Should I be silent for the sake of unity?

Sometimes people ask why I discuss the topics on this blog when it upsets some people― “Alex wouldn’t it be better to stay quiet for the sake of unity?”

I agree, unity is very important and that we don’t want division, especially over something that isn’t an essential doctrine of Christianity. There is some uncertainty about the future and I respect that many people prefer to spend their time and energy on other things. However, I’ll give a summary of why I bother, why I inadvertently upset some people when I occasionally bring up Universalism:

  1. I like it when people help me refine my views and so try to return the favour. As I think Universalism has more biblical support1 than either Annihilationism or Eternal Torment, I’d like people to at least understand and consider it. If they discover it’s mistaken I want them to point that out as I don’t want to believe a falsehood―truth matters a lot to me.
  2. I think some versions aren’t hallowing to God but bring His name into disrepute (e.g. if God doesn’t want to save everyone, then it’s questionable that He really is Love and The Father. Or if God can’t save everyone, then it’s questionable that He really is all-knowing and all-powerful. I’ve had Atheists point both of these out to me).
  3. Some doctrines of hell are an unnecessary (assuming Universalism is true) hurdle to non-Christians (an Australian survey2 found it’s in the top 10 reasons people reject Christianity).
  4. Some Christians insist their view of Hell is essential to being a Christian, which means they will try to ignore, silence, disown and ostracise Christians who hold a different view (e.g. despite being a member of a denomination for 15 years, I was asked to leave as I couldn’t be silent in public and private on these topics. Not only that, but the denomination convinced the next denomination I joined to do the same).I know many who have experienced this―this isn’t building unity and sadly results in some of our siblings becoming church-less or even giving up on Christianity.
  5. Some versions of Hell increase the “us vs. them” mentality (e.g. “some people out there are beyond hope, they can’t be helped or healed, not even by God” or “some people out there aren’t loved by God”) rather than unity (e.g. “everyone is loved and can―and will―be helped and healed”).
  6. I agree with people like John Dickson and Greg Clarke who say that, “Eschatology and ethics are intertwined”3 (e.g. if, contrary to Arminianism, one believes everyone can be saved and, contrary to Calvinism, is worth saving that affects one’s approach to practical things like mission, social justice and humanitarianism).
  7. I find the promise and prospect of seeing everyone saved inspires far more praise and worship (“the more saved the better”, implies seeing all saved would be the best).
  8. Like you, I am concerned about the fate of billions. On good days, we’re concerned about their fate more than our own. I find it encouraging (and I know others have been encouraged by this) to believe even non-believing loved ones aren’t lost forever.
  9. Sadly some of my friends have been psychologically damaged by fundamentalist teaching about Hell as children (I’m hoping to undo some of that damage).
  10. I think Universalism was the view of the Apostle Paul and many in the Early Church for almost 500 years, including the some of the greatest Church Fathers. I’d like us to reform back to their view.

Because of the points above, I’ve seen many people come back to Christianity and have their lives transformed, simply because they’ve found out there is a legitimate, alternative Christian view of Hell.

I believe Jesus revealed what we need to know of God. God’s incarnation joined Humanity to Himself so that everyone will eventually participate in His death, resurrection and ascension.

I hope that helps.


1. I think it also has far more support from reason and experience, plus a little from tradition, however as an evangelical, the biblical support is the primary concern.
2. Australian Communities Report 2012 by Olive Tree & McCrindle Research.
3. Dickson and Clarke, 666 And All That, p184.

16 thoughts on “Should I be silent for the sake of unity?

  1. William C Quick

    Hi Alex, I like your website, but I’d like to make on comment I hope you don’t take offense. If you want people to take you seriously you should not have personal or family pictures on your site. Some might see it as more of a facebook thing. Just my opinion. I do like everything else and wish you success.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the feedback William, no offense taken at all. I initially didn’t have any photos but then a web designer friend said it was too stark/abstract and that I should at least put one to show that I’m a real person 🙂

      Like

  2. Samuel Conner

    Part of the difficulty of raising questions about “personal destiny eschatology” in the hearing of evangelical believers who implicitly assume that “ECT is unquestionably the teaching of Scripture” is that ECT is pretty deeply embedded in the self-conception of the evangelical churches and in the self-conception of many or perhaps most Evangelical believers (certainly those who came to their form of faith through fear of personal damnation). Take that away, and it can actually call into question the reason for the Church even existing. That may sound bit “over the top”, but many fundamentalist and evangelical churches basically regard their institutional missions to be oriented primarily toward “getting people saved from hellfire” and then recruiting them into the task of getting still more people saved from the coming hellfire, and so on.

    If ECT is true, then that posture makes a lot of sense — ECT being the worst possible thing that could happen to anyone, avoiding it oneself and helping others to avoid it is arguably the only thing that matters this side of the grave.

    For people who have thought like this, questioning ECT is going to threaten to unravel many other aspects of their thinking. If ECT is not true (and I am increasingly persuaded that it is not supported by Scripture; evidence from Church History reinforces my skepticism), then the evangelical churches will need to adjust many aspects of their practical ecclesiology as well as their theoretical eschatology. If the Gospel is not “the good news that it is possible to avoid ECT”, then the evangelical churches need to correct their understanding of the Gospel and will need to rethink how to communicate it to world.

    They will need to rethink preaching and other forms of ministry. They will need to rethink the churches’ relationships with the cultures within which they exist.

    ——

    So the problem raised by questioning ECT is not simply “unity” — this line of questioning undermines a great deal of customary practice and belief. It basically undermines a number of aspects of the Evangelical world-view.

    I have come to regard the vulnerable world-view elements to be flawed and in need of correction, but it was a very uncomfortable experience to contemplate at first.

    It would be important in pursuing conversations of this kind to have a well-developed and biblically well-supported alternative world-view to offer people as a support in helping them to see that the churches can do without ECT (and believing that it is possible to do without ECT and still be “the church” might be necessary to establish before asserting that the churches should do without it. Of course, having made that step, one might [would, IMO] discover that one was more nearly “true church” without ECT than one previously had been with it)

    Here’s a single example:

    Question: “What is the mission of the Church?”

    Evangelical short answer: “to save people from the wrath of God, from the lake of fire”.

    Evangelical more nuanced answer: “to make disciples by converting people to Jesus, thereby saving them from the lake of fire, and then recruiting them into the mission of making/saving more disciples”

    A more biblically-grounded answer, which is compatible with evangelical universalism, might be to say that “the mission to the Church is to function as God’s visible instrument for the manifestation of His glory through the conforming of sinners to the likeness of Jesus, the beloved Son, in order that Jesus may be pre-eminent among a multitude of people who resemble Him.”

    This mission concept can be supported with abundant biblical proof texts, and it also coheres nicely with the entire arc of the Biblical story, starting with the creation of the first image bearers, continuing through Israel, which was supposed to have been a manifestation of God’s glory and holiness, and into the New Testament language about what the churches are meant to be, and indeed into the final chapters of Revelation in which all things are made new.

    If the Church’s mission is primarily “selling fire insurance”, then that will shape what the church does in ways that emphasize recruitment of fire-avoiders and training the new recruits to become recruiters of fire-avoiders. Activism and mobilization will be emphasized. Pastoral care for growth toward Christ-likeness will be a distant second priority.

    If the Church’s mission is “growth toward the manifestation of the likeness of Christ”, then there will be a significantly greater emphasis on pastoral care, on knowing the flock, on honest relationships among the flock and between flock and shepherds. The church will be more of a
    “one another” kind of place as people who are striving to grow toward the likeness of Christ help one another. Numerical growth/recruitment can still happen, but it will be a by-product of the manifestation of Christ’s beauty, rather than the consequence of making people fearful.

    I think that it is possible for ECTangelical churches to approximate what they ought to be, biblically, but when ECT is the constant terror in the background, I think it can be really hard to avoid that taking over ministry thinking. So it may well be that, as I suspect, the abandonment of ECT is important for the future of the churches. But in making the case for that, one must respect how disorienting this proposal is to people who have not thought it through.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Josh

      Love your thoughts, I’ve had the exact same before. When I was young my Dad would asked me the purpose of life (after I had learned about ect). I said it was to save as many people as possible. He said no, that was part of it, but the purpose was to glorify God.

      Of course, it seems to me scripture points out that the repentance of one sinner brings more glory to God than anything else. However things turn out, the wrongness of ect will be used for ultimate good.

      I too like #9, and seemed to be the main reason for George Macdonald writing on these.

      “I write for those whom such teaching as theirs has folded in a cloud through which they cannot see the stars of heaven, so that some of them even doubt if there be any stars of heaven.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Great GMD quote!

        I agree, I struggle to see how ECT glorifies God, especially in comparison to seeing everyone repent and reconciled.

        Like

  3. Samuel Conner

    Suffer me to offer a few thoughts on “how to most wisely invite ECTangelical believers to consider the problems of the ECT view.” This is significantly shaped by my own path toward my present views; perhaps these thoughts will help others.

    I think that to the extent that it is possible, one has to enter into the hearer’s mental world in order to grasp how important the doctrine of ECT is in the conventional evangelical systems of thought. That was the point of my prior comment, that if you “tug” on ECT, you are going to put into play quite a few other ideas that are important to evangelicals, and reluctance to undermine so many things at once is likely to induce your hearer to reflexively recoil from re-considering the soundness of the ECT doctrine.

    Here are two concepts that are extremely important to most conventional (ECT) evangelicals:

    1) proper understanding of and proclamation of the Gospel. This concern is heightened by the harsh language of Galatians 1, which pronounces “anathema” on those who change the proclaimed Gospel away from what Paul proclaimed. The Greek “anathema” is translated “accursed” or even “eternally condemned” in various English translations. This tends to alarm people, who fear that if they “get the Gospel wrong,” they will themselves be in danger of ECT. That is obviously a very powerful reinforcement of the conventional view, but it also suggests a possible line of inquiry and reflection that could encourage people to reconsider ECT. This is so because of the conventional evangelical presumption that you cannot understand the Gospel if you don’t embrace ECT. But that implies that if the Bible actually doesn’t teach ECT, then those who embrace ECT have misunderstood the Gospel and are also mis-representing it in their proclamation. So by their own standards, their embrace of ECT may make them vulnerable to Paul’s Galatians 1 “anathema”.

    OTOH — there’s an intriguing “game theory” ratchet effect that IMO tends to reinforce the ECT dogma:

    a) if the Bible does teach ECT and a person disbelieves it and proclaims a distorted “gospel” that denies ECT, then, by Galatians 1, that person may be placing himself in danger of ECT.

    b) If the Bible does not teach ECT and a person wrongly believes in ECT and proclaims a distorted “gospel” that affirms ECT, then by Galatians 1, that person may be placing himself in danger of some kind of “curse”, but NOT in danger of ECT, since there is no ECT.

    If you are not sure whether or not the Bible teaches ECT, it is safer to proclaim the conventional ECT-gospel. It’s another instance of the “Pascal wager”. If you teach ECT and are wrong, you will not be subjected to ECT. If you deny ECT and are wrong, you may suffer ECT. I suspect that risk aversion plays a significant role in the tenacity with which evangelicals cling to ECT. It’s how they frighten people to trust Jesus, and that way of thinking has a “self-policing” effect.

    2) the hope of Jesus’ future visible return to Earth. This idea is intimately linked with the idea that the Matthew 25 “sheep/goats” and Revelation 20 judgment scenes are to take place at “the end of time” or “the end of the material world”, ie, future to us. The belief that these judgment scenes are future, coupled with the language of “aionial” punishment, which is conventionally interpreted to mean “temporally unending”, tends to reinforce the ECT mindset. People want to be sure that they are not on the wrong side of these future judgments.

    ===

    My own trajectory away from ECT began with a reconsideration of mainstream eschatology. I have long had a basic understanding of the 4 mainstream views and the biblical arguments for and against each. A feature that they all share is that they all regard Christ’s “2nd coming” to be future not only with respect to the point of view of the NT writers, but also with respect to us readers of these documents, ~2000 years later. At a friend’s suggestion, a few years ago I read J. S. Russell’s “The Parousia”, which persuaded me that from the point of view of the NT authors, Jesus’ 2nd coming was going to happen imminently, actually within the lifespan of the generation of people alive at the time of Jesus’ public ministry. And the events of the AD66-73 war with Rome provide a plausible interpretation of both Revelation and Jesus’ Olivet Discourse eschatological warnings. So, from the point of view of the NT authors, Jesus’ 2nd advent was going to take place in the first century, and from the point of historical confirmation, Jesus’ prophecies were fulfilled in the outpouring of wrath on unrepentant Israel that took place during the AD66-73 war.

    This strongly undermines concern #2 above.

    I have long been aware that the standard contemporary “plan of salvation” form of “the gospel” does not look very much like either Jesus’ or the Apostles’ Gospel announcements. That has puzzled me for years. Independently of my reading in preterist eschatology, I began working my way through N.T. Wright’s amazing life-work, “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” In volume 2 of this series, titled “Jesus and the Victory of God”, Wright closely examines Jesus’ public ministry and explains why the Gospel that Jesus announced looks so different from the “gospels” that evangelicals announce. Wright makes a persuasive case that Jesus was not warning individual Israelites of their danger of personally experiencing ECT; rather He was calling the nation of Israel to repent of its preferred ways of following YHWH (which tended to involve militant conceptions of messianism), and commanding them to instead follow YHWH by following Jesus, since Jesus was Israel’s rightful king and YHWH’s appointed leader of the nation.

    Wright persuaded me that Jesus’ Gospel was not rooted in ECT. And I was already aware that ECT was not part of the Apostolic proclamation that we see reported in the Book of Acts. Finally, I realized that Paul’s conception of “the wrath of God”, which is most clearly stated in Romans 1, appears to be primarily “pre-mortem”.

    And last of all, I noticed how in the progress of revelation of the Gospel, starting with Genesis 3, ECT is stunningly absent, and indeed the entire Old Testament (with the exception of a single verse in Daniel 12), is oblivious of post-mortem consequences.

    These realizations strongly undermine concern #1 above.

    ———————————-

    With my personal trajectory as a template, here are some suggestions for ways to delicately invite people to reconsider their commitment to the proposition that “ECT is taught in the Scriptures”.

    1) invite them to carefully examine the Gospels and the Book of Acts, with the agenda to understand “what was the Gospel that Jesus preached?”, “what was the Gospel that the non-Pauline apostles preached?”, “what was the Gospel that Paul preached?” Invite them to try to do this from the text itself, without importing their prior personal theological convictions.

    I think that an honest effort to do this is going to reveal some tensions between what the founders of Christianity preached and what contemporary christians are preaching.

    Give the person Volumes 1 and 2 of N.T. Wright’s “Christian Origins and the Question of God.”

    Volume 1: “The New Testament and the People of God.” is mostly rather difficult prolegomena, but there are some eye-opening chapters about 1st century Jewish eschatological expectation that help to understand the context of the Gospels.

    Volume 2: “Jesus and the Victory of God” is an amazing analysis of Jesus’ ministry, which confirms some evangelical conceptions but seriously calls others into question (in particular the nature of Jesus’ judgment warnings).

    (Aside — I am personally agnostic on the question of whether “annihilation” or “ultimate reconciliation” should be regarded to be the true dogmas of the churches. I find “ultimate reconciliation” to be aesthetically more pleasing and one certainly can adduce biblical statements to support it. But my general sense is that both NT and OT are much more concerned with righteous living unto God’s glory in this world than with post-mortem realities, and so the evidence is relatively thin, and perhaps too thin to justify a dogmatic choice between the alternatives. This somewhat resembles the view that I take Brad Jersak to advocate in “Her Gates will Never be Shut”, that the possibility of personal eschatological calamity is sufficiently present in Scripture that one should not deny it, but there are also grounds for hope for ourselves and for others.)

    2) If one’s interlocutor finds the above inquiries sufficient to call ECT into doubt, but he/she remains wedded to ECT on the basis of standard eschatology (Matthew 25, Revelation 20), then consider exposing the person to the strong arguments in favor of preterist understandings of the fulfillment of Jesus’s prophecies and the visions of Revelation. J.S. Russell’s “The Parousia” may be useful in this regard, and especially because the line of argument of the book has been endorsed by the conservative luminary R.C. Sproul. (thought it most be noted that Sproul does not embrace all of the Preteristic conclusions that Russell suggests, but Sproul does think that Russell makes a strong case for the 1st century fulfillment of many of Jesus’ prophetic warnings)

    —-

    There are certainly other ways. But whatever one does, it needs to be done in a way that retains the person’s confidence that the Bible is the source of one’s understanding of these things. Both Wright and Russell do this, though Wright does resort to extrabiblical evidence (contemporary Jewish writings, for example, and some contemporary secular history) to help with context when there is uncertainty about the meaning of the biblical text.

    —-

    If the churches are in fact “getting the Gospel wrong”, they are increasingly going to find themselves working at cross-purposes to God’s agendas in the world. So getting this right is important for the future and the future fruitfulness of the churches.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your journey, it’s always interesting to see the diversity of ways God works. Again you make many good points. I think your comments about the ratchet effect are correct, at least for some people. I agree that a more gradual approach is more helpful for many people. Reading a book on preterism is something I’ve wanted to do for quite some time. I can see how it would make many passages simplier.

      Have you read the discussion of Pascal’s wager in “The Evangelical Universalist” or “The Inescapable Love of God”?

      Like

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