Robin‘s final talk in our [Hope and Hell conference] series explores perhaps the most significant question of all: “How does a belief in universal salvation influence my life and service in the world—including things like evangelism, counselling, and taking funerals?”
Robin is a pastor as well as a theologian, and he brings a wealth of practical experience to this huge question. Does universal salvation mute the gospel and just make us melt into a kind of uncritical pantheism? Robin argues that universal salvation, far from muting our voice in the world, amplifies our voice, and the many ways through which we can bless the world.
Last month I was asked to write an article for an e-zine, Engage.Mail. This online publication is a produced by Ethos, the Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity and Society. Here is my introduction:
In March 2016, one of the world’s largest Evangelical publishers, Zondervan, produced a second edition of Four Views on Hell, which included Eternal Conscious Torment, Terminal Punishment, Purgatory and, for the first time, Universalism. The editor states that all four contributors are committed Evangelicals who affirm biblical inspiration and authority and the existence of Hell, and who base their view primarily on Scripture and theological reasoning, rather than tradition, emotion or sentimentality.
In this article, I explore the practical and ethical implications of the Evangelical Universalist view of hell on our understanding of justice and judgement, imitating God, punishment, God’s character and evangelism. It is beyond the scope here to make a case for this view, and for this I recommend Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (2012), as well as the Four Views on Hell mentioned above. The latter was recommended by Dr. Paul Williamson as further reading during the annual lecture series on ‘Death and the Life Hereafter’ organised by Moore College, an influential Evangelical college in Sydney, in August. Williamson said that, while he doesn’t agree with the last three views, he believes their proponents are Evangelicals who deserve to be respectfully engaged.
I go on to look at:
Judgment and Justice: what do they look like?
Imitating God in all our actions?
Our perception of hell’s purpose/nature and our view of punishment now
Hell and God’s abilities, character and response to evil
Denny Burk wrote the biblical and theological case for Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. In this post I’ll finish engaging with his chapter.
There are numerous objections to the traditional doctrine of hell
Denny Burk, page 42
Perhaps that’s because the “traditional doctrine” isn’t what Scripture presents…
The weight of the scriptural arguments … should be enough to settle the issue even if our lingering objections are never fully resolved in this life.
Denny Burk, page 42
I think that’s cheeky given that the debate about Hell has been ongoing since the Early Church. Hopefully, this blog series has at least shown the scriptural arguments for ECT aren’t strong enough to settle the issue.
Augustine once reproved those who act as “if the conjectures of men are to weigh more than the word of God.” He thunders, “They who desire to be rid of eternal punishment ought to abstain from arguing against God.”
Denny Burk, page 42
I agree we don’t want to argue with God, but surely any non-Augustinian Christian could equally say Augustine is putting his conjectures above God’s word and arguing against God?
Next Burk says we should consider the implications of ECT, and gives two:
First, the biblical doctrine of hell teaches us whom to fear. God is not only the treasure of heaven. He is also the terror of hell. … If you have been frightened of hell because you are frightened of the devil, you are not fearing the right person. The Lord Jesus himself teaches us this,
“Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
Who destroys soul and body in hell? Is it the devil? Of course not. The devil himself is being punished there. Who is the one destroying soul and body in hell forever? God “afflicts” the wicked in hell, and the Lord Jesus deals out “retribution” to his enemies (2 Thess. 1:6-8). Going to hell means being left in the presence of God’s wrath forever (Rom. 2:5-8). Hell is scary because
“it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
Denny Burk, page 42-43
I find the direction Burk goes here disturbing. Matthew says God is “able” to destroy, not that God ever does, and it’s in the immediate context of encouraging the disciples, the opposite of inducing fear (v22 “persevere, endure, saved”, v23 God knows you are being persecuted, v24-25 you are following in Jesus’ footsteps, v26-27 “don’t be afraid” God will bring justice, v28 “Don’t fear”, v29-30 God cares for you even more than sparrows).
Romans 2:5-8 talks about wrath but it doesn’t say it’s forever.
Jesus spoke with authority and garnered a lot of respect. At the same time, I don’t think His relationships were based on fear. Likewise, with God the Father, we should show Him awe, respect, reverence, obedience, and perhaps even the kind of apprehension we have before undergoing surgery (Heb 10:31), but it isn’t the type of fear we have for the devil―fear of hatred, malevolence, and torment. Surely that kind of fear isn’t healthy between a parent—our “Abba Father”—and a child? We are told almost 150 times in the Bible not to fear. For example:
There is no fear in love [dread does not exist], but full-grown (complete, perfect) love turns fear out of doors and expels every trace of terror! For fear brings with it the thought of punishment, and [so] he who is afraid has not reached the full maturity of love [is not yet grown into love’s complete perfection].
1John 4:18, AMPC
Second, the biblical doctrine of hell compels believers to see the urgency of evangelism. Have you considered the great mercy of God toward you in Christ? Have you begun to fathom what he rescued you from through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross? If his mercy was big enough and wide enough to include you, is it not sufficient for your neighbor as well? Shouldn’t the terrors of the damned move you to share the mercy of God with those who have not experienced it while there’s still time? Perhaps Spurgeon has said it best:
Oh, my brothers and sisters in Christ, if sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay, and not madly to destroy themselves 1. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.
Denny Burk, page 43
I’ve been more motivated to evangelise since becoming an Evangelical Universalist for lots of reasons, one of which is that it now feels less hopeless, that even when people I evangelise die in apparent non-belief, I know that God can still use whatever small word or kindness I’ve given them. Also most non-universalistic forms of Christianity are overwhelmingly depressing, when you really consider the billions of our brothers and sisters ending up utterly ruined and wasted, either by torment or annihilation.
Having said that, I can almost agree with Burk if I consider hell from my reformed perspective―a place that God uses for reforming, correcting, pruning, purging, surgery, etc. I think there is urgency, that living in bondage to sin is destructive, and that the addictions and idols of this life don’t truly satisfy. I also think it’s good to consider the great, wide mercy of God and Christ’s amazing sacrifice―doing so was one of the reasons I left Burk’s view.
I like the quote of Spurgeon. It seems to be a reflection on:
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:9, NIV
However, this raises the question, given God loves people even more than Spurgeon, why didn’t we see Jesus 2with “arms about their knees, imploring them to stay”? I think the most plausible answer is that He knew their rebellion was only the first chapter in their story―that in the end, all shall be well.
1. Although Burk’s ECT emphasises God afflicting people (see earlier quote that starts with ‘First’), rather than people ‘destroying themselves’. 2. Nor the Prodigal Son’s father.
God's justice reforms all things—even hell—to the way He intended: wholeheartedly delighting in Him together, Shalom!