unbelievers, and to what extent it’s actually part of the condemnation to which God “gave them over.”  Either way, this describes some, but definitely not all, who have never been properly exposed to the gospel of Christ.  It does not, however, describe people who have, as I said above, responded in humility to the general revelation of God in creation, derived a clear morality and live by it, and give glory to the God they have deduced must exist, whatever name they may give him (see Rom. 2:14-16).

    Nor does Paul’s discussion in Rom. 1 necessitate hell in any form.  The retribution and wrath Paul describes is entirely temporal depravity (Rom 1:24 and following), and death (Rom. 1:32 and 2:12).  The association of the condemnation in these passages with the “eternal conscious punishment” so dear to the hearts of American Evangelicals, is not in the text.

    And finally, I appreciate and (mostly) agree with your closing comment: All in all, we can both agree that God is just and no person will be
    punished out of proportion to what they deserve.
      Unlike you, however, I do not believe that infinite torment can possibly be a just punishment for finite sins, no matter how great.  If  “everlasting” means “dead, annihilated, not coming back,” (and there is a Biblical case that can be made for this), I can accept it as just.  Eternal torture for temporal sin is not.  Hence my unqualified agreement with the MacDonald quote with which you opened your original post.

  • I would encourage you to do an exercise I did a couple years back, if you do choose to write about it.  Go through the entire N.T. and look at every mention of hell or condemnation in the whole document.  Ask yourself whether it comes down on the side of eternal conscious torment or annihilation; ask also (and this is key) to whom the message is spoken.

    I’d be happy to share with you my own survey if you’d like; it’s one I’ve never published as I haven’t figured out a good way to format it for the blog.

  •  What I am really trying to say is that, if God is comfortable with a very aggressive approach toward judgement in general, I don’t see a problem with a similar approach to the more specific form of judgement in hell.

    You said in your previous comment that hell is not meant for people who have never been given a chance to meet God, but I don’t think such a person exists, and I think that is specifically why Paul starts the first three chapters of Romans the way that he does. The whole point is to lead us up to the conclusion of Romans 3:23. There is no denying that we are all lost. If God so wishes to condemn all who have not heard the gospel, then he is perfectly just in doing so. It is only by His grace that all of us don’t see the same condemnation.

  • I would be interested in looking over your notes. You can send them to me at ericmcclellan@theology21.com

  • What do you do, then, with the Romans 2:14-16 I referenced above?

    I would suggest that the context of Romans 3 (the whole chapter) suggests that Paul’s “none righteous” statement has more to do with his argument that Judaism is no better than Gentiles (“Greeks”) cf. v. 9 of the same chapter).  It has been co-opted by classic Calvinist theology–in fact most Pauline writings have–but Paul’s message has a great deal more to do with the uniting of the division between Jew and Greek in Christ, than it does with the grand picture of sin & depravity that it’s often used to “prove.”  I was struck by this once when I read all of Paul’s epistles straight through in a couple days, and realized a continuity of message between them that I had not previously noticed.

    However, I suspect this may be a place where–as brothers–we may simply agree to disagree (agreeably, I hope!).

  • I’ll fire up my laptop, grab the doc, and send it to you.  I look forward to your thoughts!

  • Hey Dan, not to jump in on the conversation and do a lucha libre tag team… but I did want to make one comment in reference to Acts.  I would say that your observation may be very revealing in our modern day approach to Evangelism.  Many of us often talk about a lot of other things when talking about “Jesus.”  We tell them how He changed our lives, saved us from Hell, gave us the Holy Spirit… which is all good.  But Jesus makes it clear that we are supposed to present who He is; which is exactly what the early Church made a focus of doing.  Sharing who Jesus is.

    HOWEVER, that does not mean that they did not have conversations about hell.  Although there is not that evangelical presentation in Acts, I don’t think we can throw in a level of importance like you are suggesting.  We do not have the sermon notes of Paul, Peter, Apollos, etc.  We have historical records of what they did.  In those records, if we are observing who the early church was speaking to I think it is very fair to say that many knew exactly what Hell was, and they knew what was at stake in terms of their spiritual lives.  For example, a Jew in a synagogue hearing about salvation… that person knows exactly what they are being saved from.  So I would say that we need to be careful when using that as a point, especially considering how clear Jesus was about Hell.

    The way you presented it, it looks like you were merely typing some objections that people may have.  So I am guessing you are playing an advocate for the other half.  I just thought it was worthwhile to say something about that.

  •  Well, Shaun, we’re both surmising here, because as you correctly point out we do not have comprehensive records of how the apostles preached.  My contention, though, is that if hell were anywhere a fraction as important as Evangelicals make it today, it would have been far more explicit in the Gospels, in Acts, and in the Epistles, than it is.  So I would heartily underline the first paragraph of your comment, with which I agree absolutely, and I would say that if that sort of message was good enough for the early church, then the “fear factor” evangelism we too-often espouse today should in fact be dumped.

    And by the way, while the Jew in the synagogue might have known what hell is (I’m no expert in Judaism, but some of my friends who’ve studied it more might take issue with that contention)…the Gentile in Ephesus and Athens and Corinth and Colossi would not.  Therefore, I don’t think I buy your argument that it’d be more necessary for us today than it was back then.

    So while I appreciate you cutting me some brotherly slack, you’re maybe being nicer than you should…   ;{)    …as my actual contention is that we really should “get the hell out” of our current M.O. for evangelism and get back to inviting people to follow Jesus.  Or, as I wrote more recently, in reaction to the perceived “need” to use hell to sell faith, do we trust the Holy Spirit or not?

  • I don’t know Dan.  I just don’t know.  As I have been doing the work that I do, I have been asking myself a lot of questions.  What is the Church?  What is discipleship?  What is worship?  What is (fill in the blank)?  Pretty much sitting at the feet of God the best I can, and saying “teach me.”  

    So as I have been doing that, I have been looking a lot at Acts, and Ephesians; with other parts of the NT mixed in there.  But God keeps bringing me back to those books.  One thing that has really stuck out to me, is that those books really are a “blueprint” to what discipleship and “Church” looks like.  

    As I look at those towns, specifically Ephesus (because that is where I keep on getting drawn to), I do think I would have to say that the people did have an understanding of hell.  Having never been there during that time, it is difficult to say that.  However, without either one of us being experts, we can look at the information and say Jews were taught about hell.  Not only that but even those that worshipped Diana, they too, we could assume, would have a concept of hell.  Remember Paul pointed to God when he talked about the “unknown god” that the Athenians had set up.  These were a people of worship.  The question is:  what did they worship because there were many gods.  And, to what level did people focus on hell? Kind of like, a Roman Catholic, and if there focus is on a specific saint, Mary, Jesus, or God.  Where is the focus?  That we don’t know.

    I don’t think that they talked about Hell in the same way we did, especially considering we have the printed Bible, and they were still receiving the letters hand written from Paul (amazing when I think about it).  But even Jew’s referenced Abraham’s bosom. I think the whole debate about resurrection versus non-resurrection between the Sadducees and Pharisees reflects a thought about hell (in my opinion).  So I am not at all suggesting that it is more important now versus back then.  I am saying it was equally important.  And I feel comfortable with saying that because Jesus confronted people with their heaven and hell on a regular basis.

    I think what you are talking about, concerning the “fear-factor” evangelism is a reflection that fire and brimstone can be sexy evangelism.  What do I mean?  Well, it is the easiest way for the evangelist or preacher to see results.  People raise hands, cry, and feel convicted when they are confronted with the idea of eternal death.  I will not be the one to say why a person preaches what they do.  I will however, always suggest for a person to check their hearts and see if it is for the glory of God.  One thing that God has corrected my heart in is that we can throw out tons of seeds, but if we aren’t focusing on making disciples, we are not following His commission.  

    I think that Hell can be taught in complete context of pointing back to God and His righteous Love, but often times people leave it at the fire… and that is not where Jesus left it at all.  Which in some ways is what you are saying in your post about salvation.  It doesn’t end there.  I do think people need to be confronted with Hell because it is real.  And I do believe that it should be a part of the M.O. for discipleship because it is a very real thing that Jesus taught.  The way I see it is if Jesus taught it on the Mount, we should be teaching it and let the Holy Spirit do the convicting.

    Well, I have said a lot for starting with “I don’t know.”  So I will leave my thoughts there.  Thanks for sharing the Gospel, and being faithful as you stepped into the mission field!  And blessings to you (and not at all in the cliche way!)

  • I think you are exactly right in your statement regarding Romans 3. The underlying argument that Paul is making throughout the first three chapters is that everyone is on equal ground in our need of salvation. Therefore, the context of 2:14-16 is directly following the statement made in verse 11 that God does not show favoritism. If “God will repay each person according to what they have done” (v.6), then it would appear that God has put the Jews at an advantage by supplying them with the law. Paul’s rebuttal to that is the in v.14-16 when he tells us that God has bestowed humanity with a “natural moral” in which they know what God’s law is without being part of Israel.

    That being said, the purpose of the Law was not to justify us but to show us our failings. All people know instinctively that they have been corrupted by sin. None of us live up to the standard or moral good that we have in our heart.

    I can understand the desire to apply this passage the way that you have, but I don’t think it is accurate to the greater context. In light of statements such as, “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law” (v.12), “There is no one righteous, no not one” (3:10), “the whole world will be accountable to God” (3:19), and the conclusion of 3:23 I believe it is clear that the argument that Paul is making is that we are ALL held to the same requirements and the same standard. Just as Jews are not shown favoritism by being given the law, Gentiles are not given extra points just because they haven’t heard the gospel.

  • I think you guys have given me the necessary details for another complete blog post…I’ll see what I can do.  But in the meantime, the short answer, to me, is that we’re looking at a category mistake in claiming that Romans, or John 14:6, or any of the usual suspects are making the claim that “you must accept in your mind the religion we now call Christianity, or you will suffer an unending agony in a place we call hell.”

    Jesus is king, having been made so by his Father following his death & resurrection.  Our king has directed us to recruit followers into his kingdom.  This I do not dispute, nor will I relent from it.

    There remain, however, legitimate questions about what it means to join that kingdom.  Whatever consequences there may be for those who do not (whether by ignorance or by default or by deliberate rejection), are not as clear, either, as we often make them out to be.  The intersection of God’s law and God’s mercy, also, is not as clear-cut as we usually represent it.  None of these is necessarily an issue of “universalism,” but they all militate against the absolute “my religion or burn” mentality that characterizes far too much “evangelism.”

    And I think we need to be more candid about what, in these interpretations, derives from an extrabiblical filter being superimposed on the texts.  There is a big difference between what can be independently derived from the text alone, and what can be claimed as a systematic theory and then purport to be supported by the text.  Most soteriology I have seen falls in the latter category, not the former.

  • Rowseven

    I’d love to read those also.  This year I started a project with my reading through the Bible where I write down every instance referring to a few things I just can’t figure out or feel comfortable with, as I want to share the truth of the Gospel.  Hell is the biggie.  Election also very big.  Salvation from what? OT salvation. etc.  Your notes would be awesome! 

  • @be23488c32e3cdcd11165719d9d6bf48:disqus , drop me an email at dwm gmail com and I’ll send the notes to you…Dan

  •  This is a great video by Francis Chan about coming to the Bible directly, not letting our pride or our expectations of what God ought to do influence our perceptions of what He told us He will do. I thought it was very relevant to this article as well as the discussion in the comments. I think Francis Chan’s words on this issue are good for all of us to listen to, regardless of which side of the discussion we are on.


    @be23488c32e3cdcd11165719d9d6bf48:disqus @dwmtractor:disqus @kurtwillems:disqus @acscott777:disqus @jonathandkeck:disqus @calledtoperu:disqus @34a6f54188da93dbb3f7d336da4b9a07:disqus @17b34be4ac9117b0dac8cf937697c5b9:disqus 

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