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.
Jordan B Peterson is the most thought-provoking person I’ve come across in a long time so it’s apt that my 100th blog post is about him. There are already more than a million videos of him. People on both the Left and the Right regularly get offended by him. To some, he is a bigoted extremist; propagating harmful lies—to others he’s a profane heretic; undermining the inerrancy of Scripture. Yet to others, he is a brave hero; a prophetic genius daring to speak the truth. One thing is clear, he’s gaining followers and enemies at an exponential rate!
I keep discovering that people I respect are following him e.g. the editor of Four Views on Hell:
I’ve been listening to this guy… his name’s Jordan B Peterson and he’s not like an orthodox Christian guy but … he has these lectures where he’s talking about Genesis one through four. And he loves the story of Cain and Abel, and one of the things that he said that’s really stuck with me is … he goes, “I don’t get it, this story of Cain and Abel is so densely packed with wisdom … it’s only like two paragraphs long and this story does so much and explains so much about reality!”
One of the reasons he’s generating so much interest is that it’s remarkably hard to put him into a box. I’ll admit that the first time I came across him I thought, “Who is this crazy man?”! While he definitely is unconventional and controversial (not your classic conservative or liberal), it’s obvious that he is highly intelligent, well-read, and educated. So who is he and what exactly is he saying?
His areas of study and research are in the fields of psychopharmacology, abnormal, neuro, clinical, personality, social, industrial and organizational, religious, ideological, political, and creativity psychology. Peterson has authored or co-authored more than a hundred academic papers.
The list above gives an indication of the topics he formally covers—although, given he does many informal Q&As and interviews, he actually discusses an even greater range! So it’s difficult to know where to start… He has fascinating and practical insights into personality traits, emotions, goal-setting, education, addiction, mental illnesses, relationships, racism, politics, why people behave the way they do, etc. (e.g. Jordan B Peterson Clips, 20 Minutes on UnderstandMyself.com, and Self Authoring), but today I’m only going to briefly introduce a few of his philosophical and theological ideas.
He honestly values all sorts of people, no matter where they are on the Left/Right spectrum. He explains the essential contributions of different views in our ever-changing social, political, and physical environment (e.g. Why It’s Useful to Talk to People You Don’t Agree With).
He emphatically promotes the need for articulate, truthful, and free speech—Logos. To survive we need ongoing conversation, dialogue, negotiation, and open communication, especially between people who see the world so very differently from each other. Truth is also the antidote to suffering, it’s the means by which we can overcome chaos, create good, and discover meaning (e.g. The Articulated Truth).
He has an interesting argument about how we can know what is real. Logically, given we are finite beings, we have limitations that cause suffering. The resulting pain is self-evidently real. But we can go further, we know that we can do things that make the pain worse. Therefore, we have some idea of what we can do to reduce or mitigate the pain, and indeed it’s then conceivable that there is an opposite to the pain—namely, something that is good (e.g. Is Your Pain Real?).
We should try to aim for the highest and greatest good—good for you, your family, your community, and the world, not just for today but for tomorrow, and the foreseeable future. If we don’t, we risk going around in circles, or worse, descending into chaos and hell (e.g. Dare To Aim For The Highest Good).
In order to have any chance of making the world a better place, we must first sort out our lives rather than assuming we can go around “fixing” others (e.g. How to Change the World—Properly).
We need to voluntarily face and defeat our “dragons” before they get too big and eat us. All sorts of problems can become “dragons”—from small things, like not cleaning your room or paying a bill, to large things, like abuse that you’ve suffered (e.g. Slaying the Dragon Within us).
We want to try to walk with one foot in chaos and the other in order. If we go too far into chaos we will drown, if we go too far into order we will become frozen (e.g. Living a Proper Life between Chaos & Order).
He soberingly articulates the many ways we can make life hell for ourselves and those around us, frequently citing frightening examples from the past 100 years. But he doesn’t leave it there, he encourages us forward.
He appreciates a wide range of art, music, culture, beauty, and wisdom—which, combined with his authentic, conversational style and everyday topics, make him accessible to a broad audience I think, although some people might think he’s too coarse or intellectual at times.
He is great at showing how religions, mythology, archetypes, and psychology are interrelated—which actually gives me a greater appreciation for all of them. Out of this, he explains why Postmodernism is self-defeating and an inadequate philosophy for life. While there are numerous ways to interpret things, many interpretations can be demonstrated as false.
Religion shouldn’t be written off as mere superstition as it’s the distillation of countless generations of profound wisdom and the acting out of deep psychological truths. He sees Christianity as the most thoroughly developed example.
I’m unwilling to rule out the existence of heaven. I’m unwilling to rule out the existence of life after death. I’m unwilling to rule out the idea of Universal redemption and the defeat of evil. Now I know perfectly well that all those things can be well conceptualized metaphorically… but I’m not willing to make the claim that those ideas exhaust themselves in the metaphor.
Below is the second post in a mini-series unpacking my talk above.
Before I get to how Jesus’ journey through Hades encourages, inspires hope, and guides us when we suffer, I’ll share a few more possible parallels to the account in 1 Peter. First, Jesus pointed back to Jonah:
From the belly of the underworld [literally Hades in the Greek] I cried out for help… You had cast me into the depths in the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounds me… I have sunk down to the underworld; its bars held me with no end in sight.
But you brought me out of the pit.
Jonah 2:2b,3,6b, CEB
Here we have a descent to Hades intertwined with the image of a flood, similar to 1 Peter. There’s also the parallel of the “bars” and being imprisoned, and that both Jonah and Jesus were in Hades for 3 days before being raised (Von Balthasar and Parry suggest Lamentations is another OT parallel 1).
But there’s more, while Jesus was going through Hades he preached the good news so that the dead prisoners could be saved (v6b “live with God”):
I think that’s reinforced by Ephesians 4:8 (above), John 12:32, and Philippians 2:8-11 (see table below for all the similarities).
“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.”
God highly exalted Jesus & gave him the name that is above every name (v9)
angels, authorities, & powers subject to Jesus (v22)
every knee will bow to Jesus—in heaven & on earth & under the earth (v10)
that God may be glorified (v11)
to the glory of God (v11)
And maybe these two verses are also alluding to the idea:
And they [the kings of the earth] shall be gathered together, as prisoners are gathered in the pit, and shall be shut up in the prison, and after many days shall they be visited [episkopḗ: “oversight that naturally goes on to provide the care and attention appropriate to the “personal visitation.””].
Isaiah 24:22, KJV
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Zechariah 9:11, ESV
First, most people see death as a very significant problem that humans face. Therefore, believing God has defeated death should inspire hope. I think this was particularly the case for Peter’s audience in their non-Christian society. Think about it, whenever someone became a Christian, surely one of the questions would be:
What about most of my friends and relatives who don’t believe—especially all those who have died without even hearing the Good News?
Well, I think Peter’s answer is, “Jesus has told them the Good News so they could turn to Him for salvation.”
Second, “since Christ suffered physical pain, you must arm yourselves with the same attitude he had, and be ready to suffer, too.” (v1) Jesus proclaimed the Good News so we proclaim the Good News. Jesus did good so we try to do good. Some people will think we’re strange and will slander us—or worse. Depending on how severely they do that, it can certainly feel like hell, especially if it involves being betrayed by someone you love.
How do we respond to the suffering? We, “Honor Christ and let him be the Lord of our life.” (v15a) That involves continuing to do what Jesus did: Even in the depths of hell, He proclaimed the Good News so we should try to proclaim the Good News wherever we are. Jesus did good even when He physically suffered for it, so we try to continue to do good—particularly to those who are trapped in the hellish existence with us.
I think it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t just pretend He wasn’t suffering, He acknowledged it and chose to persevere through it (the night before He was betrayed comes to mind). Likewise, we should acknowledge the suffering and try to imitate Jesus’ brave attitude. And God may even use this to rescue and draw others to Him. Regardless, we are guaranteed to be lifted up again—if not in this life, in the next.
So, “can anyone really harm you for being eager to do good deeds?” (v13) The answer is no, they can’t permanently harm you. “Even if you have to suffer for doing good things, God will bless you.” (v14a) He promises to heal everything in the long run. “So stop being afraid and don’t worry about what people might do.” (v14b) No matter what hell someone drags you into, Jesus will rescue you from it in due course.
1. “[M]y work on Lamentations started me thinking more about “the descent into hell.” I argued that Lamentations was Israel’s Holy Saturday literature, located midway between the death and resurrection of Jerusalem. It was Israel’s theological equivalent of Christ in the tomb. Thus I was led to connect Lamentations to the issue of hell and universalism and, via Von Balthasar, to the descent to the dead (Parry, Lamentations, 197–201).” Robin Parry, The Evangelical Universalist, 219 2. A common objection is that some people will only confess under duress, however, there are lots of reasons for thinking that’s not the case:
Christ then preached to the spirits that were being kept in prison.
The good news has even been preached to the dead, so that after they have been judged for what they have done in this life, their spirits will live with God.
1 Peter 3:19, 4:6, CEV
I think we need to keep 2 key themes of the letter in mind:
Peter is trying to encourage Christians. He does this by showing them how they fit into God’s big story—from Creation, Abraham, Israel, and ultimately in Jesus. He reminds them that they have a new hope, a new identity, and a new family.
Peter is giving his readers some guidance on how to respond to the inevitable suffering they’ll face because of their faith.
How does Jesus preaching to the spirits and the dead encourage and inspire hope? What guidance does it give when you’re suffering?
To attempt to answer these questions, I’m going to walk through Peter’s account, starting at verse 20, where he talks about the days of Noah.
Most people had disobeyed God while Noah built the ark and they spiraled out of control and received the colossal, chaotic consequences. In Genesis, their story ended in them drowning but in 1 Peter we discover the story continued… they were spiritually imprisoned. Often that’s referred to as hell, although Hades, Sheol, or the underworld are probably better ways to describe it.
So far, in this story countless people have died, worse, they’ve been imprisoned below, which I don’t find encouraging or hope inspiring! However, even in Genesis, God gives us a glimmer of hope because “eight people went into [Noah’s] boat and were brought safely through the flood.” That would’ve been a relief for Noah but it still leaves us wondering about everyone else… and I think this is what Jesus revealed to Peter.
So zooming forward from Noah to Jesus. Again, the world was evil but this time God had a different approach. God entered our world as a human. Jesus preached the good news and did good deeds. A few people listened and followed Him but most objected and so He was crucified. He descended to the dead in Hades, including, we are told, those who had died in the days of Noah.
Again, so far, this is tragic—particularly as Jesus was meant to be the Messiah saving the whole world! However, Jesus was God and remained God, even in Hades—He is the eternal Life. Like someone turning on a light in a darkroom, death didn’t stand a chance! This was the turning point of history! He defeated death and, on the third day, he rose again.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.
1 Peter 3:22, ESV
Now Christ has gone to heaven. He is seated in the place of honor next to God, and all the angels and authorities and powers accept his authority.
1 Peter 3:18, ESV
It’s reassuring to know that ultimately Jesus always has the last word.
Some Christians see the descent as metaphorical but it’s worth remembering that the lines “He descended to the dead (or hell)”; “On the third day he rose again“; and “He ascended into heaven“, were all included in the Apostles’ Creed, which is the oldest and most widely accepted Church creed. The descent to Hades is also mentioned in other passages, for example:
But what does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower parts of the earth?
Ephesians 4:9, CSB
[Christians don’t need to ask] “Who will go down into the abyss?” that is, to bring Christ up from the dead.
Romans 10:7, CSB
Throughout Church history, Christ’s actions in Hades have been seen as very significant:
[B]elief in Christ’s descent into Hades and his preaching to the dead is not a theologoumenon [personal opinion], but belongs to the realm of general church doctrine. … It was shared by all members of the ancient church as reflected in the New Testament, the works of the early Christian apologists, fathers, and teachers of the church, ancient and later writers of both East and West, as well as in the baptismal creeds, eucharistic services, and liturgical texts.
Scholar Brad Jersak explains that before Calvin:
Rowan Williams also reflected on the defeat of Hades (source: Experimental Theology):
Because Jesus went “fully into the depths of human agony”, no matter when we rebelled or how far we’ve fallen, “Christ has been there, to implant the possibility, never destroyed, of another turning, another future…” I find that encouraging.
The above is the first post in a mini-series unpacking my talk below. In addition to looking at how Jesus’ journey through Hades encourages, inspires hope, and guides us when we suffer, it will look at how should we respond to slander, defend our hope, and treat each other. The second post is Is your life hell? WWJD?
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 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
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.
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] satisfied…John 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
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.
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)
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.
God's justice is reforming all things—even hell—to the way He intended: wholeheartedly delighting in Him together, Shalom!