Eric: Hey there folks. This is The Eric Metaxas Show. Chris Himes we’ve got something very special for our listeners today.
Chris: Ah, do we?
Eric: Yeah, we do.What the heck, this is Hell Week on The Eric Metaxas Show. People don’t realize that this is what we like to call Hell Week on the show because we’re serious Christians; we take the concept of Hell very seriously.
Eric: But the question is, “What about it?” George Sarris, welcome on the program.
George: Thank you very much, it’s a delight to be here!
Eric: George I’ve known you for a long time and the reason we’re having you on today is first of all because I’ve known you for a long time—you have a lot of credibility with me. The book you have written (it just came out) is titled Heaven’s Doors and then the subtitle is Wider than you ever believed. I read the book and I was very impressed with the way you dealt with this. I want to ask you your story. How in the heck did you come to write an entire book on the subject of hell?
George: Yeah, that’s a very good question. I guess my life really got transformed in 1969. I was a junior in college, back then, during the height of the Vietnam war era and God touched my heart—transformed it. And I was really excited about this great God who I heard about and so I ended up going on Campus Crusade for Christ staff for four years after that. And then I went to seminary—wanted to be an educated layman.
And so anyway, I went to seminary but there was an issue that bothered me, “Why would an all-powerful, all-wise, all-loving God, either cause (if you’re a Calvinist) or allow (if you’re an Arminian) billions of people to suffer consciously forever??” It just didn’t seem to make sense to me. So I decided to use that topic as an issue for a research paper and what I discovered was absolutely shocking to me! During the first five centuries of the Christian Church the dominant view was that God was ultimately going to restoreall of creation.
Eric: Now, I’d never even heard that until I read your book!
George: There were basically six centers of Christianity back then: two of them (Alexandria and Caesarea) followed the teachings of Origen and they favored Ultimate Restoration; two of them (Antioch and Edessa) followed the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia—who most people have never heard of.
George: Thank you very much. One (which was Asia Minor) followed Irenaeus and he believed in Annihilation, and then only one (northern Africa) followed the teachings of Tertullian and Augustine.
So the dominant view was really that God is going to ultimately restore all creation.
Eric: So Tertullian and Augustine believed in conscious eternal punishment?
George: That is correct.
Eric: Okay, so they did but Irenaeus did not.
George: That is correct.
Eric: And Origen did not.
George: That is correct.
George: Nor did Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory of Nyssa was a major person. In fact, when the Nicene Creed was finalized, he actually added the phrase, “I believe in the life of the age to come” to the Nicene Creed. And he was probably the strongest supporter of Ultimate Restoration of any of the Early Church Fathers.
Well I wrote a paper (got an a-minus in the paper) in my seminary. I kept it as a private hope for a long time because nobody thought this is gonna work. And then in 2007 decided to look a little more carefully into the issue. I knew at some point that I’d have to do that and, as I did, I ended up writing the book. And it was just exciting to me because I had a look into all those issues. What about the the phrase of Jesus where he says to Judas that, “it would be better if you had never been born”? I mean how’s that fit into this whole idea of Ultimate Restoration? How about repentance is impossible? Or in Hebrews, “it’s impossible for someone who has once known God to then be returned.” So I had to deal with all those various issues.
Eric: So these are scriptures that people who don’t believe in your view would use to say, “how can you possibly get around the scripture?” and since you believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, you had to deal with that.
George: That’s correct. And I became convinced that scripture actually teaches that God is ultimately going to restore all of creation. That was what was an amazing thing to me—that God is not this weak individual. If you’re an Arminian, God is weak—he wishes that he could save everybody but, “son of a gun, I just can’t!”—or he is cruel, if you’re a Calvinist, it’s because God could have saved all but he chose only to save some.
So I thought, I don’t see God as being cruel, I don’t see him as being weak. I see him as being all-powerful, all-loving, all-wise. Why could he not accomplish what he set out to do?
Eric: Ok, now the people who take the Armenian or the Calvinist view, they would never say he’s weak and they would never say he’s cruel. Just to be clear, they would put it differently but I think your average person thinks that and says, “I don’t get this.”
Eric Metaxas: Hey there folks, it’sThe Eric Metaxas Show. This is “Hell Week” on the Eric Metaxas show. This is my second show with my old friend George Sarris—fellow Greek, fellow born again Jesus freak who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible. George welcome to the program.
George Sarris: Thank you very much.
Eric: Your book, as we said earlier, is titled Heaven’s Doors, and you said in a last program that most Christians believed the view that you believe, for the first five hundred years of the Church. So what happened so that we have this current view that hell is a place of conscious, eternal, never-ending punishment?
George: That’s a good question. The simple answer is that politics entered the picture. You’ve got to remember the first three centuries of the church, Christians were persecuted. So if you’re going to be a Christian, you had to be pretty serious about your faith. Then Constantine made Christianity the preferred religion of the Empire, and from that point on, what you had are people that get into positions of leadership who have mixed motives: some of them are sincere, for sure, some of them are not quite as sincere.
You come to the 6th century with a man by the name of Justinian the first. Justinian’s was the Roman Emperor. He wanted to restore the glory of the Roman Empire and he felt that it was important to have no resistance to what he believed, and so therefore he wanted power. And Eric, in all seriousness, if you have the power to kill somebody on this earth, and to torture them, and do all kinds of mean things to them, that’s a great amount of power. But if you not only have power to do that on earth but you also have the power to tell them if they will be suffering, like that, consciously forever, that is phenomenal power!
As the church moved into the Middle Ages in the West (not so much in the East, by the way. The East never lost view of this particular understanding of Scripture) you have the Inquisition. If people didn’t believe what you believed, you tortured them and then some of them were put to death. But if you want to keep power, that’s a great way to keep power.
Eric: I want to give my audience a sense of what you’ve been through, just by bringing up this this topic. Since I know you, I got to hear about this, and you write about it in the book. What happened?
George: Yeah, it was kind of intense there for a while. When Rob Bell came out with his book in 2011, I’d been working on [my book] for a while (I’d actually completed an initial draft) but it was an issue nobody even thought about, nobody even talked about. He brought it into the forefront. I was working with a Christian ministry (had been working with them for 10 years) and I felt, well, I’d better let the leadership of the ministry know what I’m thinking. I was starting to write a couple of blog articles to try to correct misinformation so I sent the the manuscript out to the man in charge of the ministry and within three days I was terminated because of “doctrinal aberrations”.
My church—my wife and I (and our family) had been actively involved in our church for 20 years—when a person within the church wrote to the elders, saying, “How can George Sarris continue to be a member of this church when he obviously doesn’t believe the statement of faith?” And so one of the elders took me out and we talked for a while and decided that it would be best for my wife and I to leave that church.
I was part of a Bible study—a couples Bible study with my wife and I—when they found out what I believe they asked us not to return. We were involved in a ministry to international students at the University of Bridgeport, when I explained to the person in charge that this is what I thought, I was asked not to return again.
I have a pastor friend of mine in the Denver area who had been, I think, pastor of one of the largest churches in his denomination, and he made people aware that he believed that God was good and he was going to ultimately restore all. He was brought up on charges, tried, and defrocked. One of the biggest questions that comes up is, “George, if this is true, why have I never heard that before?”
George: My answer is intimidation led to fear, which resulted in ignorance in future generations.
Eric: Okay, we’re out of time. We’re going to be right back talking to George Sarris about Heaven’s Doors and hell.
George Sarris: Yeah, I think that it’s important because most people will go to certain scriptures that talk about Hell and they think that it means never ending—when it doesn’t—but they miss a lot of descriptions that are actually in favor of, or at least speak to, the fact that God is going to ultimately restore. For example:
Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
1 John 2:2
Christ came to seek and save what was lost—did he succeed or did he fail?
For as in Adam all die so in Christ all will be made alive.
1 Corinthians 15:22
For God has bound all men [translated “everyone” in NIV, NLT, JUB, et al.] over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
And a very well known one:
at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth—and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The word that is used there for “confessed”, by the way, means positive confession, it means voluntary confession.
Eric: Okay, that’s the key right there because that’s the first thing comes into my mind and I know there a lot of listeners saying, “wait a second, the demons will confess this” but you’re saying there’s a different word for confess?
George: That is correct. It’s a word that means praise and plus the fact that God doesn’t like hypocrites. He doesn’t like people that stand up in the inside while bowing down on the outside. What he wants is true confession—he doesn’t want somebody [pretending]. It would be to God’s shame to say that he’s like the Roman emperors who forced people to say, “Yes, God you are wonderful. I love you.” It’s like a mechanical computer, it’s not a person.
this is good and pleases God our Savior who wants all men [translated “everyone” in HCSB, GNT, NRSV, et al.] to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus who gave himself as a ransom for all men.
1 Timothy 2:3-6
Eric: But wouldn’t people say that’s as a potential ransom? In other words, that he gives himself but he doesn’t force us to accept him?
George: Right, except that it doesn’t say, “a potential ransom”, it says “a ransom for all men”. Now that’s not applied until it’s accepted—that’s understood. By the way, the only thing I’m really saying that’s different than what most Christians believe, is that God doesn’t stop being God. He doesn’t stop his grace at the moment of death. That’s the bottom line. Why would God not continue into the age, ages, because scripture talks about ages plural.
Eric: In our last program you quoted the verse from Hebrews, “It’s appointed once for man to die, then the judgment.”
Eric: I’ve heard that quoted over and over, and people treat it as though that settles the issue. So why do you say that that scripture doesn’t settle the issue?
George: Because judgment doesn’t mean that you’re going to be eternally punished forever. It doesn’t say anything about Hell being forever. It just means that, yes, God makes a judgment, “You’re not allowed to come into my presence right now because you have not accepted the grace that I’ve given through my son Jesus Christ. Therefore you have to go to hell to experience increasingly the consequences of your actions.” But it doesn’t say that he’s going to stop being gracious to them when they’re in hell. There’s nothing in scripture that talks about that being the case.
By the way, you mentioned earlier (in fact one of the big issues that always comes up), “Well, God is also just. He’s not just loving, he’s also just.” Well what that does is bring up a bigger problem, that is, is God conflicted internally? Does he have a problem—that his justice and his love are kind of warring at each other throughout eternity? No! His love (working through justice) or his justice (working through love) are what caused Christ to die on the cross for our sins. That’s why he accomplished his purposes. God is loving and he’s just, and he’s all-powerful and he’s all wise, and he does what he wants to do and that has been revealed. What he wants to do is to save everyone. “It is God’s desire that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” and he’s able to accomplish it.
George Sarris was recently interviewed about his new book, Heaven’s Doors. Below I’ve transcribed his excellent answer to one of the first questions people ask about Christian Universalism, “Why would anyone bother becoming a Christian now, if they’re guaranteed to become one later on?”
Eric Metaxas: Hey there folks. It’s the Eric Metaxas show and I am talking about Hell. It’s “Hell Week” on the Eric Metaxas show and my first guest this week is my old friend, George Sarris, who has a book out, Heaven’s Doors, in which he maintains that hell is real but it is not forever and ever. George, welcome to the program.
George Sarris: Thank you very much.
Eric: Your book, Heaven’s Doors, to some people is not just controversial but it’s heretical and damaging. And they say that your book could lead people not to take [hell] seriously and if it leads one soul away from being with God forever, that there’s nothing worse.
George: One of the key elements of Christianity is that the ends do not justify the means. Right, so if it’s true, you got to preach it.
Number two, the early church preached this [and] they took over the Roman Empire! It was not something that led people away from Christ, it was something that led them to Christ—understanding that God is really good. There are two great Commandments: you’ve got the great commandment to love God with all of your heart [and] you also have the commandment to love people—to love your neighbor as yourself. The biggest problem that I see within the evangelical world today is that we have changed the great commission from making disciples into making converts. And this whole idea of giving a fire insurance policy to somebody—I go in there, I get his name on a card, and I can therefore say, “Hey, this person is now a Christian, I can go to the next person.” I forget about them. I don’t have to worry about them anymore because, “Hey, I got them out of hell”. That’s [seen as] the only legitimate reason for being out there.
Third thing is, hell, in my experience, has been the greatest hindrance to the spread of the gospel, not the greatest help to the spread of the gospel. Eternal conscious suffering for anyone, is not good news! Whatever you say, it’s not good news, it is the most dreadful news ever announced.
There was a man by the name of Francis Xavier, in fact the film Silence relates a little bit to that. Francis Xavier was Portuguese and he was the first missionary to Japan and had a tremendous ministry over there. In 1552, he wrote a letter back to the Vatican, and this is what he wrote in part:
One of the things that most of all pains and torments these Japanese is that we teach them that the prison of hell is irrevocably shut so that there is no egress therefrom. For they grieve over the fate of their departed children, of their parents and relatives, and they often show their grief by their tears. So they asked us if there is any hope, any way to free them by prayer from that eternal misery and I’m obliged to answer that there is absolutely none. Their grief at this affects and torments them, they almost pine away with sorrow. They often ask if God cannot take their fathers out of hell and why their punishment must never have an end. I can hardly restrain my tears sometimes at seeing men, so dear to my heart, suffer such intense pain about a thing which is absolutely done and there’s no way that it can be undone.
That is not good news. That’s one of the reasons why the gospel has not made a significant impact in cultures that have a high view of relationships, like over in the Far East where your ancestors are important to you. Your family is important to you in the Middle East. Your family is important to you.
George: Well, it’s great to know that you’re going to get saved but what about my father? What about my sister? What about my uncle? What about my grandfather? My children? That’s not good news and that’s what keeps people away from God. The bottom line is to tell people that this god you’re telling them about (who’s supposed to be so loving) would either cause, or allow, billions of people to suffer consciously forever! That is just… He’s not a very nice God. The one thing that I always fall back on is, I know that God is a just God and that I can trust him.
The next post looks at whether George’s view is biblical…
Simon: Maria Stefan [is] an expert in nonviolent civil resistance from the US Institute of Peace. I caught up with her, and also her colleague, Susan Hayward, while in Washington DC filming for CPX’s forthcoming documentary on how the church is better and worse than you ever imagined. We filmed a segment on Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, just down the road at the Lincoln Memorial, and then headed over to talk to Maria and Susan together. They’re good friends and bounced off each other as we quizzed them on their respective areas of expertise.
Susan Hayward: I don’t think that people who are driven by their faith, or who are religious, are particularly better at peace than anybody else, but I do think they bring particular skills, or experiences, or techniques to their peacebuilding that might set them apart and make them more effective in particular situations.
Simon: Susan Hayward is an interfaith activist and a just peacebuilder. What she’s saying here is interesting because in our culture we’re more likely to connect religion with violence rather than peace, and there are reasons for this.
Susan: Part of what makes faith and religion such a powerful motivator and support for peace, is also what makes it a powerful motivator and support for violence and for war. And we can see that throughout the history of any religious tradition. I work a lot with the Buddhist community, and there’s similar examples as other traditions in Buddhist history, and what is contemporary life, of Buddhism being drawn on to support violence. But Christianity in particular I think has a long and difficult history of Christian ideas and Christian communities mobilizing in support of war. Scott Appleby sometimes refers to what’s called the “ambivalence of the sacred”—this idea that religion motivates these deep impulses and these deep motivations that can lead people to extraordinary acts and that sometimes that deep impulse can drive people to violence but, just as much, that same impulse can drive people to very selfless and courageous acts of peace.
Part of what makes faith and religion such a powerful motivator and support for peace, is also what makes it a powerful motivator and support for violence and for war.
Natasha: When it comes to peacebuilding, religious faith can offer something unique and potentially transformative.
Susan: Those who come to the work of peacebuilding with a religious motivation and a religious understanding of peace, may be bringing a sense of peace that goes beyond the technical. And it goes beyond purely the absence of violence—encompassing the idea of Shalom or Salaam—that is also about human dignity, that is about justice, that is about creating environments in which humans can flourish. Or they may be able to bring particular rituals, particular values, particular practices to their peacebuilding work that can trigger some of the deep reservoirs of people’s being and that can trigger kinds of personal transformations that can be very powerful, and it can then lead to social or institutional transformations.
peace that goes … beyond purely the absence of violence—encompassing the idea of Shalom or Salaam—that is also about human dignity, that is about justice, that is about creating environments in which humans can flourish.
Natasha: Haywood says that because religious communities have had to deal with conflict and have been working for peace in different contexts for millennia, they have this wealth of resources, this history of developing ways to respond to injustice, of trying and failing, and sometimes succeeding.
Susan: In the Christian tradition many people draw from the rich history of the Christian Just War theory. So beginning with Augustine in the 3rd century, up to Aquinas, to people like de las Casas in South America (who is arguing against the conquistadors), to Martin Luther King, and others in the modern era. There has also, in the contemporary era, been this movement called “Just Peace”, which has sought—particularly by Christian theologians and activists—to recognize what kinds of practices can help build up sustainable peace, so that situations of injustice can be best addressed non-violently. So you can have environments in which people’s human needs are met, so that international organizations are strong enough to be able to resist the pull to war by various countries, as a means to try to mitigate the war.
Simon: Of course, in the Christian tradition the example of Jesus Christ as a peacemaker is what many peacebuilding movements and practices are built on.
Susan: The teaching of Jesus and the practice of Jesus, and the ways in which Jesus was very consistent in arguing against violence throughout his ministry. And also the ways in which Jesus recognized issues of political injustice, economic injustice, social marginalization, as issues that should compel Christians to create an environment that can be one of sustainable peace—one of Shalom—in which all people live with human dignity.
Jesus recognized issues of political injustice, economic injustice, social marginalization … [that] should compel Christians to create an environment that can be one of sustainable peace—one of Shalom—in which all people live with human dignity.
I think it can be a really powerful rhetorical exercise to ask people in situations of violence, and to ask Christians in particular, to think of the model of Jesus and how Jesus acted—what his ministry looked like and what he said as a part of his ministry—and then to apply that to their current situation, in order to make the case against violence and to hold them to that moral standard.
Now the challenge is that in Christian history people have often—especially as soon as the Roman Empire converted to Christianity and they had political power—they’ve always been able to make the case that violence is legitimate in order to achieve a legitimate goal, in order to achieve peace sometimes. So here’s where I think the arguments of nonviolent resistance can be most powerful because if you can say back to them but has violence ever helped us to really achieve the peace that we’re seeking? Or are their nonviolent ways in which you can address this injustice and try to achieve peace that might be just as effective in reaching that goal but also allowing us to continue to act as Jesus called us to act as nonviolent resistors in the process?
has violence ever helped us to really achieve the peace that we’re seeking?
Simon: But it’s not always straightforward.
Susan: There are times in Christian history where people of good faith have determined that an act of violence was necessary because the situation was so egregious. So an example here would be Dietrich Bonhoeffer. During the midst of World War Two where in Germany he, along with other members of the confessing Church, organized and designed an initiative to try to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Saying that this was a legitimate targeted use of force in order to address an injustice. Ultimately he failed in that attempt and it’s contested by Christians on whether at the end of the day that use of violence was legitimate from a Christian perspective, on what Jesus would say in response to that. But certainly as a person of morality and a person of faith you can understand that impulse.
Natasha: Where religion really does some of its best work, according to Hayward, is in the aftermath of a violent conflict. And one of the best examples of this is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a restorative justice tribunal that was set up in 1994 in post-apartheid South Africa. It was a court like set up that allowed victims to give statements about their experiences of gross human rights violations and also allowed perpetrators of violence to give testimony and request amnesty from prosecution.
Where religion really does some of its best work, according to Hayward, is in the aftermath of a violent conflict
Susan: The very idea of reconciliation is a very Christian, a very religious, notion. It’s about transformation and it’s a redemption, which are very Christian concepts. And moreover, the needs—in terms of bringing communities together, of healing individuals and communities who have suffered a great deal and experienced a great deal of loss—are things that spiritual resources, spiritual ideas and processes, can lend a lot to. The very notion of a transitional justice and a reconciliation process that is based on ideas of confession, or of testimony, and of forgiveness and of reconciliation, are based in part on Christian ideas of what’s required in the aftermath of violence, or in the aftermath of conflict, or in the aftermath of some sort of a brokenness or wrong. And because both sides of the conflict there were primarily Christian, and were deeply religious, there was a shared narrative and a shared theological frame that could be used to bring people together and to drive this movement. And so what Desmond Tutu and other religious leaders were able to bring in terms of theological language and framework and spiritual rhetoric and spiritual practices—including song, including prayer—in the midst of the truth and reconciliation process was incredibly transformative and powerful and relevant for that context in which both sides of the conflict were Christian.
The very idea of reconciliation is a very Christian … It’s about transformation and it’s a redemption … bringing communities together, of healing individuals and communities who have suffered a great deal … based on ideas of confession, or of testimony, and of forgiveness
Simon: If you want to learn more about the history of non-violence Maria Stephan has written a book with Erica Chenoweth, Why Civil Resistance Works. The interviews with Maria Stephan and Susan Hayward will be featured in our documentary coming out later this year, For the Love of God: How the Church is better and worse than you ever imagined. You can visit our documentary website for more information and to sign up for our newsletter. If you liked this discussion, please do let us know, leave a rating and review on iTunes, just type “Life and Faith” in the search box to find us, and it helps other people find our podcast too.
Simon Smart: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Actually, the passage in the Bible where this saying comes from goes a little further than that, “life for life, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” This principle of retaliation—that a person who has injured someone else should be penalized in a similar way, to a similar degree—is the basis for many codes of justice around the world. Now it might sound harsh. It was originally meant as a way of containing violence—not letting it escalate into feuds that would go on and on, and back and forth.
Jesus, though, suggested a radically different approach. From his teachings we now have sayings like, “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile”. But he wasn’t advocating a passive response to a wrong. Rather it was an active response, it just refused to repay like-for-like.
Natasha Moore: The tradition of non-violence, of civil disobedience, stretches a long way back and turns up in some unexpected places. In fact, the first recorded instance we have of a person protesting an injustice, using nonviolent methods, turns up in a play written by Sophocles in the 5th century BC, called “Antigone”.
Here’s how it goes: the title character, Antigone, refuses to obey an edict from the king— who is a ruthless authoritarian and who also happens to be her uncle. The edict forbids her, or anyone for that matter, from burying her brother, Polyneices, who has been killed in battle.
Maria Stephan: Antigone so believed in the morality of burying her brother that she disobeyed the law and buried her brother. And she faced death but that act of disobedience was the first recorded case where an individual challenged an unjust law.
Natasha: That’s Dr. Maria J Stephan, an expert in civil resistance movements. She’s just completed a major study into whether nonviolent resistance actually works (we’ll get to that in a bit) and she’s a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.
From Antigone, let’s fast forward to the 19th century, and you have Henry David Thoreau (an American poet and philosopher) who refused to pay taxes in protest against slavery and the US war in Mexico.
Maria: Thoreau was arrested and he was put into jail and he later wrote his famous essay on civil disobedience and the main thesis of the essay on civil disobedience is that it is the moral duty of every citizen to disobey immoral and unjust laws.
Natasha: Then, a century or so later, Mahatma Gandhi reads Thoreau in India and is fascinated by this idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system.
Maria: He took Thoreau’s idea of individual civil disobedience and applied it on a mass level. So Mahatma Gandhi was the first one to develop an actual methodology of mass civil resistance and non-cooperation, which he used very, very effectively to challenge the British colonial regime, from about nineteen sixteen to nineteen forty seven.
Natasha: An example of this was the nineteen thirty “Salt March”. Gandhi and a handful of followers embarked on a 387 kilometre trek across western India, picking up fellow activists along the way. They were protesting the fact that the British had essentially banned Indians from making their own salt.
Maria: So Mahatma Gandhi by then had tens of thousands of followers. [He] arrived at Dande Beach, picked up water, which evaporated to make salt, and by doing that he was engaging in mass defiance against the laws of the British colonial regime. Indians saw what he had done and there were shock waves sent across the subcontinent, that this mass civil disobedience was possible and it was powerful.
Natasha: Then there’s the leader of the great civil rights movement of our time, Martin Luther King Jr, who considered himself a student of Gandhi and Thoreau, and Jesus.
Maria: Martin Luther King was able to apply the Christian notion of love and connect it to the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance in a very powerful way. The idea that you can resist evil without violence, first and foremost. The idea that you can resist a system but still love individuals and treat them with respect and honor. The idea that evil must be resisted, it should never be normalized. The idea that mass nonviolent action can be a force for powerful change, is a set of principles and a message that I think will endure the test of time.
you can resist a system but still love individuals
Simon: These ideas are enduring and extremely powerful, and we’ll pick up on the connection between religion and peacebuilding a little later, but first there’s a couple of niggling questions that often come up in discussions around the concept of non-violence. For example, does it actually work or is it just a nice idea? How does it stack up against violent action? A few years ago, these were the questions that Maria Stefan and fellow political scientist, Erica Chenoweth, were grappling with.
Maria: We decided to study a basic fundamental question: Which form of resistance, violent or nonviolent, has been more effective historically against the most formidable of opponents? Because we had been hearing often, “Oh, non-violence can work in democracies or against benign opponents but against the tough brutal dictators it doesn’t stand a chance!” or “Violence must be more effective than nonviolent action in these particular environments.” So we fundamentally tested that proposition.
Simon: This study involved gathering data on 330 campaigns between 1900 and 2006—some violent, some nonviolent—and these were campaigns against formidable opponents, like an authoritarian regime or foreign military occupiers.
Maria: We came up with the very surprising finding, to many, that the nonviolent campaigns had been twice as effective as their violent counterparts in challenging these formidable opponents. So the nonviolent campaigns succeeded 53 percent of the time, compared to 26 percent of the time for the violent campaigns, which was a shocking, counter-intuitive finding for many people.
nonviolent campaigns succeeded 53 percent of the time, compared to 26 percent of the time for the violent campaigns
Simon: Success in this study meant achieving their objectives—that the authoritarian regime was removed or foreign military occupiers withdrew as a result of the campaign.
Maria: A lot of people were skeptical, dubious—how is it possible that the nonviolent resistance was more effective? Others were like, well, of course, it’s got to be that case, it’s got to be that way. So there have been varying reactions. At least this research provided solid evidence that you can do it non-violently and win.
Natasha: There are a few reasons why this result seemed counterintuitive. For one it feels unnatural. When a person or a group of people are oppressed and mistreated, it feels like the normal response would be to fight back.
Maria: I mean the natural instinct is to respond to violence with violence. When I’m talking with activists from difficult, repressive environments around the world, I completely empathize with them and understand why they want to respond in kind. It’s a natural instinct, it’s often therapeutic but it’s not strategic and if you want to be victorious and you want to win as a resistor, you have to do what your challenger, your opponent, does not want you to do. And authorities and regimes often want protesters to use violence because it justifies their own violence in a return, and it delegitimises the movement.
regimes often want protesters to use violence because it justifies their own violence
Natasha: Then there are people, like the philosopher Nietzsche, who think non-violence is weak. He describes the idea of turning the other cheek as illogical and pathetic.
Maria: Illogical and pathetic, maybe, but pretty darn effective too, I would say. The stereotype, or the connotation, is that nonviolent action means pacifism but in fact, nonviolent resistance is an active form of struggle that just involves different weapons. But I think what needs to be understood is where the power of this method of struggle comes from. And the power of nonviolent resistance is grounded in people, in the consent of people, so when large numbers of people refuse to obey, refuse to cooperate with evil systems or institutions that are unjust, this translates into significant social, political, economic pressure being applied against the opponent. So I would say it’s anything but passive, it’s anything but weak, and it’s anything but ineffective.
Natasha: Also the goal of nonviolent resistance, in and of itself, is counterintuitive because it is about challenging injustice but it’s also about engaging your enemy and trying to get them to effectively, switch teams.
Maria: Your goal is not to kill, harm, or humiliate the opponent. Your goal is to win over the opponent to your side, which is very different, of course, from armed struggle or insurgency. So you recognize the humanity in the other and you want to bring them on board to fight what is an unjust system.
Your goal is to win over the opponent to your side
Simon: But that isn’t to say that nonviolent resistance always works.
Maria: So the key ingredient of successful civil resistance is mass and diverse participation. So, for example, we found in the study that the average nonviolent campaign in our data set attracted 11 times the level of participants as the average violent campaign, and the greater the number of people, and the greater the diversity of participants, the more likely the campaigns were to succeed. So when campaigns are not able to attract mass participation, when there’s significant disunity—so when there’s no unity around goals, leaders, and tactics—that’s usually going to be a sign that a movement won’t succeed. If the campaign or movement is unable to maintain nonviolent discipline when faced with violence, that usually is a sign that it will not succeed. So nonviolent discipline—the ability to maintain a nonviolent posture when provoked or when violence is used against you—is one of the, if not the, most important ingredients of successful nonviolent resistance. And you can bolster nonviolent discipline through training, through preparation, through anticipation of the violence that’s coming, and knowing how to respond and what to do and what not to do.
nonviolent discipline is one of the, if not the, most important ingredients of successful nonviolent resistance
Simon: So take the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s in the US, this was a hugely significant nonviolent campaign. First, they had mass participation.
Maria: It was a campaign that was led by black leadership, that involved the churches, that involved white allies, and that involved a significant number of amazing nonviolent campaigns and tactics. So the Montgomery bus boycott was a classic example of African-Americans refusing to ride the bus and pay the fees to the driver, which caused a significant economic effect on the owners of the bus system. The lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. So it was a very methodical, strategic movement of movements that brought lots of different people, groups, organizations, sectors of society together and achieved remarkable gains and ended the system of apartheid in this country.
Simon: And there was also that commitment to non-violence, even in the face of violent opposition. Take for example, the Selma March where protesters faced off against police wielding water cannons, hoses and batons.
Maria: People often ask, how did you maintain nonviolent discipline in this moment? A lot of that can be explained by, yes, the spiritual resources, the commitment to non-violence, which was articulated by leaders like King and others, and the participants had been trained in how to maintain nonviolent discipline in these difficult situations. So in the basements of churches there were trainings and how to do civil disobedience, nonviolent direct action, and how not to respond to violence with violence when provoked. And so these combinations of the spiritual and the practical strategic really came to bear in the in the Selma March.
Natasha: From all of the data and analysis there was a picture of human nature and human society that emerged for Dr. Stephan.
Maria: I think what it tells you is that humans—when faced with the most formidable obstacles, oppression, injustices—are capable of finding courage and taking action to resist and that they can be effective using nonviolent means. And it also suggests that people have different motivations, some people are very inspired by religious conviction and that can be a powerful mooring for their activism and for their use of non-violent action. And that it’s possible again to resist unjust structures and institutions without exhibiting anger, hatred, or non-acceptance of the other. And so it’s possible to organize, it’s possible to use nonviolent means, it’s possible to win over opponents even in the most difficult of circumstances. And it’s possible, most importantly, even when it seems impossible to be effective using nonviolent resistance.
it’s possible to resist unjust structures and institutions without exhibiting anger, hatred, or non-acceptance of the other
The overall trajectory of Revelation, like the Bible as a whole, is salvation through judgment. That is to say, judgment is not, and never is, God’s final word.
Parry’s argument according to Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (1h 12m 27s)
We can certainly concede that the overall trajectory of Scripture is indeed salvation through judgment—after all, this is ultimately expressed in the atoning death of the Lord Jesus, which saves us from God’s coming wrath. However, such salvation does not apply to those who end up paying the penalty for sin themselves. Either Jesus pays for our sin or we do. Thus it’s simply misleading to suggest that judgment is never God’s final word for those who die in their sin—this is indeed the case, whether in the Old Testament or in the New.
Williamson’s response to 1., Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (1h 15m)
Given the numerous biblical examples of the judgment→salvation pattern 1 in this age (e.g. Noah, David, Jonah, Israel), it’s not surprising we agree that “the overall trajectory of Scripture is indeed salvation through judgment”. But the question is:
Does that pattern stop on Judgment Day??
The examples in this age alone set a significant precedent but there’s more. I think there are even some examples where the salvation occurs in the age to come. For example, Sodom and Gomorrah experienced “the punishment of aionios [age to come] fire” (Jude 1:7), so their promised restoration (Ezek 16:53) must also be in the age to come. If Judgment Day is the start of the age to come, another example would be the man handed over Satan so “he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.” (1Cor 5:5) The Apostle Paul explains that:
A partial hardening [being cut off for awhile] has come to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in [so that] all Israel will be saved
Romans 11:25b-26a, HCSB
As far as I know, Gentiles will be coming in all through this age, so Israel’s salvation must be after that, sometime in the age to come 2.
Another example might be those who responded to Jesus preaching the gospel when “He descended into hell” (Apostles’ creed)—possibly those who died “in the days of Noah” (1 Peter 3:18).
… the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
1 Peter 4:6, ESV
I don’t know if this counts but it’s interesting that Moses didn’t reach the Promised Land in this age because he was punished but he did in the age to come (Matt 17:3).
Does God’s wrath rule out subsequent mercy? No. The world already experiences God’s wrath (Rom 1:18), and yet every day people are saved.
Does people’s penalty-paying 3 permanently exclude them from atonement? Again, I think not. There’s a lot of overlap between punishment, wrath, and penalty-paying, so the above examples may already suffice. However, it’s worth considering a penalty of sin that everyone receives—death.
For as in Adam all die
1 Corinthians 15:22a, HCSB
Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.
Romans 5:12b (cf v17, 21), NLT
Everyone has died spiritually (Eph 2:1, Col 2:13, and the above), and even people who haven’t died physically, experience it through sickness, aging, etc. and the sorrow of a loved one dying.
Despite each person paying that penalty themselves, Christians still believe Christ saves at least the Elect. That someone has already served part of their life sentence, doesn’t stop a king pardoning the remainder (even if that remainder is infinite).
Or from a different angle, that a Christian experiences God’s discipline (which sometimes includes a period of penalty-paying), doesn’t mean they’ve voided Christ’s atonement for them.
So to summarise, I don’t see—in this age or the next—punishment, penalty-paying, or wrath, ruling out a subsequent turning to Christ (indeed it seems to often provoke it). Therefore, I can trust that God will use His atonement, ransom, and death for everyone (as the passages below reveal). Ultimately, nothing, even humanity’s abhorrent rebellion, can diminish the boundless effectiveness of the Cross.
And Christ himself is the means by which our sins are forgiven [atoned], and not our sins only, but also the sins of everyone.
1 John 2:2, GNT
He gave himself as a ransom for everyone, the testimony at the proper time.
1 Timothy 2:6, ISV
Christ’s love controls us. We are sure that one person died for everyone. And so everyone died.
2 Corinthians 5:14, NIRV
1. There’s often a warning beforehand, and also punishment, repentance, faith, etc. before the salvation. 2. Exactly when in the age to come is hard to say. It depends on whether or not the ‘full number’ means all the Gentiles, and on whether the redeemer coming from Zion is a reference to the Second Coming (Parry’s suggestion). 3. I say “penalty-paying” as I believe the paying is ongoing as we accrue debt to God much faster than we are able to pay.
Is it part of the profile of a loving God to punish people? How could that be fair?
To answer these questions, Orr-Ewing rightly notes that:
Most people want to live in a society where administrators operate the legal system justly and fairly. When we are victims of a crime, we long for justice. Our loved ones want justice on our behalf if they care for us.
Similarly, when our loved ones are victims of crime, we cry out for justice for them and Orr-Ewing shares an example from her own life. Reflecting on this, she makes a profound statement:
Love and justice are inseparable. To ignore evil or injustice would not be loving, so a loving God must also be a just God.
Yes, but doesn’t this also imply that a just God must also be a loving God—that His justice includes the ultimategood of the ones being judged?
“The problem of evil is the problem of love.” If love is to exist, we must freely give and receive it, or else it is not love. If this freedom is possible, withholding love is also possible. Selfishness, violence, and injustice are the result of the abuse of love’s freedom.
I think this is a strong argument.
Why must God’s judgment involve retribution and punishment in hell? Is this not outmoded and vindictive?
I think some theologians and preachers sadly do express a retributive punishment that is vindictive. However, I think retributive punishment can be non-vindictive when the punishment is done for the ultimate good of both the victim and perpetrator—namely their reconciliation.
Retribution is an important factor because, in a real sense, it connects the punishment with the sin. It means that punishment is not arbitrary or random, but rational and consequential.
I’d also add, that retribution should be purposeful—aiming to achieve something worthwhile.
If one of my boys hits his brother over the head and then bites his leg, he knows I will remove him from the room for time out. He endures this separation for a minute or so because he has acted aggressively. Even as a toddler he understands that his actions lead to punishment.
While this example shows that wrongdoing rightly has consequences, it’s already more developed than a simplistic “eye for eye” retribution. I suspect that Orr-Ewing would also encourage (or even insist upon) an apology from the offending toddler. Because her goal is not just to punish the toddler but to heal the relationship between the siblings.
Wrongdoing must be recognized as such both by the perpetrator and the world around us. This is the function of punishment.
Hell is the ultimate punishment. It is the destination of those who refuse to recognize their own sin for what it is. Their assertion of the self over others and God, defies divine justice. Hell is the ultimate consequence of egotism.
I think Hell is an inevitable—very sobering—consequence and punishment for the egotism Orr-Ewing describes. At the same time, I don’t think it’s “ultimate” because God doesn’t allow the evil of egotism to continue unaddressed forever. Instead God hides everyone (including Himself) from the egotistic person (“Outer Darkness”), which shatters their delusion of superiority and independence.
The idea of eternal suffering as a result of temporal sinning seems disproportionate if people do not fully appreciate the seriousness of sin. But a biblical view of sin positions it as serious. The worth of people, created as we are in the divine image and given the capacity and opportunity to make moral choices, shows how serious it is to abuse this human dignity by sinning. This applies to one’s own life, to others, and ultimately, to defying the Maker himself. We underscore further the seriousness of sin in the Christian worldview when we reflect on the cost Jesus paid to deal with it.
I think sin is so serious that Jesus died for everyone so that sin won’t eternally infect His creation, particularly all His immeasurably valuable and irreplaceable image bearers!
Orr-Ewing’s appeal to free will being the cause of evil, including people egotistically refusing God, suggests she would agree with C. S. Lewis’ statement, that “The doors of hell are locked on the inside” (The Problem of Pain, 130). However, his “Checkmate” chapter (below) reveals there is much more to the story.
He describes his own conversion, which demonstrates that even when people make free moves, God will always checkmate them in the end.
I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England … a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape. The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood [my emphasis], they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. … His compulsion is our liberation.
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 228–29
Looking back he realised that because he chose God it was free choice—an overwhelmingly superior choice. Had he rejected God, it would’ve have been because he was enslaved to a sick, sinful delusion.
… before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. … You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom…
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 224
Imagine a firefighter at the top of a ladder imploring someone to escape the flames. Surely if the person “chose” not to come, they’d be considered insane—not pejoratively but literally unable to make a rational free choice? Because of this, the firefighter may need to drag them to safety so that they can come to their senses. Likewise, our loving Father doesn’t abandon us to our own misguided “choices” but instead shatters our delusions, frees us from our enslaving sin, and heals our minds. In doing so, God comes inside, lifts us up so together we can unlock the door. (I highly recommend reading the article Free-will Theodicies of Hell, where Thomas Talbott fleshes this out).
Jesus is a king because his business is to bear witness to the truth. What truth? All truth; all verity of relation throughout the universe—first of all, that his father is good, perfectly good; and that the crown and joy of life is to desire and do the will of the eternal source of will, and of all life. He deals thus the death-blow to the power of hell. For the one principle of Hell is “I am my own…
Lastly, consider the context of Lewis’ MacDonald quote at the start of his “Checkmate” chapter. Before MacDonald wrote, “… the one principle of Hell is ‘I am my own'”, he explained that Jesus reveals all truth universally, including the truth that the glorious goal (“the crown”) of all life is to choose (“desire and do”) the will of God, thus defeating hell—all the deluded, sinful, egotistic pride.
John starts by acknowledging that there’s a lot of unhelpful non-biblical baggage around the topic of hell, and that’s partly the reason it’s now often mocked by pop culture. It’s a shame because it means Jesus’ serious warnings about the consequences of evil, particularly violence, are often totally ignored.
John: … the Bible actually is quite proud of the God who will right the wrongs of history, which is the main category for judgment language. It isn’t, you know, the school bully language that you hear in the popular media. I mean, we shift the emphasis onto a sort of school bully and we all hate that idea of judgment but if you think of the God of judgment more of like a Justice Commissioner, who’s seen the injustice of the world and is coming to right wrongs, then your thinking about judgment is far more like Jesus thought about it—far more like the Old Testament prophets thought about it.
I explained in my first post why I find the Justice Commissioner metaphor helpful but I guess the big question is, what does “right the wrongs” mean and involve?
John: … it’s precisely God’s love that fuels his judgment against those who oppress those he loves! So love and judgment actually are intimately connected with each other and the Bible will frequently talk about God’s judgment and love. In fact, unless God is both judgment and love, the death of Jesus means nothing because the traditional explanation of Jesus death—from the very beginning—is that he bore judgment because God loves us so much. So I think you lose the heart of the Christian faith, if you can’t hold together these two ideas at the same time.
Loving victims involves the perpetrator being judged—accountability and reparation are important. But justice and love don’t stop there. For a victim to be healed, they need an opportunity to forgive (see Michael Jensen’s, When Thordis Elva forgave her rapist, she broke a curse), they need to see the perpetrator genuinely transformed, so that there can be authentic reconciliation of the relationship (see Engaging Shumack). This has a positive, flow-on effect, rippling out. First to their immediate loved ones, then the surrounding community, and eventually all humanity. I love the way Keller puts it:
God created the world to be a fabric, for everything to be woven together and interdependent. … Threads become a fabric when each one has been woven over, under, around, and through every other one. The more interdependent they are, the more beautiful they are. … God made the world with billions of entities … He made them to be in a beautiful, harmonious, knitted, webbed, interdependent relationship with each other.
Another implication of God’s love and justice for victims is that it extends to everyone because, in our fallen world, everyone’s a victim at some stage. But hasn’t everyone also mistreated others at some stage, and therefore needs to be judged? How does God respond when everyone is both a victim and a perpetrator? Thankfully, Jesus showed us (particularly on the Cross) that God even loves perpetrators. Indeed I’d go as far as saying that God judges perpetrators for both the sake of the victims and the ultimate good of the perpetrators. Through this He will bring shalom, a concept explained here by Keller:
Neil Plantinga, a theologian, puts it like this: “The webbing together of God, [all] humans, and all creation in equity, fulfillment, and delight”—[this] is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We translate it “peace,” but in the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight.
Simon: Some people might want to say though, John, that even if someone has lived a terrible life—let alone a moderately normal life—does eternal suffering fit the equation then of a just God, in the judgment you’ve been talking about?
Before I look at John’s answer to Simon, I’ll give my two cents:
I don’t think anyone can earn salvation, which is a free gift from God, received by the gift of faith. So without Jesus, everyone would be judged and face their sentence, no matter what kind of life they had lived. However, the Bible says Jesus has acted, has atoned, and therefore:
… will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
1 Timothy 2:4, KJV
If God can’t save everyone, and instead they continue rejecting Him (which is evil), there would be no end of evil—no complete victory, which seems to imply some sort of disturbing eternal dualism.
John takes a different angle to Simon’s question:
John: Well, the Bible says, yes! It’s an eternal judgment but the important thing to point out is the Bible says it’s proportional. So we need to hold those two things in mind. It’s eternal but it’s proportional. That is, not everyone’s going to get the same judgment. Jesus speaks about the religious leaders being judged more harshly. He talks about Tyre and Sidon—pagan nations—faring better on the Judgment Day, than others. He, several times, speaks about judgment being proportional—that is, compared to your deeds. So however those things fit together in the mathematics of God, I don’t know. But it isn’t an argument to say, “Ah, well, an eternal judgment couldn’t possibly match, you know, finite deeds.” We just have to hold what the Bible says together. Eternal but it is also proportional to our deeds.
I’ve never come across the phrase “eternal judgment” in the Bible but I’m guessing Matthew 25:46 is in mind? If so, Is Aionios Eternal? explains why J.I. Packer, N.T. Wright, and other scholars, think aionios should be translated “pertaining-to/belonging-to/of/in the age to come”, and Pruning the Flock? explains why I think that translation is reinforced by the verse’s use of kolasis (the word aionios, an adjective, is describing). Put together, I think “correction (or pruning) from God in the age to come” is more accurate. But even if that isn’t the case, parables are known for hyperbole, which makes basing a doctrine on a detail unwise.
I think God’s correction will be proportional both in severity and time.
The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.
Luke 12:47-48a, NIV
However, maths shows us that “eternal proportionality” would be problematic because infinity times anything is infinity. For example, if I received a dollar every day for an infinite number of days then I’d end up with an infinite amount of money. But even if I only received a cent every day for an infinite number of days I’d still end up with an infinite amount of money. Likewise, if I received ten blows every day for an infinite (eternal) number of days then I’d end up with an infinite number of blows. But even if I only received one blow every day for an infinite number of days, I’d still end up with an infinite number of blows—which certainly isn’t the few blows we find in the parable. John says he doesn’t know how “eternal proportionality” works—neither do I—but I think the apparent oddness of it should prompt him reexamine his previous steps (e.g. translating aionios as “eternal”).
Simon: Hi, it’s great to have your company. You’re listening to Life & Faith from the Centre for Public Christianity. My name’s Simon Smart. In recent weeks we’ve been talking about a rather unpopular subject—I have to say—the judgment of God and particularly the notion of hell. We discussed a documentary out of North America called Hellbound?, which has been getting a lot of attention. The film picks up this question of hell and discusses the fact that this is not only a topic that people avoid thinking about and talking about these days but there’s a growth within the Christian Church of a view that would question the traditional view of hell as eternal punishment.
Now the documentary Hellbound? really comes down at the end on this idea of the victory of God’s love that will overcome whatever sin and hardness of heart that exists towards God and that because this, eventually, all people will find their way towards a loving relationship with God in eternity. This is a very big, a very serious, and it seems to us, an important question. So we want to spend some more time thinking about that and to do that we’re joined by my colleague—who hasn’t been in the Life & Faith chair for a while—Dr. John Dickson, biblical historian, ancient historian. Good to have you in, John.
John: Thanks but I’m not sure this is the best topic to get me in on but thanks for the favor.
Simon: It’s a hospital pass possibly. Now let’s get straight into it John. Do you believe there is a hell and if so why?
John: Well, yes and no. I don’t believe in the hell most people think of when they use the word “hell” but I do believe in the hell that I’m pretty sure Jesus himself believed in and taught about. So it’s a mixed situation and part of the problem is that people have picked up their ideas of hell, not from Jesus and that tradition but from pop culture—from Simpsons cartoons where the Simpsons go to hell—and criticisms. You know critics caricature the idea of hell and we go, “Oh man, I’m not sure I believe in this anymore”, and we sort of diminish the whole word.
Simon: Yeah, there’s been a tradition of this from Dante’s Inferno, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment—a big painting in Rome—and these are the sorts of images you’re talking about in a sense—that have educated the culture in their ideas of hell?
John: Yeah, the difference is when Dante wrote about hell and the classical painters depicted it, they were actually trying to make serious points in metaphorical language and in the imagery of painting but they were trying to convince us how serious it was. The difference now is hell is mocked and joked about so that, you know, the Simpsons can find the devil in hell and all this. And there can be skits about it and and it’s laughable. So both images are helpful actually but now we face the problem that hell is a thing to be mocked, not a thing to be terrified of.
Simon: The concept of God’s judgment and hell are increasingly unpopular these days it would seem. Do you think this is true among Christians, as well as those outside of the Church?
John: I think so, and for similar reasons. When people criticize the judging God, I think Christians feel really bad and so question whether they believe in the judging God. So they’re definitely Christians who are upset about this or nervous about the notion of God’s judgment but the problem is, if you keep reading your Bible, Old or New Testament, you’re confronted with the God of judgment. There’s no getting around it. And the Bible actually is quite proud of the God who will right the wrongs of history, which is the main category for judgment language. It isn’t, you know, the school bully language that you hear in the popular media. I mean, we shift the emphasis onto a sort of school bully and we all hate that idea of judgment but if you think of the God of judgment more of like a Justice Commissioner, who’s seen the injustice of the world and is coming to right wrongs, then your thinking about judgment is far more like Jesus thought about it—far more like the Old Testament prophets thought about it.
Simon: Let’s hear what people on the street are talking about when they’re asked about the notion of hell.
Vox pop: I agree, I think, with the highest post of England of the church that recognizes that hell exists within you—throughout your life—and that’s something you struggle with.
Vox pop: I think hell is a man-made concept so I think it plays on the fears that everyone has—it’s part of being human really. And certain religious groups like to play on the fact too because it suits their purposes—they get more followers, it gets them more money, gets them more power.
Vox pop: I think we create that because we need it for our own self belief. Both heaven and hell, to be honest, I think is what we aspire to. I do think there is a higher being out there that looks after us and created us but I reckon once were gone were gone. If we come back maybe our souls come back and are sort of around—one likes to believe that.
Vox pop: I think it’s the man-made thing to create a supernatural kind of police force to bring people in line. I mean it has its place in society. I do believe that’s the social benefit. Whether or not it exists, I can’t prove either way.
Simon: We’re talking today about judgment and the notion of hell on the back of this documentary we’ve been talking about called Hellbound?. John we often hear that the Christian gospel is about good news. What’s the good news when we’re talking about judgment and hell?
John: Well it’s two parts of good news. One part is that God sees the injustice of the world, He hears the oppressed’s cry, for someone to make things right. And he is coming to make things right. This is why the Bible can actually say “hallelujah” for the judgments of God and you certainly see that in the final book of Revelation in the Bible—there’s great praise for the God who finally comes to overthrow those who have oppressed the poor, who have shed blood around the world and so on. So if you think of it like this, that it’s actually a sign of God’s love for the oppressed that he is coming to bring his justice on the oppressor. In a weird way judgment is a great sign of God’s love because it’s that he loved the massacred indigenous people of Tasmania, that he will bring those who perpetrated those judgments to justice and there’s a sense in which love fuels that judgment. So judgment itself is good news. The other part of the equation is…
Simon: You know, when we’re included in that judgment, that’s when we have a slightly different interpretation, right?
John: It is but you’ve gotta start where the Bible starts with this and rather than avoid it because you don’t want to be included in those who are judged. You better just start with what the Bible literally says, that God is coming to overthrow the evildoer, those who trod down others and so on. And go, “Yeah that’s right!” and then start to feel the creeping awkwardness that maybe I’m included. But I was going to say is, the good news of the gospel message is not just that judgment is coming because that’s righting the wrongs of the world but that there is amnesty. God has declared an amnesty so that all who turn to him for forgiveness, will—because of Jesus death—be forgiven. So not only is judgment good news, the good news is that we can be forgiven.
Simon: Now this film doco, Hellbound?, comes down pretty clearly—especially the latter half of it—with this sense that, you know, the God of the Bible is not a God who requires sacrifice but was a God of love and mercy but those two things aren’t necessarily antithetical are they?
John: That’s precisely the problem with this way of thinking. It sets two ideas against each other and just counts on us going, “Oh wow, so it’s either love or judgment. Yeah, I’m going with love!”—who wouldn’t! The problem is the Bible never plays that kind of game. Like I was saying before, it’s precisely God’s love that fuels his judgment against those who oppress those he loves! So love and judgment actually are intimately connected with each other and the Bible will frequently talk about God’s judgment and love. In fact, unless God is both judgment and love, the death of Jesus means nothing because the traditional explanation of Jesus death—from the very beginning—is that he bore judgment because God loves us so much. So I think you lose the heart of the Christian faith, if you can’t hold together these two ideas at the same time. Buying just one and not the other, is a terrible mistake.
Simon: So John, where does the concept of hell come from?
John: Well, it comes from the Bible, and in particular Jeremiah. There are two long passages in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah 19 stands a good example, where there is this valley called the Valley of Hinnom, where some terrible things were done by Israel—burning their sons and daughters to false gods as sacrifices—and Jeremiah says, “In this valley—the Valley of Hinnom—God will bring his own fiery judgment to match the evil that Israel has done.” And the word for the Valley of Hinnom is Gehenna. This is the word for hell and by a couple of centuries before Jesus, we have Jewish literature that’s using this Gehenna word as the stock phrase, expression, for the judgment of God coming on the world. And some of those passages are extraordinary in the gruesome detail that they give. Jesus uses this word Gehenna, wherever you see the word hell it’s actually the word Gehenna, a reference to this park (well it’s a park now) in south Jerusalem (we’ve been there). But it was this metaphor for final judgment.
Now Jesus doesn’t go into gruesome details like some of the literature before him but he does use it as a place of serious judgment. It is metaphorical because on the one hand he talks about it being a fire, on the other he talks about it being outer darkness, and you can’t have fire and darkness unless it’s a metaphor. But it’s a metaphor for something real. God’s judgment is coming on the world and it will match the evil that the world has done.
Vox pox: Yeah, I don’t believe in hell either and I think maybe in the past, you know, priests of religion used it as a way to control people but at the moment, I don’t think it has… I don’t think it’s true.
Vox pox: Yeah, I think there has to be something, you know, better then the conditions we have now and I am religious so, you know, there are passages in the Bible that talk about an afterlife, not necessarily heaven but like a new earth and a new kingdom and therefore things would be better than what they are now.
Vox pox: Is there a sense of an afterlife? Look, there is a sense of one but once again I have to take it with a grain of salt. Is that real or not? I don’t know. I want to be willing and open to the fact that they could be, yes.
Simon: Some people might want to say though, John, that even if someone has lived a terrible life—let alone a moderately normal life—does eternal suffering fit the equation then of a just God, in the judgment you’ve been talking about?
John: Well, the Bible says, yes! It’s an eternal judgment but the important thing to point out is the Bible says it’s proportional. So we need to hold those two things in mind. It’s eternal but it’s proportional. That is, not everyone’s going to get the same judgment. Jesus speaks about the religious leaders being judged more harshly. He talks about Tyre and Sidon—pagan nations—faring better on the Judgment Day, than others. He, several times, speaks about judgment being proportional—that is, compared to your deeds. So however those things fit together in the mathematics of God, I don’t know. But it isn’t an argument to say, “Ah, well, an eternal judgment couldn’t possibly match, you know, finite deeds.” We just have to hold what the Bible says together. Eternal but it is also proportional to our deeds. The thing that troubles me is people who say, “Actually, people are annihilated in hell—that is they don’t actually have any consciousness going on—if that’s true, that means that God’s judgment is not proportional because it means the semi good atheist—who finds himself under the judgment of God—is getting exactly the same judgment as the Hitler figure who never repented. That cannot be true. That defies what the Bible teaches about God’s proportional judgment.
Simon: So the nature of hell and judgment seems to be hard to define but from the Bible’s perspective it’s real and it’s very serious. What then, John, is the message of Jesus in the face of this?
John: Well, he did ask us to be hopeful that God would right the wrongs of the world, which is what the main idea of hell is but then he said that he had come in order to bear the judgment human beings deserve. He announced the great amnesty and—at the end of Luke’s Gospel—he said the thing that was to be announced in his name to all nations, was the forgiveness of sins. So his death on the cross actually takes into himself the hell that I deserve. John Dickson’s deeds have been borne by Him. John Dickson’s judgment borne by Jesus so that forgiveness can be freely offered to others—that is the heart of the Gospel.