Sarris & Rankin Debate—Will Hell Eventually Be Abolished? part 1

Below is my transcript of George Sarris‘ 15-minute presentation in the above video of the Mars Hill Forum debate titled, “Will Hell Eventually Be Abolished?”


Host: The format for tonight’s forum is each of the speakers will present for 15 minutes, then they’ll have a discussion between two of them for about 20, we’ll take an offering at that point and after that, we’ll have Q&A for half hour or so. So that’s the form and we’re going to start with George Sarris.

George Sarris: I want to start by asking you three questions.

First question is: how much are you worth? And I don’t mean that in a financial sense like how much is your net worth, I mean how much are you worth as a person? How much are you worth to those who love you? How much are you worth to God who created you?

Second question is: I want you to think of some people that you know and love, how much are they worth? Again not in a financial sense but how much are they worth as a person? How much are they worth to those who love them and how much are they worth to God who created them?

The third question: I want you to think of some people you don’t like, or some people that may have hurt you, or whose lifestyles you don’t approve of. How much are they worth? Again how much are they worth—maybe not to you but to others who love them and everyone is loved by someone—how much are they worth to God who created them?

The basic message of my book is that in God’s eyes you and every one of them is priceless. The question John and I are discussing tonight is “Will hell eventually be abolished?” So it would seem appropriate to begin by asking what is hell? That word has been defined in different ways down through the centuries: from a place of literal fire; to a kingdom of darkness ruled by the devil and his demons; to what is the most common definition today: separation from God.

But for most people holding to the traditional view of Hell, two components are primary: First, hell is a place or condition of conscious misery and second that misery will never ever, ever, ever, ever end! I said that a little dramatically because in my experience most people—Christians today—have never really thought through the implications of what they say they believe. Punishment for sin is not the issue. We see sin punished all the time in this life and God has made it clear that there is punishment in the age (or ages) to come. But punishment that never ends is a completely different matter. It brings to mind cruel tyrants who torture their subjects who don’t do their bidding. Endless conscious misery is the most horrific thing you can possibly imagine and if you really believed it was true, you would be weeping almost every moment of every day over the fate of those who are lost and especially those you know personally.

I wrote my book to show that that understanding of Hell was not the teaching of the early Church, it is not the teaching of the Bible, and is contrary to what the scriptures reveal about the nature and character of God. What the early Church believed is important because they were closest to Jesus and the Apostles, they read the New Testament in their native tongue, they had the greatest impact on the surrounding culture of any time in history, and they established the faith that we now profess. They were the ones who wrote the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed to explain clearly what true Christians believed. They were the ones who formulated the doctrines of the divinity of Christ and the Trinity. And they were the ones who set up or who put together the 27 books that we call the New Testament. During the first 500 years after Christ, the dominant view within the leadership and laity of the church was that God will ultimately restore all of his creation.

Clement of Alexandria was one—born around AD 150. For him to believe that God was unable to save all was unthinkable because that would mean God is weak. To believe that God is unwilling was also unthinkable because that would mean that God is not good. For Clement, God is the Lord of the universe who will ultimately bring about the salvation of the universe.

Another leader in the early Church was Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory added the phrase, “I believe in the life of the world to come”, to the Nicene Creed, and is still revered as one of the greatest of the early Church fathers. Gregory explained that in due course evil will pass away into non-existence, it will disappear utterly from the realm of existence. Divine and uncompounded goodness will encompass within itself every rational creature—no single being created by God will fail to achieve the kingdom of God.

Even Saint Augustine—the most influential supporter of endless punishment in the early Church—acknowledged that in his day some, indeed “very many”, deplore the notion of the eternal punishment of the damned and their interminable and perpetual misery. Conscious suffering that never ends was not the teaching of the early Church.

And it’s also not the teaching of Scripture, even though most people today think it is. Four different words in the Bible have been translated to the English word “hell”: Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus.

Gehenna is the one most commonly translated that way in modern versions. Gehenna was well known during the time of Jesus as a specific location near Jerusalem that had been associated with child sacrifice in the past and was then most likely used as the common dump of the city. It was a place people could actually visit. And it spoke to Jesus and his listeners of repulsion, shame, and horrible death—instead of experiencing honor like their ancestors whose bodies were treated reverently when they died, those cast into Gehenna would experience the immense dishonor associated with those whose bodies had been thrown out into a dump to become an object of scorn for the masses. In an honor-shame culture like that in the ancient, and even modern Near East, that would be a fate worse than death. Gehenna didn’t mean punishment beyond the grave—endless punishment—in the Old Testament, during the time of Jesus, it didn’t mean that in the literature outside of the Bible, and it didn’t mean that for Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament.

The passage most often used as the clearest statement in the entire Bible that punishment in hell is endless is Matthew 25:46. In that verse, Jesus himself says that the wicked will go away to “eternal punishment” but the righteous to “eternal life”.

The first thing to point out in that passage is that the word translated “eternal”, doesn’t mean “never-ending”. It actually means “the end is not known”. It refers to a period of time longer or shorter, past or future, the boundaries of which are concealed, obscure, unseen, or unknown. For example, numerous times the Septuagint—the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament that Jesus and the Apostles used—the same adjective in this verse, “eternal”, is used to describe the statutes governing the sacrifices and offerings made by the priests. They were said to be “eternal statutes” but they didn’t last forever, and were never intended to last forever. The Old Testament sacrificial system was designed to be replaced one day by the new covenant in Christ. In Micah chapter 4 verse 5 (and 17 other places in the Septuagint), the phrase “forever and ever” literally means “to the age and beyond”.

The second thing to note is that when the same adjective is used twice in the same sentence it does not necessarily mean the same thing each time. For example, if an NBA basketball player we’re standing in front of one World Trade Center in New York City, you could honestly say, “a tall man is standing in front of a tall building,” but no one would think you thought that the man in the building were the same size! The adjective tall derives its meaning from what it refers to. In the first instance to a man, in the second to a building. In Matthew 25:46, the adjective that Jesus used [aionios] “eternal” refers to two completely different things: life and punishment. Eternal life is the divine life that comes from God—that life never ends. Eternal punishment is the divine punishment that comes from his hand—the duration of that divine punishment may certainly be temporary, lasting as long as it’s necessary until it accomplishes its purpose. The verse should be translated, “the wicked shall go away to the punishment in the age to come and the righteous to the life in the age to come”.

So what does the Bible actually teach about the salvation of mankind? We’ve been so accustomed to thinking that only a few will ultimately be saved that we often completely overlook the message that is at the heart of Christianity. Jesus Christ is the savior of the world not just the savior of part of the world. The angel who appeared to the shepherds on the night of Jesus birth did not say, “I bring you good news of great joy there will be for some of the people,” he just said, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” When speaking to the crowd after his triumphal entry, Jesus said, “when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself.” In Romans, Paul said, “as in Adam all die so in Christ all will be made alive.” The Apostle John told his readers that, “Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” The message at the heart of Christianity is that Jesus Christ came to redeem all mankind. Endless conscious suffering in Hell was not the teaching of the early Church, it’s not the teaching of Scripture, and it’s also contrary to what scripture reveals about the nature and character of God.

It’s not uncommon to see a bumper sticker on a car or graffiti on a wall that says, “God loves you”. They’re so common that it’s almost become a cliche but is it true? Does God really love you? The religious leaders of Jesus day didn’t think so. They thought God only loved people like them. So Jesus told them three parables to show them God’s heart. The Good Shepherd is not satisfied with the restoration of 99 percent of what is his, he seeks until he finds the one lost sheep. The woman with ten silver coins is not satisfied with 90 percent of her wealth, she searches until she finds the lost coin. The prodigal son’s father waited until his son returned after completely messing up his life. He welcomed him joyfully and his son was restored. “God is not willing that any should perish but desires that all will come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Scripture says there is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord. No plan of his can be thwarted—nothing is impossible with God. What Scripture reveals about God that his love is unconditional, his power is irresistible, and he never gives up.

Let me close by making a few observations about free will, since that’s a major focus of John’s position. Only God has absolute free will, only he is free to accomplish all that he desires. He gives each person some free will but always within limits and in the context of his absolute free will. For example, none of us was given the freedom to choose when we were born, where we were born, who our parents would be, what our physical stature or mental capacities would be, whether we’re male or female, or even when and how we will die. We have no control over many of the factors that directly impact the situation and decisions that we make every day. Joseph didn’t choose to be made second-in-command in Egypt, God arranged the circumstances for that to happen. Jonah ran away from God but God’s will prevailed and Jonah found himself in Nineveh proclaiming the message that God had given him. Scripture is clear when it says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, he directs it like a watercourse wherever he wishes. The mind of man plans his way but the Lord directs his steps. Many are the plans in a person’s heart but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” God is not helpless in the face of mankind’s free will. God specifically said that “he desires that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” God specifically said that “one day every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will freely and joyfully confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” Will hell eventually be abolished? Yes, it will. When all is said and done, all those who were created by God will walk through Heaven’s doors and “God will be all in all” after “the restoration of all things” the final word will once again be, “God saw all that he had made and it was very good!”

Thank you.


God willing, I’ll get an opportunity to transcribe the rest of the debate over the next week or so…

Tim & Jon: Is Hell really outside creation & rationally chosen?

I love The Bible Project. Truly, it’s the best online Bible resource I’ve ever come across. I’ve been a monthly supporter since the early days, I’ve watched most of their 134 videos and soon will have listened to all of their podcasts. Jon Collins and Tim Mackie are easy to listen to, full of interesting insights, and express a genuine curiosity and desire for truth. I particularly love the way their work paints a beautiful, grand, biblical metanarrative showing God’s wonderful intentions for humanity in Eden, the amazing lengths He’s gone to throughout history (and especially through Jesus), and anticipating an exciting, joyful, glorious future with God in the New Creation.

However, I find that the clearer the biblical metanarrative is presented, the more jarring Eternal Conscious Torment becomes… So I was intrigued when Jon Collins and Tim Mackie discussed this in their Day Of The Lord Part 6 podcast episode. The context is that they have been discussing and comparing the OT warrior savior images (e.g. Isa 63) and modern movies (e.g. The Magnificent Seven), with the NT warrior savior images (e.g. Rev 19:11) and the Cross. They conclude that:

Tim: [In Revelation, John is] constantly taking aggressive, violent, Old Testament “Day of the Lord” imagery and saying the Cross was the Day of the Lord. It was the fulfillment of those images and it did not involve God killing his enemies—it actually involved the Son of God allowing Himself to be killed by them.

I think it’s inescapable. This is why readings of the book of Revelation that, I don’t know, help people look forward to some future cataclysm of violence, where Jesus comes of the sword cutting people apart—to me it’s not just a misreading of Revelation, to me it’s a betrayal of Jesus. Because what you’re saying is, “Oh, Jesus used the means of the cross but that was just like his way of being nice for a little bit but really he’s…”

Jon: “Ultimately he will use [death and] the threat of death as his true power to bring justice.”

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (24m 8s)

(As an aside, this is similar to what William Cavanaugh said to me in Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?—Cavanaugh Interview)

What they discuss next is what I’ll focus on as it raises many questions.

Tim: Yeah. And I’m not saying that there isn’t a reality to final justice, where people suffer the consequences of their decisions if they don’t yield to Jesus—I’m not saying that. But what I am saying is the New Testament is transforming these violent images of the Day of the Lord in a really important way—that had gone largely unnoticed by the modern Western Church. Because we love Denzel Washington [hero in The Magnificent Seven] strangling the bad guy to death.

Jon: Yeah, it feels good.

Tim: Yeah, it’s satisfying.

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (25m 29s)

I believe strongly in the reality of final justice (indeed it’s one of the reasons I started this blog) and that there are unpleasant consequences to giving our heart to anything other than our loving Father. I think seeing evil being stopped is satisfying, and rightly so. However, an issue arises when the method of stopping an evil (e.g. a “bad guy”) is evil (e.g. strangling someone). Our conscience should make us feel conflicted about that “solution”. Thankfully, there is a method of stopping evil that isn’t evil—that method is love—doing good to those who sin against you, melting their hearts, transforming them from foe to friend—rebel to follower of Jesus.

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

1 Peter 3:9, BSB

If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head [melting his opposition?]. Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.

Romans 12:20-21, CSB

Tim continues:

Anyhow, that’s how the Day of the Lord comes to its completion in the last book of the Bible. It’s this paradox. Here he defeats the armies of evil and then (in chapter 20) Babylon, Death, the Beast (the dragon), they’re all cast into the Lake of Fire. They are assigned—they’re quarantined—to a place of eternal self-destruction, and that’s the defeat of evil. And you could say that’s a violent image, but it’s interesting, it’s people being consigned or handed over to what they’ve chosen, something that they’ve chosen, which is destruction.

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (26m 4s)

Respectfully, there’s a huge difference between quarantining something and defeating it. Quarantine may be a necessary step to stop the spread of a plague but it’s only when it’s completely eradicated that it is defeated. Leaving evil quarantined is even worse than quarantining a plague and walking away:

  • it’s an affront to God’s holiness.
  • it’s a thwarting of His good purpose for humans, their telos, that He first articulates in Genesis 1-2 and ultimately in Christ.
  • it’s a denial of the praise and honour God rightly deserves.
  • it’s a failure to bring restorative justice, leaving countless broken relationships festering, unhealed forever—victims never receiving apologies, nor closure.

Eternal self-destruction is even worse than suicide, it’s never a rational choice, it’s a sign of a severe, unhealthy delusion about what is good and what is evil. It’s what God has been working to fix since Genesis 3, which they seem to acknowledge in other episodes:

Tim: … the Old Testament becomes a story of the family of Abraham but all within that larger story of what is God going to do to rescue the world from itself…

The Bible as Divine Literary Art (35m 3s)

But back to the episode I’m focusing on:

Jon: Yeah, how did how did Butler talk about it? He talked about it as creating a place for that to exist but not inside of creation.

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (26m 50s)

A very confusing suggestion, because far as I know, there’s only one thing outside of creation, and that is God Himself… everything else is part of, within the category of, God’s creation. “Creating a place”, surely makes it creation?

Tim: Yeah, if somebody refuses, like Pharaoh, to acknowledge Jesus as their Lord (using Pharaoh as an icon or Babylon), then God will honor the dignity of that decision and allow people to exist in that place.

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (27m)

Pharaoh’s “refusal” is a contentious issue—I highly recommend reading Talbott’s discussion of Romans 9:17-18, in light of Romans 11:32 (p19 of chapter 5 of his book, which is freely available here). Anyway, even assuming Pharaoh freely rejected God, I don’t think it’s honoring to let someone essentially put themselves into a state of neverending suicide. I don’t think it’s a real, informed, rational decision. So I don’t see it having any “dignity.” Again, it’s a topic that Talbott has comprehensively addressed in his book, The Inescapable Love of God, but if you don’t have time to read or listen (there’s a great audiobook!), then I encourage you to read his Free-will Theodicies of Hell post (which I drew on in Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?).

Jon: Yeah, “confinement”, I think was the term.

Tim: Confinement, yes. But what God won’t allow is for that evil to pollute or vandalize his creation anymore. And so the end of Revelation is the New Jerusalem and then outside the city are… “So wait I thought they were in a Lake of Fire?” (in chapter 20) But then (in chapter 22) the wicked are just outside the city… So these images are that God will contain those who choose evil. And the point is that he won’t allow them to ruin his world anymore.

Day Of The Lord Part 6 (27m 17s)

I’m really not convinced that evil can be adequately confined in that way because humans (and God) are so deeply interconnected, we’re relational beings. When loved ones suffer, we suffer, God suffers. That suffering is polluting and vandalizing—it’s ruining any chance of harmony—of the promised Shalom. How can someone possibly be happy while their son, their mother, their husband, or their best friend is still destroying themselves? (And for some believers, all their family and loved ones are non-believers) If they are just outside the open gates, they can probably see, hear, and smell(?!) their torment.

At the end of Revelation, the only thirsty audience the Spirit and the bride (Christians) have are the wicked outside the gates. Perhaps, when the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”, everyone who is thirsty actually comes!

Overcome evil with good

Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?

Amy Orr-Ewing
Amy Orr-Ewing

Amy Orr-Ewing, in her article How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?, begins by pointing out that many people are shocked that anyone still believes in hell. Despite that, she says there are serious questions we need to consider:

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 ultimate good 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.

I think punishment can be involved in achieving genuine comprehension (see Engaging Shumack: justice and the death penalty).

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.

Title titled
C. S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 247

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…

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons—Kingship (emphasis mine)

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.

Review of The Forgotten Gospel Conference

This conference on God’s boundless love and ability to save, brought together these amazing speakers:

Talk videos (free)!

Unfortunately I couldn’t afford to travel there from Tasmania but one of my friends who attended gave a report, which I’ve condensed/edited slightly:

My overwhelming sense is that the conference was a success—a magnificent one even—though not as much for the reasons I’d expected…

I came with legal notepads ready to record more information, clever twists of favorite Universalism defenses, new ways of looking at old texts. I came with a readiness to engage my mind; less aware of my needs to bring heart into alignment with head. Almost instantly though, I realized I would likely take no notes (and I didn’t…) but just listen. Mind very much filled and engaged and alert yes, but Universal Reconciliation, and Restoration, and Recreation, as a reality for the heart just as much as for the mind. Real world in other words…

Strangely, I already knew this at some level… Six, perhaps seven years ago, when I tried to win my wife to Universalism, I met with failure. My arguments—solid as they seemed for me—simply fell on deaf ears. My son, then 17 or 18, listened to my arguments, challenged them intelligently and appropriately and in fairly short order embraced the truth of God’s Universal Victory through Jesus. And in something of a blow to my ego, it was he who convinced my wife of the reality of Universalism! Where I had employed what worked for me—reason and logic and irrefutably clever argument—he shared it in the realms of the heart and of relationships. The relentless pursuit of a loving Father going about reconciling His creation to Himself. Relationships…

Pastoral Concerns

What dawned on me then, in those first few moments of the Conference on Friday night, with the warm and genuine welcome by our host, Pastor Peter Hiett, and the first two messages of the evening—one by Brad Jersak and one by Peter—was that this was to be an affair for the heart. A moving beyond the wonderful facts and logic and intelligence of Universalism, to that place of pastoral concerns; where passionate and smart leaders, shepherds of real life drama flocks, bring the grace and compassion of Universalism into the world of heart and spirit and relationship. Yes—there was ample and generous portions of reason and logic and academic rigor. But it was in the service of nurturing and ministering to a church full of real people with all the drama and pain and dysfunction that uncamouflaged life brings.

And the greatest truth—logical, relational, head, and heart—repeatedly driven home with a joyous intensity by each and every speaker was a rediscovery, a reawakening, a rehabilitation, indeed a resurrection of the Truth about God’s very essence and character and being. A God whose wrath and justice are not counter to His love, but rather a redemptive reflection of it.

Christ/Cross-centred Worship

Further, and infinitely supporting and revealing of this great truth, stands the person of Jesus and the realities of the Cross. In fact, the entire Conference stands as a shattering rebuke to the craven and baseless assertion (one I’ve been subjected to countless times…) that we Christian Universalists minimize and marginalize Christ and His Cross and don’t take it seriously enough. For the essence of the Conference was worship. The triumph of God’s Love—demonstrated at such cost through the life and death and resurrection and person of His Son Jesus.

All I could think, and say, both as it was happening, and now, is WOW! The beautiful, but perhaps distant and intangible truth of Universal Restoration if left in the realm of reason, given richness and intensity and realness in the realm of Pastoral concerns and grateful worship. I went planning to be blessed, and encouraged, and my mind stimulated. And all those things happened. I didn’t expect to experience such profound worship though. What a gift that was for me!!

I’ve already noted how Christ and cross centered and worshipful the entire conference was. But other notable themes were woven throughout all the presentations as well.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

First off was the general agreement on the enormous difficulties that penal substitution theology poses to people trying to grasp the love of God and it’s consequent Universal Reconciliation. Huge and perhaps complicated topic I know, but every speaker left little doubt that penal substitution explanations of the Cross are far more hurtful than helpful to understanding the True Love of God… Nuff said about that, except to say I rejoiced to hear that!!! (Yes, it’s a present image, but must be closely limited in how it is interpreted lest God quickly acquire the image of a monster—sated only by violence and innocent blood…)

Love That Judges

There was this relentless urge in all speakers it seemed, to spare no words in emphasizing the fullness and completeness of God’s eternal Love. Not a love that judges or saves, but a love that judges and saves. It was just wonderful to watch and listen as each speaker took—tirelessly—upon himself the mission of restoring and rehabilitating the reputation of God! Truly the forgotten goodness of the news!

True Free Will

I was also very much pleased to note that each speaker took gentle but unmistakable jabs at the common Arminian misperceptions of free will. In fact it’s not free, really, until it is good—as Peter Hiett perhaps drove home best. The notion that instead what is happening is that God is slowly bringing us, teaching us, maturing us into a more and better and fuller freedom. It is only then that we really are free. This is of course utterly crucial in our responses to those believers whose main quarrel with God’s Universal Victory over sin is the “free will” clause.

The Relationship Between God and Creation

Another idea emphasized by many of the speakers was that the creation exists as wholly from and dependent on God. It’s not as if God is here (all holy and separate and protected from His dirty creation—as if it can exist all by itself…) and we are huddled over there, in complete isolation from God. Baxter Kruger was perhaps most gloriously and intensely insistent on this point. There simply is no creation apart from the community of the Trinity. Which of course plays centrally in the idea that a failure on God’s part to restore/reconcile/redeem all His beloved creation is unthinkable in the context of the completeness and fullness of the Trinity.

The Biggest Joy

All of which brings me to a sobering, and to varying degrees painful reality. And this hit home as I chatted with random folks during the conference. But for many (most?) of us—and [from] everything I could tell, all there were convinced Universalists—our home church worship environment and experience really can be marked by a festering and grating loneliness. We have this great conviction of God’s Universal victory through Jesus, and yet cannot share it meaningfully with others we worship with—lest we be ostracized and branded heretical. In fact several I spoke with said they have no home church—and instead have online fellowship experience where they feel more like they belong. This resonated deeply with me. And the sheer joy of just being together with so many who saw the same truths that I do, was a blessing unparalleled…

The biggest joy—and blessed relief—of this conference for me was the feeling that I was home. Yes, I go to church here, in my own little community, but I can’t just blurt out any time I want my convictions of these great Universal Reconciliation truths. I very much appreciated the speakers open recognition that, among themselves, they do have differences and don’t all agree on everything. That’s refreshing, because that’s real and honest. So Peter, if you’re reading this, I feel like I am a part of your church—even though I live in Florida!!!

Constructive Criticism

For the sense that I’m looking at this whole conference with open eyes and constructive criticism—and not just giving it a rubber stamped thumbs up just because it’s right on my favorite topic—let me make a couple observations…

Annihilation. There was nary a mention of this possibility, which is unfortunate given that a growing number are finding their solution to the horrors and inconsistencies of an ECT hell in the answer of annihilationism. This is particularly important to me since I was raised in an annihilation tradition. Not a big complaint at all, but noted…

Speakers Q & A session. This was by far the biggest disappointment for me. It was tacked on at the very end, after a very hasty lunch on Sunday, and felt disorganized (a great contrast from the order of the overall conference) and rushed. Prime goal was to be out of the building by 2pm—which lent this abbreviated session a feeling of haste instead of reflection. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but could have been much better. There is an obvious camaraderie and even fondness for each other among the speakers; this needs time to flourish and be on greater display. Further, why not let this be the time and place to let us in on some of their theological differences—and in the process, model for us out here that all important skill.

My suggestion would be to put it in the afternoon Saturday and make it a bit more “formal” and organized. Have more time and emphasis spent on writing these questions as well on having the moderator more familiar with them before he reads them to us in the actual session.

Final Thoughts

Was just plain cool to meet these writers. Biggest highlight for me was meeting Tom Talbott! Dude kind of started it all for me—and it turns out quite a few others as well! He seemed genuinely happy to meet “TotalVictory”! Either that or he faked happy pretty well!! And of course meeting Paul Young and Brad Jersak and Peter and Robin Parry himself!! That was just great.

In closing, the idea of the church body, with her many different parts, gathered under One Head; Jesus Christ. I’d always heard that meant the different gifts within our church—as in our particular denomination!!! Well, actually no! I was so pleased to see all the streams of theological thought seen here, with Catholics and Orthodox and Calvinists and charismatics and multiple varieties of Arminians all gathered together celebrating the Lordship of the Christ—as a reflection of the true God. A God who is completely successful in Restoring and redeeming His entire Creation… Wow!!

So a truly blessed and wonderful conference. Would be a thrill to anticipate the next one!!!

All the best,

Bob x3
TotalVictory

The Deeper Story of God's Relentless Love

 

Why C.S. Lewis’ Conversion Suggests He Should’ve Been A Universalist

 

Monochrome head-and-left-shoulder photo portrait of 50-year-old Lewis
C. S. Lewis

Every time I hear someone advocate for C.S. Lewis’ view on Hell, I can’t help but think of Thomas Talbott’s insightful observations about C.S. Lewis’ own conversion:

For the sake of clarity, however, it is important to see just how far removed from more ordinary ways of thinking about freedom the libertarian conception can sometimes be.

As an illustration, consider how C. S. Lewis, despite his commitment to a free will theodicy of hell, described his own conversion to Christianity:

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

There is, I believe, great wisdom here. At the time of some momentous conversion, many people feel utterly compelled to change their lives in some way even as they acquire a genuine sense of liberation in the process. At the very least, the above quotation suggests that Lewis felt utterly boxed in or checkmated in the sense that every motive for resistance had somehow been undermined and no live alternative remained available to him. He even used the word “checkmate” to name the chapter in which he described the end of a journey that had begun with atheism and nally ended with his conversion to Christianity. He also explicitly addressed the issue of freedom and necessity in relation to his own conversion. He observed first that

before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice.C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 224

But lest he should be misunderstood, he immediately added the following clarification:

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

Indeed! That is just my point; even Lewis described his freedom in relation to his own conversion very differently than he described the freedom of the lost in relation to their damnation. For he in effect described the crucial choice in his conversion as voluntary but not free in the sense that he could have chosen otherwise. He even described himself as having been compelled to submit to God freely and spoke as if necessity is sometimes quite compatible with freedom. So now we must ask, if God’s mercy can eventually compel one prodigal to submit to him freely, as I agree it can, why can it not likewise do the same for every other prodigal as well?

Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 199-200

Basically, if even a strong atheist like C.S. Lewis can be freely converted, there’s significant hope that everyone else can be too!