Engaging Shumack: justice and the death penalty

I recently read Richard Shumack’s Fifty Years Without the Death Penalty, Australia Should be Grateful. It’s a well written article, which explores the important relationship between justice and punishment—a topic I’ve been fascinated with for a long time.

Shumack starts by explaining that he isn’t against punishment:

Anyone who has been seriously wronged knows that the deep intuitive longing for justice usually includes the offender “paying for it” in some sense.

I think he’s right that most people rightly long for justice, although it raises questions:

  • What exactly is justice?
  • How do we know when justice has been achieved?
  • How do we untangle the desire for retribution from the desire for revenge?
  • Should we leave retribution to God?

I’m glad he unpacks this further:

Rehabilitation is a noble goal for our justice system, but not in a way that ignores proper retribution.

What do I mean by proper retribution? I’m still not sure in practice. A simple “eye for an eye” is unworkable (how can the offences of a mass murderer carry a proportional punishment?), and fails to allow for clemency. Still, very serious crimes do seem to warrant very serious punishment.

Along those lines, I do think that a reasonable case can be made for the death penalty as a just punishment.

I think rehabilitation is part of God’s plan and so is indeed noble. Unlike God, we can’t see an offender’s heart, and so our rehabilitation sometimes disappoints because it isn’t complete. Rehabilitation and retribution are sometimes seen as mutually exclusive concepts but, as Shumack implies, I think they can overlap. Although getting retribution right in practice is difficult—possibly something only God can do.

Taking a step back, what if the aim of punishment was to help the perpetrator fully comprehend the physical and psychological damage done (e.g. the anxiety resulting from having trust violated)—to deeply understand their actions from the victim’s perspective? Ideally this authentic empathy would be achieved through educative rehabilitation but it seems that sometimes it’s only possible through personal experience… and I think this is where a particular type of retribution may play a role.

Consider someone who is caught vandalising and the types of retribution they could be given:

  1. Jail time or a fine.
  2. Someone vandalises something of equal value that belongs to the offender.
  3. The offender is required to see how the victims are impacted, and then helps to repair it.

I’d suggest that type 3. is the best as it most clearly demonstrates to the offender the damage done, and is the most natural consequence—most closely linked to the offense. However, if the offender still doesn’t fully comprehend, type 2. might be required or at least threatened (there’s room for clemency/mercy as the goal is comprehension, rather than simply trying to “balance the books”). Type 1. is the most disconnected from the offense and should therefore be the last resort.

Possible Path to Ideal Justice

But what about the case of the mass murderer that Shumack mentioned? Sometimes when the offender experiences gracious love from someone or undeserved forgiveness from the victims (e.g. Jesus, Mandela and Eric Lomax), it brings about genuine comprehension, repentance, and transformation of the offender (e.g. a resolute conviction to never kill again, and instead devote their life to helping victims and helping others to not become murderers). Sometimes educating the offender—say, showing them the awful hurt done to the victims—is enough to turn them around.

But what if all these responses have failed? Is there any type of retribution that would spur the offender to change? Perhaps—the attempts by our justice systems have had mixed results to say the least. Would executing an offender give them a fuller understanding of what it felt like for their victims? If it did, is it worth it when it denies the possibility of reconciliation, and possibly the victim’s healing, in this life?

It also seems possible that [the death penalty] could produce some good, even for the offender – by forcing them to face up to the wrong they’ve done, and so opening up redemptive possibilities. This is especially true if you hold that this life is not all there is. The dramatic transformation of Andrew Chan as he faced death in a Balinese prison is a case in point.

I think sometimes good can come from the death penalty, particularly if you believe justice and redemption are matters that go beyond this life. Although, as Shumack points out, any potential good still seems outweighed by other factors. First, the apparent inability of earthly justice systems to avoid executing innocents. Second, if someone on death penalty isn’t pardoned when they’ve had a dramatic transformation (e.g. Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran) the good being done by them is seemingly cut short. Having said that, their influence may continue—like a martyr’s—as Another Day in Paradise demonstrates.

Primarily, however, I am glad [Australia doesn’t have the death penalty] because, in a world of brokenness and violence, I want to be a person who hopes for better, and the death penalty radically diminishes hope …

For Dostoevsky, the death penalty was devastating because it eliminates all hope for continued physical life on earth. This is true, of course, but to me, it seems even more hopeless than that. In the condemned criminal’s situation, I would want to cling not just to life itself, but to the possibility of transformation, redemption, even reconciliation.

I want to be a person who hopes for the better too. While the death penalty diminishes hope of life, transformation, redemption, and reconciliation now, it doesn’t have to diminish the hope that all these will occur in the age to come. Christie Buckingham describes Sukumaran’s amazing hope—even at his execution—that “the better” was in the age to come (reminds me of Paul in Philippians 1:20-24).

Shumack reflects on the last person executed in Australia, Ronald Ryan:

… We cannot know the truth about Ryan’s conscience and whether it [the death sentence] had pricked this repeat offender towards redemption. My hope is that it had – but if not, his hanging certainly eliminated any chance it would.

I hope Ryan’s conscience was pricked during this life but even if it wasn’t, I suspect it probably has been by now as I don’t believe his hanging eliminated repentance and redemption in the age to come.

Often, of course, this sort of hope is against reasonable hope. It would be naive not to recognise the reality that some individuals simply will not be reformed – perhaps cannot be reformed. Still, I hope because I have seen miraculous turnarounds.

I think some individuals refuse to turnaround in this life but I don’t believe (partly because of miraculous turnarounds we’ve already witnessed) anyone is eternally beyond God’s ability to reform.

I have a friend who is a true sociopath. He was jailed for a nearly successful attempt to murder his father with a hammer while studying chemistry to engineer the explosive destruction of thousands. Beyond hope – most others’ and his own – he reluctantly recognised his spiritual poverty through being rudely confronted by the extraordinary love of a cell-mate who responded to his persistent malevolence, not with justice, but with patient humour and grace. This encounter, transcending the will of the justice system, set him on the pathway to deep rehabilitation.

Wow! This type of deep rehabilitation, brought about by love and grace, is what I’m hoping—by God’s grace—will ultimately occur for each and every person.

There’s an important clue in my friend’s story. Hoping for the redemption of the offender, hoping in justice or the justice system, is not enough. In the words of Nelson Mandela (who ought to know), “in the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.”

I heartily agree with that Mandela quote!

It may be in its favour that the death penalty satisfies justice, but if so, that is all it does. What goes against the death penalty is that it cuts off abruptly the possibilities for a wrongdoer to discover the sort of redemption that transcends justice.

I don’t think redemption and justice are at odds but that redemption is an essential step towards ultimate justice—that God’s justice/shalom is so much more than retribution (although retribution might need to occur before redemption sometimes, as I tried to articulate above). Because of this, I don’t think the death penalty alone ever satisfies justice—at most it might be a step towards it.

I am glad, then, to celebrate my half-century with the demise of the death penalty. Not because it is necessarily morally wrong, but because it shows that I live in a society that embraces hope, however remote, and the possibility of a second chance.

Amen brother! We all need second chances!

Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 5

William T. Cavanaugh
Dr. William T. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh is Professor of Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. He holds degrees from Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Duke University, and has worked as a lay associate with the Holy Cross order in a poor area of Santiago, Chile, as well as for the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School. His books include:

2016 Richard Johnson Lecture

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. William Cavanaugh and attending his lecture “The Myth of Religious Violence”. I’ve broken the interview up into 6 short posts:

  1. Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?
  2. Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?
  3. Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?
  4. Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?
  5. Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?
  6. Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?

I’ve also posted it as a single, combined post.

Is God Violent In Hell?

What do you think of the doctrine of hell, which in many ways is how God treats those who reject Him and how do you think that influences the way we treat people now?

I really like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and I think that puts forward a speculative—but I think a very orthodox view—that Hell is self imposed and it’s not imposed by God. It’s a kind of self imposed separation from God… So the kind of gratuitous torturing God, I think that’s not the Christian God—just finding exquisite and inventive ways to torture people for all eternity. So this kind of self separation from God I think is the way to think about it and I think there’s a kind of general, broad agreement on that.

The question is whether anybody can resist God’s grace forever, whether anybody’s sin is strong enough to resist God’s grace forever and so I tend to think of these things in terms of… It’s not all necessarily over at death but, I guess this kind of points towards the Catholic idea of purgatory in some ways, that there is a continuing process after death of purgation.

Yes, I’d agree with that 1.

But I suppose you need to leave open… I mean Barth I think was wise on these questions to say at some point you have to just maintain a kind of holy silence. We don’t know and so there might be the possibility that some people are not saved and we can’t presume and be guilty of the sin of presumption.

In which case, I think Annihilationist ideas kind of make sense. Paul Griffiths recent book Decreation makes a pretty cogent argument for Annihilationism and that kind of fits into a whole Augustinian scheme of the farther away you get from God the less being that you have and so it might be possible that people that have kind of permanently excluded themselves from God’s communion might just cease to be in some sense. I think C. S. Lewis kind of points to that, in that eventually there might be nothing left but ashes.

Yes, I usually call that “Soft” Annihilationism, as it’s self inflicted, as opposed to “Hard” Annihilationism, where God is deliberately doing the annihilating.

Right, “Zap!”, yeah…

And you’re right, that particular view has gained a lot of popularity. As opposed to the view where, according to some people, God will be basically torturing people forever.

Does Our View of Hell Influence Our Judicial Systems?

Do you think our view of hell affects our view of Justice? Do you think our view of how God treats people in hell influences our judicial systems now? For example, our ideas of what prisons are about and what prisons are for? Whether they are simply, “Person makes a mistake, therefore they get locked away forever”. Or whether there’s a different kind of model, where we’re actually trying to bring about change. Prison, put loosely, is seen as a means to an end—as an opportunity to reform the person. 2

Whether or not Christian views of hell influence that… I think that they certainly could, and probably did, at least in the past. Certainly, yeah, but there’s a pretty clear divide between people who call it a penal system or people who talk about a Department of Corrections, as it’s called in the US. But so often there’s no longer any attempt at correction and I think that’s a huge scandal, especially the United States where we have an enormous number of people locked away.

And there seems to be money involved as well.

Right, a lot of for-profit prisons, which is astonishing isn’t it?!

Yeah, that seems absolutely… it’s just mindblowing. That is sooo just going to cause a problem!


1. 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: Why C.S. Lewis’ Conversion Suggests He Should’ve Been A Universalist.
2. Helpful further reading on the relationship between hell and our current justice systems A cheat sheet on hell (although re: Kevin’s last point, I think UR actually achieves more justice than the other views).

Hope In The Face Of Suffering And Doubt

The following is a talk I recently gave at my church (video). The first few paragraphs are based primarily upon Niall Doherty’s excellent article on The Stockdale Paradox.


Good morning! I’m Alex and I’m going to give a 20 minute talk on the topic of, “Hope in the face of suffering and doubt”. I’ll look at three true accounts of amazing hope and resilience in awful situations. They are quite heavy but I hope you’ll stick with me. I’ll then look at two contrasting approaches to dealing with doubt.

The first account is of Jim Stockdale.

Jim-Stockdale
U.S. Navy File Photo of Vice Admiral James “Jim” Stockdale

Jim Stockdale was an Admiral for the United States military. He was held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. Stockdale and his prisonmates were regularly and severely tortured, and never had much reason to believe they would survive the prison camp. While he was there he noticed something very surprising about the prisonmates who succumbed and died. Counterintuitively, it was always the most optimistic.

They were the ones who said, “We’re going to be out by Christmas.” And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, “We’re going to be out by Easter.” And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.Jim Stockdale, interviewed by Jim Collins

Being in a prison camp would be a desperate situation, making it much harder to be rational so I don’t want to be disrespectful of them. But in hindsight, they held an unhealthy type of optimism that fails to confront the reality of the situation. The expectation of immediate release probably made it easier to begin with, but when they were eventually forced to face reality, it had become too much and they couldn’t handle it. While Stockdale didn’t talk about the pessimists in the prison camp, I’m assuming they would’ve also struggled to survive.

Stockdale approached the incarceration and torture with a different mindset. He accepted the reality of his situation. He knew he was in a hellish place, but, rather than give up, he did everything he could to lift the morale, and prolong the lives of, his fellow prisoners. Despite prisoners often being in solitary confinement, he created a tapping code so they could communicate with each other, creating a vital lifeline. He also developed a mental strategy that helped them deal with torture. He described his ordeal:

I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.Jim Stockdale, interviewed by Jim Collins

Again this is surprising. However, he did survive and lifelong friendships came out of it. He also went on to become “one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the Navy”. The paradox of the tension between hope and suffering is named after him. This quote summarises it well.

This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.Jim Stockdale, interviewed by Jim Collins

I don’t know if Stockdale was a Christian but I think his approach was like Jesus’. When Jesus was tortured and executed, He was very aware of what was going on, He wasn’t in denial, He accepted His situation without any delusions. Yet – He never gave up trusting God!

And Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into Your hands I entrust My spirit.” Saying this, He breathed His last.Luke 23:46 HCSB

Not only is Jesus demonstrating His trust in His Father, He’s also quoting Psalm 31, part of the Bible that His hearers would have been familiar with. The Psalm is all about trusting in God when you’re in awful circumstances. When there’s terror all around us, God is our rock, our foundation. God never fails, He is always faithful, His love is eternal and infinite. The Psalm ends with:

Be strong and courageous, all you who put your hope in the Lord.Psalm 31:24 HCSB

Like Stockdale and Jesus, our hope can empower us now, in the hardships we go through. Because we are assured that God will make everything right in the end.

Jesus was also the ultimate example of resilience in that He even “bounced back” from death. The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus’ resurrection means we no longer have to fear death. The resurrected Jesus also gives us a glimpse of what the New Creation will be like. We have the hope of life with Him in it. Again this hope doesn’t mean we are disconnected from reality now. Paul was aware that he was constantly in danger and was very familiar with the reality of suffering.

Five times I received 39 lashes from [the] Jews.
Three times I was beaten with rods by the Romans.
Once I was stoned by my enemies.
Three times I was shipwrecked.
I have spent a night and a day in the open sea. On frequent journeys, I faced dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the open country, dangers on the sea, and dangers among false brothers; labor and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and lacking clothing.2 Corinthians 11:24-27 HCSB

And yet Paul can still write one of the most reassuring statements in the entire Bible:

… in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!Romans 8:37-39 HCSB

So far I’ve only looked at the hope and resilience of three men but obviously these qualities aren’t limited to men! Two whole books of the Bible are dedicated to women who had remarkable perseverance and trust in God, Ruth and Esther, and there are examples in the NT too, such as Mary, Jesus’ mother (more examples).

We’ve looked at examples of impressive hope and suffering but before I move on the next section, I think it’s really important to point out that hope isn’t just a quality restricted to these heroes, nor is it something only for full-on situations. Anyone can put their hope in God and what He has promised. And doing so should be beneficial when we go through any challenge of life. It could be something smaller, like school holidays with energetic kids, or something larger like exams, illness, injury, or loss of employment or loved ones. In my personal experience, when I’m going through a rough patch, thinking about who Jesus is, what He’s already done and what He promised to do, really does help me put one foot in front of the other.

Now I’m going to look at another possible threat to hope, which is doubt.

Often the more important something is to you, the more likely you are to have doubts about it. Our hope in Jesus is certainly very important to most of us here. So it’s not surprising we sometimes have doubts about it. There are lots of examples in the Bible of people doubting but I’ll just look at the most famous one. One of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas, doesn’t believe the others have really seen the resurrected Jesus. But Jesus appears to them all and says,

… Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!”
“My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed.
Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.”John 20:27-29 NLT

In this case Jesus relieved Thomas’ doubt but He does seem to imply that immediate relief isn’t always the best thing for us. I find that very challenging.

So what should we do when we doubt? Should we suppress it or express it? Can we ever relieve our doubts or should we just settle for uncertainty?

Last year I got to go to two talks. One was by Peter Rollins. He is a very provocative and controversial Irish philosopher, writer, storyteller and public speaker. He is also a prominent figure in Radical Theology. The other talk was by John Dickson. He is an Australian writer, historian, minister, lecturer and public speaker. He is also a founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity.

Both are highly educated, intelligent, thought-provoking and effective communicators. I particularly appreciated their humility, approachableness and willingness engage with my questions and objections.

Coincidentally they both talked a lot about doubt. They spoke about acknowledging that we are all deeply flawed people in a broken world. And that God hasn’t revealed everything yet:

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
1 Cor 13:12 NIV

At times we all have doubts about big questions―be that the existence God or His character, the correct interpretation of the Bible, about who we are, or why we suffer. It was refreshing to hear them acknowledge this because sometimes there can be pressure to “have it all worked out”, or stigma that doubt implies we don’t have enough faith to be saved.

But once we’ve acknowledged our doubts, what do we do next?? At both events this question came up, and both speakers acknowledged that it depends on the type of doubt. If someone is plagued by psychological doubts and despairing to the point of feeling depressed, we should be sensitive, take their concerns seriously and support them as best we can (which may include talking to a GP). However, if the doubts are straightforward intellectual doubts, Rollins and Dickson offer two contrasting approaches.

My impression from Rollins’ talk, and the conversations with him afterwards, is that he is comfortable leaving many things unresolved, as doubts, as mystery. He suggests that in our consumerist, hedonistic culture we are too quick to give neat “answers” and to seek to instantly satisfy every desire. He goes as far as saying:

… the Good News [is] that we can’t be satisfied, that life is difficult, and that we don’t know the secret.
Peter Rollins

I think Rollins is wrong about what the Good News is (it actually sounds like Bad News to me!) and I think Jesus is “the secret”. But I think Rollins’ is right that life is difficult and we don’t have all the answers concerning our present circumstances. Indeed, often the more we learn about something, the more we discover how much more there is to learn―things are more complex than we initially think. I suspect God deliberately leaves ambiguity around some things to encourage the virtues of patience, trust, humility and perseverance.

In contrast to Rollins, Dickson recommended reading and researching more, as most questions have been pondered and discussed extensively by someone before. I think this is good, biblical advice.

“An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.”Proverbs 18:15 ESV

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity [the New Creation].2 Peter 3:18 HCSB

It’s important to note that acquiring knowledge should be done to God’s glory, in humility and in conjunction with growing in grace.

Dickson suggests that God, primarily through the Bible, does offer answers to some of our doubts now, and it promises that in the future there will be a resolution to all suffering and doubts. This means we can have hope now.

But is this all just wishful thinking? In Dickson’s book, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, he writes:

In The Weight of Glory C. S. Lewis describes humanity as having a sort of longing for a far-off country, which some people dismiss as nostalgia or romanticism but which he thinks comes because we were made for heaven [the New Creation]… he says, “almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found [now] on this earth.” But Lewis says we are never satisfied with earth as it is, with all its discord and sadness. Christians look beyond the pain, for “all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so”.John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, 214

The Bible tells us to expect suffering, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us when our lives become difficult but I do think it is easier to endure suffering and doubts, if we believe that, ultimately, we are promised a good outcome. I put this to Rollins but he wasn’t convinced. My impression is that he thinks we risk not fully living in the now if we are focussed on desiring the future.

… [we should set] aside questions regarding life after death to explore the possibility of a life before death.Peter Rollins

I think Rollins is half right. There is the stereotype of religious people being, “So heavenly minded that they are of no earthly use”. That is to say, people can be so caught up debating religion and doing religious rituals, that they neglect to practically care for people! We do need to heed Rollins concern, and even more importantly Jesus’ warnings, about falling into this trap.

However, unlike Rollins, Jesus doesn’t say the solution is to abandon talking and thinking about the future, about God’s Kingdom, about His New Creation. Rather we should be “heavenly minded” in the way God wants us to be―being inspired by His grace, His love, His promises, rather than our works.

Regarding “the possibility of a life before death”, I think the Bible does encourage us to live meaningful lives now, in this non-ideal world but I don’t think needs to be at the expense of hope and the desire to see the ideal realised after death. For example, after I’ve grieved the loss of a loved one, I can be at peace and continue “exploring” life but surely that doesn’t mean I have to give up my hope of being reunited in the New Creation.

The fact that humanity has longings [for God and an afterlife] that are satisfied by the teaching of the Bible is no more an argument against the Bible than the physical thirst can be thought of as an argument against the reality of water… perhaps this “match” between human longings and the Bible’s message arises because the one who made us for himself stands behind the Bible, as water for our thirst in Jesus Christ all of our longings for God, for each other, and for the redemption of creation are [or will be] satisfiedJohn Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, 215-217

So to summarise, reality is extremely difficult sometimes. We will have doubts, some of which we can’t resolve yet.

So what do you hope for?

As Stockdale discovered, we need to be wise about what we hope for. Stockdale’s hope, or his “end of the story”, was, understandably, surviving the prison camp.

However, God’s “end of the story” is even better, when “the time comes for [Him] to restore everything [in the New Creation], as he promised” (Acts 3:21 NIV).

This can give us great hope and inspire us to persevere now.

I think this is a fitting conclusion.

May the God of hope fill you [now] with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 15:13 NIV

Doubt & Desire: Peter Rollins vs John Dickson

  • The greater the importance of something to you, the more likely you are to have doubts about it.
  • The greater the doubt, the more you desire to have certainty.

So what should we do when we doubt? Should we suppress it or express it? Can we ever relieve our doubts or should we just settle for uncertainty?

I recently got to go to a talk by John Dickson, and in the following week two events by Peter Rollins. Both are highly educated, intelligent, thought-provoking and effective communicators. I particularly appreciated their humility, approachableness and willingness engage with my questions and objections. As I’ve been mulling over what they said, I’ve realised there are both similarities and contrasts between the two that are worth sharing.

Peter Rollins and John Dickson
Peter Rollins and John Dickson

While they both had helpful insights on a range of things, topics they both focused on were doubt and desire. They both spoke about acknowledging that we are all deeply flawed people in a broken world. We all have doubts, at least at times, about big questions―be that the existence or character of God, the interpretation of the Bible, about who we are, or why we suffer. This was refreshing because sometimes there is pressure to “have it all worked out”, or that any doubt implies we don’t have enough faith1.

But once we’ve acknowledged our doubts, what do we do next?? At both events this question came up, and both speakers acknowledged that it depends on the type of doubt. If someone is plagued by psychological doubts and despairing to the point of feeling anxious or depressed, we should be sensitive, take their concerns seriously and support them as best we can2. However, if the doubts are straightforward intellectual doubts, Rollins and Dickson offer two different approaches.

My impression from Rollins’ talk, and the conversations with him afterwards3, is that he is comfortable leaving many things unresolved, as doubts, as mystery4. He suggests that in our consumerist, hedonistic culture we are too quick to give neat “answers” and to seek to satisfy every desire.

… the Good News [is] that we can’t be satisfied, that life is difficult, and that we don’t know the secret.Peter Rollins

I think Rollins’ caution should be heeded. Often the more we learn about something, the more we discover how much more there is to learn―that things are often more complex than we initially think. I suspect God deliberately leaves ambiguity around some things to encourage the virtues of patience, trust, humility and perseverance.

For those with intellectual doubts, Dickson recommended reading and researching more because most quandaries have been pondered and addressed extensively by someone before. I’m naturally attracted to Dickson’s approach. My Dad is a science teacher and my Mum is teacher librarian, so questioning and reading were ingrained in me from an early age. Dickson also suggests that God, largely through the Bible, does offer answers to some of our doubts now and promises that in the future there will be a resolution to all doubts and suffering. We can have hope now. In the book that his talk summarized, Dickson writes:

But Is It All Wishful Thinking?
In The Weight of Glory C. S. Lewis describes humanity as having a sort of longing for a far-off country, which some people dismiss as nostalgia or romanticism but which he thinks comes because we were made for heaven. “Almost all our education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent inner voice,” he says; “almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.” But Lewis says we are never satisfied with earth as it is, with all its discord and sadness. Christians look beyond the pain, for “all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so”.John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible (Zondervan, 2014), 214

I do think it is easier to endure suffering and live with the questions and doubts it raises, if we believe we are promised a good outcome.

If I knew there was a resolution [to suffering], I could walk through life without precisely knowing why I’m experiencing ugliness [suffering].John Dickson, Doubting the Bible, Hobart talk 2015

I put this to Rollins but he wasn’t convinced. My impression is that he thinks we risk not fully living in the now5 if we are desiring the future.

… [set] aside questions regarding life after death to explore the possibility of a life before death.Peter Rollins

While I think the Bible does encourage peace and contentment with the current, non-ideal situation, I don’t think that it’s suggesting this at the expense of hope and the desire to see the ideal realised. For example, I can be at peace with the death of a loved one, while still looking forward to the day when we’ll be reunited in the New Creation.

The fact that humanity has longings [for God, the afterlife, and ethics] that are satisfied by the teaching of the Bible is no more an argument against the Bible than the physical thirst can be thought of as an argument against the reality of water. … perhaps this “match” between human longings and the Bible’s message arises because the one who made us for himself stands behind the Bible, as water for our thirst. … in Jesus Christ all of our longings for God, for each other, and for the redemption of creation are satisfied. … [in] the final lines of the Bible itself, we are all invited for a drink…John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible (Zondervan, 2014), 215-217

“Come!” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink [receive] freely from the water of life.Revelation 22:17b (NLT)

I think this verse goes even further than Dickson realises, and suggests universal salvation. For the water of life flows out (Zechariah 14:8) the open gates (Rev 21:25) of the New Jerusalem to the not-yet-saved outside (Rev 22:15) and it is God and the quenched (John 4:14) who are calling the thirsty to drink. In a future post I’ll look at the objection that some people will refuse to drink. For now, I think it’s worth considering how parched one becomes near fire6, and how irrational it would be not to accept a free drink. Anyway, for Calvinists, like Dickson, I hope they wouldn’t have this objection as they believe all whom God calls will come7.

“Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink—even if you have no money! … My word that comes from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.” Isaiah 55:1,11 (NLT)

Koala given a much needed drink of water after a bushfire (Photo: ABC)
Koala given a much needed drink of water after a bushfire (Photo: ABC)

1. Which could be interpreted as meaning one’s salvation is at stake.
2. This may include encouraging them to seek professional help via a GP.
3. I’ve watched some of his YouTube videos too but unfortunately I haven’t read any of his books yet.
4. This reminds me of the Eastern approach to theology.
5. He made some excellent points about making sure we give priority to loving people over philosophising about things.
6. Also located outside the gates in Revelation imagery.
7. The “I” in TULIP is for Irresistable Grace.