Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Photo of the Week

Though earth and moon were gone 
And suns and universes ceased to be 
And Thou wert left alone 
Every existence would exist in Thee 

- from the poem "No Coward Soul Is Mine," by Emily Bronte

Monday, July 30, 2018

Quote of the Week

"All our difficulties are only platforms for the manifestations of His grace, power, and love."

- J. Hudson Taylor, 19th-century British missionary to China and the founder of China Inland Mission (now OMF)

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

You, my God, are supreme, utmost in goodness, mightiest and all-powerful, most merciful and most just. You are the most hidden from us and yet the most present among us, the most beautiful and yet the most strong, ever enduring and yet we cannot comprehend you. You are unchangeable and yet you change all things. You are never new, never old, and yet all things have new life from you... You are ever active, yet always at rest. You gather all things to yourself, though you suffer no need. You support, you fill, and you protect all things. You create them, nourish them, and bring them to perfection. You seek to make them your own, though you lack nothing. You love your creatures, but with a gentle love... You welcome all who come to you, though you never lost them... You are my God, my Life, my holy Delight.

- Augustine

Friday, July 27, 2018

Devotional Reminders for Meditation: The Truth about God

(Note: "The Quest for the King" will resume on Friday, August 17.)

One of the most important things we can do to maintain our relationship with God is to continually remind ourselves of the true nature of the God we serve, and do away with our false images of Him. There is no better way of doing this than to soak in Scripture about Him. Take a few minutes to read through these verses, to meditate on them, and then spend a few minutes in prayer, praising God for who He is.

(Exodus 34:6-7a) And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…”

(Deuteronomy 20:4) For the LORD your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.

(Deuteronomy 33:27) The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.

(2 Samuel 22:32-34) For who is God besides the LORD? And who is the Rock except our God? {33} It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect. {34} He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights.

(Psalms 46:1-2) God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. {2} Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.

(Psalms 68:19-20) Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens. Selah {20} Our God is a God who saves; from the Sovereign LORD comes escape from death.

(Psalms 73:26) My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

(Psalms 84:11-12) For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless. {12} O LORD Almighty, blessed is the man who trusts in you.

(Romans 5:5) And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

(1 Corinthians 1:9) God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.

(2 Corinthians 9:8) And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

(1 John 4:7-9) Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. {8} Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. {9} This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

What's the Deal with Hell? (Part 2 of 4): Annihilationism

Note: This piece is the second part of a theology paper discussing various views of the nature of hell in the orthodox and evangelical Christian traditions. This article provides an overview of the position known as annihilationism, together with arguments for and against it. Last week's piece assessed the position known as universalism, and next week's will examine several variations of the traditionalist position. The final week will offer some general conclusions on the evangelical theology of hell. After that, the ongoing series on foreshadowings of Christ in the Old Testament will resume.

(Illustration of Hell from a medieval French manuscript)

2.) The Cases for and Against Annihilationism

Annihilationism is the most prominent evangelical option in a broader range of doctrinal possibilities known as “conditional immortality.” The basic assumption of conditional immortality is that the human soul is not naturally immortal—that is, without the activity of God in resurrection and bestowing eternal life, humans would simply perish. There is a strong case that can be made biblically for this position, focusing largely on theological anthropology. Those who hold to conditional immortality would point to the necessary unity of human nature, whereas advocates of “natural immortality” believe that the body and soul are in some sense separable, the former being mortal until the resurrection, the latter immortal.

As applied to the doctrines of the final judgment and hell, two main lines of thinking emerge from conditional immortality: (1) those who are not destined for eternal life with Christ will simply remain dead, having forfeited the chance for resurrection; or (2) God will raise the damned in a temporary resurrection before judging and destroying them. The latter position is known as annihilationism.

Historical Basis: While conditional immortality appears to have been born largely from a recent boom in conditionalist theologies, its pedigree goes back even further in church history than universalism. The earliest major proponent, so far as we can tell, was Irenaeus of Lyons (late 2nd century AD), the first great seminal theologian of the faith. He is purported to have learned doctrine at the feet of Polycarp of Smyrna, who learned from Papias and the Apostle John. In Irenaeus’ thought, the soul is not to be conceived of as separable from the body. Thus, the Christian hope is not the immortality of the soul, but rather the resurrection of body and soul to God-given eternal life. And since that kind of immortality would be a gift of God for the righteous, Irenaeus seems to deny that the unrighteous would be raised to any sort of eternal life:

"It is the Father who imparts continuance for ever and ever on those who are saved. For life does not arise from us, nor from our own nature; but it is bestowed according to the grace of God. And therefore he who shall preserve the life bestowed upon him, and give thanks to Him who imparted it, shall receive also length of days for ever and ever. But he who shall reject it, and prove himself ungrateful to his Maker…deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever."[1]

This doctrine has important ramifications on our conception of the final judgment. If immortality is somehow natural to the human soul, then any future punishment would presumably have to be everlasting by definition. But if immortality is a gift given by God, then the door is open for alternative theories in which punishment may exist for unbelievers, but not everlastingly. (And on the other side, if Irenaeus’ view is correct, then the doctrine of hell as eternal punishment depends on God’s active decision to make it impossible for the tormented damned to ever die).

However, the church, influenced both by Greek notions of the independence and immortality of the soul and by certain Pauline references which seem to lean in that direction, quickly moved away from Irenaeus’ doctrine. One notable exception is Arnobius of Sicca (died c.330 AD), who advocated the idea of the annihilation of those who do not know God in the fires of hell.[2] On the whole, though, theories of conditional immortality largely disappeared from mainstream Christianity until relatively recently. In our day, annihilationism is championed by a number of prominent evangelicals, including John Stott and Clark Pinnock.

Scriptural Basis: A broad stream of the New Testament teaching on the fate of unbelievers uses the terminology of death and destruction rather than eternal punishment. At the beginning of biblical history, Adam and Eve are instructed that the penalty for disobeying God is death (Gen. 2:17), and Paul famously sums up the problem of sin along the same lines: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Jesus himself describes God’s judgment in terms of “destroying body and soul in hell” (Matt. 10:28). The very allusion to fire and the burning of the wicked can be taken as an illustration of annihilation—just as the refuse thrown into the Valley of Gehenna was burned away, so unbelievers will be burned away (in this interpretation, the “everlasting” nature of the fire can be taken as a metaphorical reference to God’s undying hatred of sin). Annihilationists argue that when the Bible speaks of “eternal punishment,” as in Matt. 25, “eternal” can be taken as a reference to “the permanence of the result of judgment rather than the continuous operation of the act of punishment itself. So ‘eternal punishment’ means an act of judgment whose results are irreversible.”[3]

Paul draws heavily on the idea of destruction as the fate of unbelievers. He says of unbelievers that “they will be destroyed” (Phil. 1:28), “they will be punished with everlasting destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9), and “their destiny is destruction” (Phil. 3:19). Peter paints the same picture—he speaks of the “destruction of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:7) and says that they would be destroyed like the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (2:6).

Theological Basis: Part of the theological basis for annihiliationism is exactly the same as that outlined for universalism above. Both are, in a sense, reactions against the traditionalist position. In particular, annihilationists react against the claim that eternal, conscious torment is an idea worthy of a loving God and against the assumption that such a fate is a just return for the crime of sin. They argue that the destruction of the wicked would be both just and merciful (at least when compared with the traditionalists’ doctrine), matching the crime against the penalty originally given in the Garden of Eden. As Pinnock puts it, “It is easy to accept that annihilation might be deserved by those whose lives turned in a definitive No to God, but it is hard to accept hell as everlasting conscious torment with no hope of escape or remittance as a just punishment for anything.”[4]

A second theological rationale for annihilationism is the Irenaeic position on conditional immortality as outlined above. It is argued that resurrection, rather than the immortality of the soul, is the Christian hope. As such, eternal life is a gift of God, and presumably it is a gift which he would not give to the damned.

A third reason, advanced by both universalists and annihilationists, is that the existence of a realm of everlasting punishment and torment would create an “eternal cosmological dualism.”[5] In such a state, there would always be some part of the cosmos eternally in rebellion against God, which seems to go against the biblical teaching of the full restoration of all things under the sovereignty of Christ.

The Case Against Annihilationism: The Scriptural case for annihilationism is somewhat stronger than the case for universalism, but it still fails to do justice to the full NT teaching about the fate of unbelievers. First, we must consider the terminology. Annihilationists rely heavily on the Greek words apollymi and olethros as signifying “annihilation” or “destruction.” But the NT use of the words does not bear this out quite as clearly as annihilationists would like. Apollymi can also mean “to be lost” or “to become useless.” Douglas Moo writes, “The words need not mean ‘destruction’ in the sense of ‘extinction’….Rather, they usually refer to the situation of a person or object that has lost the essence of its nature or function.”[6] On the basis of the NT context of descriptions of an eternal hell, Hoekema sums up the traditionalist objection: “Apollymi, when used to describe the ultimate destiny of those who are not in Christ, means everlasting perdition.”[7]

A further objection can be made against the annihiliationists’ use of “eternal” to suggest the duration of the results rather than the duration of the punishment. Such a claim makes little sense of the parable of Matt. 25, already cited above, where the “eternal punishment” of the unrighteous is set in direct parallel with the “eternal life” of the righteous. If we adjust the meaning of the former use, we would presumably also have to adjust the meaning of the latter, a choice which is quite clearly unacceptable to biblical Christians. Further, it is clear from some passages that the torment of the wicked is everlasting. Take Rev. 14:10-11: “[The one who follows the Beast] shall be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night.”

Against the argument that such a punishment is unbefitting the crime, traditionalists could just as easily say that annihilationism lets some sinners off the hook too easily. The depth of some people’s rebellion against God would seem to merit some punishment beyond simply a cessation of existence. It would be no great punishment for sinners to be killed a second time, since they would have never assumed the assurance of eternal life, and so they would not truly be losing anything. C. S. Lewis paints the picture of a gleefully unrepentant sinner, who snubs his nose at God, and the suggestion is that we Christians will agree that he ought to be punished in some definite, conscious manner according to his rebellion:

"You are moved not by a desire for the wretched creature’s pain as such, but by a truly ethical demand that, soon or late, the right should be asserted, the flag planted in this horribly rebellious soul, even if no fuller and better conquest is to follow. In a sense, it is better for the creature itself, even if it never becomes good, that it should know itself a failure, a mistake."[8]

One may also raise the question to evangelical annihilationists, who generally believe that unbelievers will be resurrected, judged, and destroyed, as to why it is necessary to resurrect them at all. Scripture, which teaches a judgment for unbelievers, drives this system of thought, but it makes little logical sense. If the damned are destined to be dead anyway, why raise them from the dead just to kill them again?

Against the claim that resurrection, rather than the immortality of the soul, is the biblical teaching, there can be several rebuttals. Clearly resurrection is the main teaching about the Christian hope; however, there are indications that the soul may be immortal in ways that the body is not. For instance, Jesus tells his followers not to fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul (Matt. 10:28). Presumably, if a human was a fully integrated unity of body and soul, killing the body would also kill the soul. Paul also speaks of being absent from the body, but present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). The classical Christian doctrine has never been a purely Platonic idea of the immortality of the soul, but rather that the soul is immortal because God wills it so and because the ground of our being is in the eternal God himself. Thus, even the traditionalist position would hold to a certain conditionality of eternal life in the sense that the soul is not independently immortal.

And finally, against the argument that an eternal hell creates an everlasting cosmological dualism, two responses are possible. First is the response of Lewis, who agrees that hell is a defeat for God and his loving mission to humanity. He writes:

"In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such defeat. [But] what you call defeat, I call miracle: for to make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity." [9]

The second response comes from the broader stream of classical Christianity, which suggests that if God is in fact a God of justice, then the execution of that justice is in no sense a defeat. Rather, it is a reflection of his glory and holiness, a testament to his unending, righteous opposition to sin. In this light, hell represents the triumph of God over the power of evil. The book of Revelation goes so far as to depict the angels rejoicing over the fate of the wicked. Hell is not the tragedy; sin is, and hell is merely God’s righteous reaction to sin.


[1] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies II:34:3, quoted in Powys, 4.

[2] Christopher W. Morgan, “Annihilationism: Will the Unsaved Be Punished Forever?” in Hell Under Fire, 197.

[3] Travis, 135.

[4] Pinnock, 152.

[5] Travis, 135.

[6] Douglas Moo, “Paul on Hell,” in Hell Under Fire, 105.

[7] Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 270.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: Harper, 1996), 123.

[9] Ibid., 129-130.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Photo of the Week

O Sabbath rest by Galilee, O calm of hills above!
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love.

- Verse 3 of the hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind," by John Greenleaf Whittier)

(Photo from the shores of the Sea of Galilee, looking west toward Mount Arbel; in the gap between the hills is the road that Christ walked from Nazareth to Capernaum)

Monday, July 23, 2018

Quote of the Week

"By the cross we know the gravity of sin and the greatness of God's love toward us."

- John Chrysostom, a church father of the 4th and 5th centuries

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

(Painting: "The Old Pilgrim," by Pietro Bellotti, c.1660)

Take me often from the tumult of things
Into Thy presence.
There show me what I am,
And what Thou has purposed me to be.
O King and Savior, what is Thy gift to me?
And how may I use it to Thy pleasing?
Dear Lord, you alone know
What my soul desires,
And you alone can satisfy those desires.
Lord, show me the right path;
Find me the fitting task;
Give me the willing heart.
May I be equal to Your hope of me.
If I am weak, I ask that You send only what I can bear.
If I am strong, may I shrink from no testing
That shall yield increase of strength
Or win security for my spirit.
I trust in Thee, O Lord.
Thou art my God.
My times are in Thy hand, my times are in Thy hand.

- from Celtic Daily Prayer, by the Northumbrian Community

Friday, July 20, 2018

A Responsive Litany for Christian Missions

(Note: "The Quest for the King" will resume on Friday, August 17.)

Leader: God has called us and is building us into one Body in Christ—here in this place, in this country, and around the world.

Congregation: Together we stand with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and together we uphold them in prayer.

Leader: God desires that every tribe and tongue and people and nation should come to know him and join his covenant-kingdom. He has set his love upon our hearts and has given his mission into our hands.

Congregation: Together we cry out for those who have never heard the Gospel, praying that they would soon come into the knowledge of the glory of God.

Leader: God’s love for the world is limitless, but too often our own love falls short. His passion and desire is for his glory among the nations, while we, his chosen ambassadors, follow our own pursuits.

Congregation: Together we confess that we have sinned—in what we have done, and in what we have failed to do. We have allowed sin to reign in our hearts, and we have failed to yearn and pray for the salvation of the earth. Forgive us, O God. Break our hearts for the things that break your heart.

Leader: Christ himself has commissioned us to bring salvation to the nations. We have this unsurpassed joy as our possession—of being called into the service of the everlasting God, of being used by him to redeem all things, and of taking part in building a kingdom that will last forever. So we declare together:

Congregation: We are your servants, O God. With joy we affirm that wherever you send us, we will go.

Leader: And now to him who is able to keep us from falling and to present us before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

What's the Deal with Hell? (Part 1 of 4): Universalism

Note: This piece is the first part of a theology paper discussing various views of the nature of hell in the orthodox and evangelical Christian traditions. This article provides an overview of the position known as universalism, together with arguments for and against it. Next week's piece will assess the position known as annihilationism, and the following week will examine several variations of the traditionalist position. The final week will offer some general conclusions on the evangelical theology of hell. After that, the ongoing series on foreshadowings of Christ in the Old Testament will resume.

(Painting: The Harrowing of Hell, by Jacob van Swanenburgh, c.1600)

Introduction: What is the nature of hell? This question has been debated among Christians since the first centuries of the church, and it continues to be a topic of great interest today. It has deep ramifications on how the church conceives of its mission to unbelievers and on the shape its message takes. There are also profound personal and pastoral implications here. How can we rejoice in God’s final triumph over evil if it means that people whom we love will be tortured without end? What do we say to the grieving mother whose unrepentant son has just died? Hell is a difficult topic, but a necessary one—one that we ought to approach with humble caution and with trembling.

Generally, the “traditionalist” position—that hell is marked by the eternal, conscious torment of the damned—has been opposed by various “conditionalist” positions—that the severity of hell ought to be tempered or reinterpreted based on certain conditions. The traditionalists argue primarily from Scripture; and the conditionalists, while defending their ideas on the grounds of alternative interpretations of Scripture, rely largely on theology and philosophy. This paper will examine some of the major theories of hell, offering arguments for and against each position.[1] The positions covered will be (1) universalism, (2) annihilationism, and (3) several theories of eternal conscious punishment.

1.) The Cases for and Against Universalism

Historical Basis: Universalism, the belief that God will ultimately redeem every part of his creation—including every human being who ever lived—has a very ancient pedigree within Christianity. It occurs in two main forms: the idea that all human beings, upon seeing God in his glory on the Last Day, will immediately repent and be saved; or the idea that hell exists as a purgational, corrective punishment that will eventually guide all people to salvation. As is commonly known, Origen was one of the first teachers of this system of thought. However, Origen, though admittedly brilliant, was full of bizarre ideas and was ultimately declared heterodox by both the Eastern and Western Church, and so the doctrine of universalism often receives a quick dismissal by its association with him.

However, the story of universalism in the early church does not begin and end with Origen. It was also supported by the Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa, one of the seminal fountainheads of Orthodox Christianity and a fierce defender of the Nicene faith. (A second of the three Cappadocian Fathers, Gregory of Nazianzus, while not making his views on the subject clearly known, at times seemed to wonder whether everlasting punishment is an idea worthy of God).[2] And while Gregory was fond of Origen’s work, he rejected almost everything of Origen’s universalist thought that went beyond Scripture (such as his disdain for the corporeal, the idea of repeated cycles of existence, and the transmigration of the soul). Nevertheless, he retained the basic core of the universalist hope, conceiving of hell as purgatorial, restorative punishment in order to guide the unrepentant to salvation. In his Soul and Resurrection, he puts it thus:

"Not in hatred or revenge for a wicked life, to my thinking, does God bring upon sinners those painful dispensations. He is only claiming and drawing to Himself whatever, to please Him, came into existence….His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last—some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by Fire, others having in their life here been unconscious equally of good and evil—to offer to every one of us participation in the blessings which are in Him."[3]

The Eastern Orthodox tradition, however, followed the theology of Gregory’s brother Basil of Caesarea (the third Cappadocian Father), who advocated hell as literal, unending torment for the damned. The same idea gained prominence in the West through the work of Augustine, particularly as laid out in his City of God. It is instructive to note that the suggestion is explicitly made in both Basil’s and Augustine’s work, as well as in John Chrysostom’s, that in their day a great many Christians held to ideas of hell quite different from the doctrine they were propounding. Thus, while the “traditionalist” view of hell was certainly the majority view of the early church fathers, we cannot quite so easily claim that it was the majority view of early Christianity as a whole.

The traditionalist perspective came to dominate Christian theology until the rise of the Enlightenment in Western Europe. Then several heterodox Christian sects developed around the idea of universalism and became the groups we now know as Unitarian/Universalists. Universalism was also embraced by many leading lights of the German Protestant schools of theology, including Friedrich Schleiermacher and, perhaps to some degree, Karl Barth. In more recent days it has been championed by C. F. D. Moule, C. H. Dodd, and John A. T. Robinson.[4]

Scriptural Basis: Universalist teaching draws extensively (though selectively) on Scripture, especially from the Pauline and Johannine literature. In fact, considered quantitatively, there are more passages in the New Testament that hint at the possibility of universalism than those that support the conscious eternal torment of the damned.[5] Take, for example, Paul’s argument in Romans 5, in which he compares the effect of Adam’s sin on all humankind to Christ’s “gift” and its effect: “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). A similar note is sounded by Romans 11:32—“For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” Indeed, Pauline literature is replete with references to God’s saving intent toward “all”: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22); “[God] wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4); “…we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10). It is interesting to note that Paul does not use the word “Gehenna” for hell, and the only time he uses “Hades,” it is in an exultant doxology about Jesus’ victory over death (1 Cor. 15:54-55).[6] Compared to the Synoptic writers, Paul seems unusually hesitant to describe the fate of the wicked as “eternal” or “everlasting,” preferring to speak about it in terms of the “wrath” of God.

A second thread of Pauline teaching refers to the expectation that everything will ultimately be restored under the authority of Christ. Two representative passages in this line of thought are 1 Cor. 15:24-28, which ends with the vision of God being “all in all” (or, as Bernstein puts it, “everything to everyone”),[7] and Eph. 1:10, which designates the ultimate purpose of God as being “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”

Theological Basis: Despite the arguments listed above, most of the impetus for the universalist position comes from theological grounds rather than Scriptural grounds. The premise is simple, and appeals to common sense: If God is love—indeed, if God so loved the world that he gave up his only Son for its redemption—would he ever stop loving the world? If he earnestly desires that all people be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), will he at some point in the future give up on that desire? The logical answer would seem to be “No.” Love is not merely an attribute of God, but the very essence of his character, and classical theology teaches us that God is immutable in his essence—that is, he does not change. If he ever did change in essence, he would cease to be God. Therefore, he cannot stop being Love. We know from Scripture that his love has been expressed through Christ to all humanity, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). And, at least on the surface of it, it seems that actively subjecting the objects of his love to an eternity of conscious torment would be an unloving thing to do. In no way can it be conceived as an act which has in mind the good of the person being punished.

Further, it can be argued that because God is a good and sovereign God, the final outcome of history will be the best possible outcome—in the famous words of Julian of Norwich, “all things will be well.” That outcome would not include the eternal torment of men and women created in the image of God, but rather the full restoration of that image in each and every human being. The best possible outcome would be the full salvation of all humankind, so that sin, Satan, and death would be able to claim victory over no one. There would be nothing for which Satan could claim a “win” against God. One could easily imagine that all humans, who were created for relationship with God and who retain some of the original goodness of their creation, would recognize the glory and beauty of their Creator at the Last Day, and would turn from their sin and embrace him.

Most of the supporting arguments appeal to human sensibilities. Foremost is the idea that eternal, conscious torment is a punishment unbefitting the crime. No temporal act, however great, could merit unending punishment. According to the traditionalist view, a child who was above the age of accountability and committed a single sin (say, a prideful thought), would be punished everlastingly for that sin alone. To most people, even those well-acquainted with the doctrine of sin, such a possibility is repulsive. Opponents of universalism often argue against this that because God is an eternal God, a single crime against him merits eternal punishment (an argument that seems to have begun with Anselm, who was thinking in medieval terms of gradations of crime based on the honor of the victim).[8] However, this appeal to logic seems misplaced. If biblical teaching on the eternality of hell were absent, it is difficult to believe that anyone would devise such a system and defend it as a logical necessity.

We regard physical torture, even of the most evil people, as a horrendous deed here on earth. The earthly leaders who practice ongoing torture as a means of punishment are regarded not as particularly awesome, but rather as villains and despots. If we magnify this to an eternal scale (with God as the authority), would the values actually reverse to the point that physical torture becomes a good rather than an evil? Further, those Christians who walk most closely with God are also those who show great revulsion against the practice of torture, preferring mercy instead of torment for criminals here on earth. Are eternal values so different from the redeemed values of earthly believers that they would end up being diametrically opposed? In short, can we believe that while Jesus asked us to “turn the other cheek” and to “not repay evil for evil,” God will not hold himself to the same high standard of mercy?

The Case Against Universalism: There are numerous problems with the case for universalism as outlined above. While compelling on a logical and emotional level, is does not do justice to the Scriptural teaching about the nature of hell and the fate of unbelievers. In short, universalism favors the proof-texting of passages which rely on a much-debated interpretation of what “all men” means, while ignoring the far clearer and more explicit teaching of hell as eternal punishment. As Oden notes, “The words ‘eternal punishment’ and ‘eternal fire’ have withstood numerous attempts at generous reinterpretation, but they remain obstinately in the received text. The text remains resilient against our attempts to soften it.”[9] In the Scriptural teaching about the Last Day, there is almost always a clear indication of a division of humanity into the righteous and unrighteous, the believers and the unbelievers, the saved and the damned. And nearly as often, there is a parallelism of eternality that is demonstrated—just as the righteous receive eternal life, so the unrighteous receive eternal punishment.[10]

It is difficult in the extreme to get away from the implications of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, which speaks of his judgment of humanity on the last day: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels….Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matt. 25:41, 46). In fact, much of the clearest teaching on hell as eternal punishment comes from Jesus himself. As W. G. T. Shedd notes, “Jesus Christ is the person who is responsible for the doctrine of eternal perdition.”[11]

Universalists try to explain away such passages as metaphoric/hyperbolic rhetoric used to move people to repentance (for instance, in Mark 9:43-48, just as we interpret cutting off one’s hand hyperbolically, so we could interpret “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” similarly). However, there is little indication that all of the examples in question are merely hyperbolic. If Jesus had intended them as such, then he failed as a communicator, because the vast majority of Christians have interpreted them rather straightforwardly.

Often in response to universalism, advocates of the traditionalist view object on the grounds that universalism leaves no place for divine justice. They claim that men like Hitler or Stalin would escape punishment without getting what they deserved. However, this objection is misplaced. According to universalist doctrine (and here I am dealing with evangelical Christian universalism, not the various pluralistic forms) everyone is indeed saved, but everyone is saved through Jesus Christ. So in the same way that we “escape” divine justice by believing in Christ, so all of the future redeemed would also be saved. The outpouring of divine justice on the eternal Son of God is broad enough to encompass everyone.

A better objection is that universalism assumes the possibility of a second chance after death, but there is little indication in Scripture that this will be the case. Rather, the biblical picture is that the life to come does not afford any chance to repent (for example, consider the fate of the rich man in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31). Universalism also cancels out the impetus for evangelization and missions, thus nullifying any compelling motive behind the evangelistic ministry of the church (and leaving Jesus’ Great Commission begging the question “Why?”). If all people will eventually be saved anyway, why risk danger to ourselves and offense to others by trying to convert people now?

Finally, universalism does not give enough place to the God-given authority of human free will. It is difficult to imagine that everyone will ultimately repent. Rather, as in the case of Satan, it seems likely that there will be humans who are so twisted by sin, so “turned in upon themselves” that they will be incapable of repenting. A final point on this objection comes from Basil of Caesarea, who reminds us that hell will be a place devoid of the activity of the Holy Spirit—and if there is no Holy Spirit, there can be no prevenient grace and no inward conviction, and therefore sinners would presumably have no capacity to bring themselves to repentance.[12]


[1] It should be noted at the outset that the arguments here are generally limited to the nature of hell and the eternal fate of unbelievers, not touching on the tangential topics of the nature of the intermediate state, the possibility of various “third options” between heaven and hell (such as limbo or purgatory), or the question of the salvation of infants or those who have never heard the Gospel.

[2] J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 4th Edition (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1968), 483.

[3] Quoted in David Powys, ‘Hell’: A Hard Look at a Hard Question—The Fate of the Unrighteous in New Testament Thought (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 1997), 6.

[4] Stephen H. Travis, The Christian Hope & the Future (Downers Grove: IVP, 1980), 124-125.

[5] Ibid., 128.

[6] Alan E. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993), 207.

[7] Ibid., 212

[8] Clark H. Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” in Four Views on Hell, edited by William Crockett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 152.

[9] Thomas C. Oden, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3: Life in the Spirit (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006), 450.

[10] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 1149.

[11] Quoted in J. I. Packer, “Universalism: Will Everyone Ultimately Be Saved?” in Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 184.

[12] Kelly, 483. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Photo of the Week

Glorious things are said of you,
city of God: “I will record Rahab and Babylon
among those who acknowledge me—
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush—
and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’"
Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
“This one and that one were born in her,
and the Most High himself will establish her.”

- Psalm 87:3-5

(Photo: Central Dome of the Church of All Nations, Jerusalem)

Monday, July 16, 2018

Quote of the Week

"When it pleases him, our Lord gives freely of himself, and then sometimes he suffers us to feel in woe. Yet both are one and the same love."

- Julian of Norwich, English Christian mystical writer of the late Middle Ages


Saturday, July 14, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits which you have given us,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us.
Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly.

- Richard (13th-cent. English saint)

Friday, July 13, 2018

The Quest for the King, Scene 8

“What should we do?” asked Lady.
The children turned to look at each other in the gathering darkness. The shouts of the wildmen still echoed from the center of the hollow, and with each cry came the fear that the next one would signal the deaths of their two friends.
“I don’t know,” said Joe. He glanced up at Kobi’s stallion, but the great beast simply stared placidly back at him.
“We have to save them!” Sim urged. “We can’t just leave them there.”
“But how?” said Joe. “We’re just children. They’re two of the best knights in the country, and they couldn’t win this fight.”
“So we probably shouldn’t try to fight the wildmen,” Lady summed up.
“Right,” Joe drew the long dagger that Mack had given him the night before. “We need a different sort of plan. A quiet approach, a distraction, something like that. I think I’ve got an idea. Come on, follow me. But remember, we have to be absolutely quiet.”
Joe stood and took the stallion’s reins, then led it around the far side of the boulder. Sim and Lady followed silently behind. The slope there was strewn with rocks, some of them just knee-high and others as big as houses. It made for very slow walking, but the rocks provided enough cover that, even with the horse, they were out of sight of the fire for most of the way down into the center of the hollow. And even in those moments where they were exposed, the darkness of the falling night and the haze from the fire did a fair job of cloaking their approach. Even the horse seemed to understand the necessity for silence, and its hoofs struck against the stones with only the gentlest of tappings.
Inch by agonizing inch, they drew closer to the center of the hollow. The gruff voices of the wildmen grew ever louder, and eventually they came so close that they could even hear the logs crackling in the fire. They found another large boulder just beyond the furthest circle of bright firelight, where the rocky slopes gave way to the well-tramped central area, and there they hunkered down again.
“Now,” Joe whispered, “you two need to stay here. I’m going to try to sneak up behind Mack and Kobi and cut their bonds without the wildmen noticing me.”
“That’s your plan?” Sim hissed back. “Not to have the wildmen notice you? Great plan.”
“I don’t think it’s very good either,” Lady said softly. “There are wildmen all over out there. You need a distraction.”
Joe looked around him helplessly. What could distract a whole band of wildmen hunters? He didn’t know; he had never been around them before. Then he looked at the horse again. A slow smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
“Well,” he breathed, “you may not understand this, big fellow, but it’s to save your master. Just run fast.”
He unfastened the reins from the horse’s mouth and then walked around to the great mount’s hindquarters.
“Here we go,” he whispered, and then he dealt the horse’s rump as fierce a slap as he could.
The horse gave a loud whinny and then tore out of its hiding place behind the boulder, straight into the firelight at the center of the hollow. Joe had intended to startle the poor beast and get it to run, but as he watched it, he got the feeling that the horse had understood his plan thoroughly. Not only did it seem startled, it appeared to be playing the part of a startled horse to perfection, tearing around the fire, snorting, and flailing its hoofs with exquisite passion. Once it had attracted the attention of the whole band of wildmen, who ran toward it in a chorus of shouts and snarls, it took off into the wilderness to the south.
“Come on!” Joe hissed as soon as the way was clear.
There wasn’t a single wildman in sight as they crept out of the shadow of the boulder. All that were left were Mack and Kobi, silently struggling against their bonds, and the only sounds were the chorus of the wildmen’s hunt fading rapidly into the distance. Joe raced up behind Mack and swiftly began sawing at the thick leather strips that held his hands together. Sim worked his fingers furiously on one of Kobi’s knots, while Lady stepped up to each knight’s face and removed their gags.
“Good work, friends!” Mack said hoarsely as soon as he could speak. “Once again, you prove to be the bravest of us all!”
“Sorry about your horse, Sir Kobi,” said Lady. “I hope they don’t catch him.”
“Oh, they won’t,” the younger knight laughed. “He’s smarter than all of them, and me, put together! That was a great idea to let him carry them all off.”
Joe’s dagger had done its work after just a couple minutes of feverish work, and the last bonds fell away from the knights. They stood up, rubbed their aching wrists and ankles, and then smiled down at the children.
“Well, we stand in your debt,” said Kobi. “But let’s not stay here to talk about it. We need to get as far down the road as we can tonight and put this place well behind us.”
So they dashed off into the night, all five of them, running single file down the road. Kobi took the lead, and then the children followed him in order of their age, with Mack taking up the rear. The knights’ armor clinked and jangled as they ran, but in the happy desperation of that moment, it didn’t slow them down at all. They ran and ran, up one ridge and down another, as far as their feet would take them down the moonlit road into the west. Finally they all collapsed together, breathing heavily, along the banks of a little pond. They looked back the way they had come, and nothing could be seen of the place of their capture, not even the faintest of glows from the wildmen’s fire.
“We should be all right here,” said Mack between gasps for air. “We’re coming to the western lowlands now, and the hills of Bor-Takan are behind us. I don’t think the wildmen will bother to follow.”
“And if they do, we’ll be ready for them this time,” said Kobi. “One or the other of us will be on watch all night long.”
“With swords out,” Mack added.
“Aye, swords out,” grinned Kobi.
They all fell silent for a long while, and then Lady asked a question.
“Did they say anything about the prince before they attacked you?”
Kobi grimaced and Mack shook his head. “No, said the latter. “One of them seemed to understand the common tongue. I think I may have seen him nod when we asked about seeing other travelers. But that was it. After that, they just jumped on us.”
“But I don’t think they captured the prince, anyway,” said Kobi. “If they had, we would have seen some evidence of that.”
“Well, that’s good,” said Sim. “So he must have gotten by. And with all our running tonight, maybe he’s just around the next bend!”
“Aye, son, perhaps he is,” said Mack with a groan. “We’ll check the next bend in the morning. For now, we sleep. Sir Kobi, my old bones are just about jostled apart. Would you take the first watch?”
“At your service, sir,” said the younger knight. “And good rest to all. Tomorrow we may see our king!”

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: Twelve Names for Jesus

On occasion, the early church's avid attempts to catch glimpses of its Savior in the pages of the Old Testament strained credulity a bit. There are examples aplenty of imaginative over-exegesis, where the clear meaning of a passage was ignored in order to draw out allusions to Christ. In our day, the pendulum has swung the other way, largely to good effect. This series of studies is an attempt to find some middle ground: respecting the original meaning of the Old Testament stories, while still drawing out those golden threads where the Holy Spirit's work in those ancient writers seems to have been clearly pointing to Jesus. But every once in a while, I'll throw in a piece that borders more on the early church's speculative edge. This week's passage is one such example: the list of the twelve sons of Jacob from Genesis 29-30
It's fairly clear within the text itself that these sons (later to be called the twelve patriarchs, because they became heads of the twelve tribes of Israel) are given names which relate to their mothers' experiences at the time. (Many modern English translations helpfully include footnotes which elucidate these connections.) In that sense, they are a notable study of the way in which Scripture showed remarkable attention and concern for the inner lives of women at a time and in a culture when such issues were not generally thought to be of much consequence.

But early Christians also found in these names hints and foreshadowings of Jesus and his experiences. Although this may seem to be an example of wishful thinking, a moment's reflection may help us see why they made this connection. Since Jesus is himself the fulfillment of the Old Testament experience of Israel (indeed, Matthew's Gospel has him recapitulating many of Israel's major early events), it is not unthinkable that the Holy Spirit may have been pointing toward him at this particular point in salvation-history, when the nation of Israel was first taking shape in the family of Jacob. Further, the meaning of the twelve names of the patriarchs/tribes actually do seem to align with notable features of Jesus' identity, experience, and mission. If it were simply a matter of pure chance, we would expect to come across one or two names where we might shake our head and say, "Well, that one doesn't fit too well." But, so you can decide for yourself, here's the list.
- Reuben - This name is an allusion to the mother's saying at his birth: "See, God has seen my misery." Early Christians noted that this fit well with the prophecy about Jesus in Isaiah 53, where Christ is described as the sufferer of great miseries. In the New Testament, the idea that Christ humbled himself to the point of humiliation, and that God looked upon Christ's suffering on the cross and vindicated him for it, carries strong associations with the meaning of Reuben's name.
- Simeon - This is an allusion to the fact that God hears us, and in particular, the story makes clear that it's all about the fact that God listens to us when no one else does, when we are despised and rejected by the world around us. This, too, finds a place in the experience of Christ, pointing toward the hatred he suffered: "He was despised and rejected by men."
- Levi - In this story, Levi's mother makes reference to being "attached" to her husband, and the Hebrew word sounds very much like Levi. The idea, then, is that of union--once again, a central notion to the New Testament. In Christ, we are now united to God and to one another. In the Greek version of the Old Testament, this name is rendered as "on my side," which calls to mind the fact that in Christ, God himself is on on our side (Rom. 8).
- Judah - This name is connected to the word for "praise" or "thanksgiving," both of which are intimately connected to Christ. The result of his work is praise, and the rite by which we celebrate his act is traditionally called the Eucharist--that is, the Thanksgiving.
- Dan - The Hebrew here appears to mean "he has vindicated." Once again, the idea of vindication is prominent in Christ's experience. It is the main point of Peter's sermon of Acts 2, explaining the resurrection as God's vindication of Jesus' identity and mission after his crucifixion. Early Christians, using their Greek versions of the Old Testament, also highlighted the legal nature of the idea of "vindication," and related the character of Dan to Christ's role as the divine judge.
- Naphtali - This name, meaning "my struggle," arises once again from the mother's experience, and the end of her saying regarding her struggle is: "I won." As such, to early Christians, the name of Naphtali came to stand for victory. This is, of course, yet another prominent meaning of the cross-and-empty-tomb narrative: Christ's struggle with the powers of evil, and his ultimate victory.
- Gad - This happy moniker appears to mean "good fortune" or "prosperity." Early Christians read it as referring to the many blessings that God provides to us in his gracious providence. And the greatest blessing, of course, is Christ himself.
- Asher - "Asher" simply means "happy." To early Christians, this was an indication of the joy that Christ had promised to his followers. Indeed, one of the core passages of Jesus' teachings in the Gospels, called the Beatitudes, speaks plainly about the happiness available in the Kingdom of God (the Greek word for "blessed" in the Beatitudes is actually the word for "happy").
- Issachar - This name means "reward." This is a word that God occasionally uses to refer to himself (as in Gen. 15, a passage that we studied in this series and which we saw was intimately connected to Christ, where he says to Abraham: "I am your shield, your very great reward."). Jesus himself uses this word in his final set of sayings in the Bible: Rev. 22:12 has him declaring, "Look! I am coming soon, and my reward is with me."
- Zebulun - This name likely means "honor" in Hebrew, an allusion to the mother's saying at the time of his birth. Not only is honor a major theme of the New Testament, since it is one of the fundamental markers of our attitude toward God (see Acts 19:1; 2 Cor. 8:19; 8:23), but it is also regularly listed as one of the most notable attributes of Christ himself (see Heb. 2:9, 3:3; Rev. 5:12). Consider John 5:22-23: "[The Father] has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him."
- Joseph - The name of Joseph in Hebrew appears to mean "may he add," yet another reference to the sayings of the mother at the time of the birth. This poignant little prayer has innumerable applications to fulfillment in Christ; one example would be the way in which God added the Gentile nations to his covenant-family through the saving work of Christ. Further, out of all the sons, Joseph is the one who emerges as a main character, as our leading representative of his generation. As we'll see, his entire life story is a sort of longform foreshadowing of Christ. Early Christians took Joseph as an example of the virtues of bearing the hardships of rejection and reproach, which is something he clearly did during his slavery and exile in Egypt. Incidentally, so too did Christ.
- Benjamin - The final son of Jacob is not mentioned in Gen. 29-30, but he comes to the forefront later. His name means "son of my right hand," and this was taken by early Christians as an allusion to Christ's divine nature; in essence, as an indication of his identity as the one who "sits at the right hand of the Father."
Now, to be clear, this may all still seem like a bit of a stretch. And maybe it is. But if I were to ask you to name one person who, in his own identity and life story, fulfilled both the positive and negative qualities of these names, what name could you give other than Christ? Who was the fulfillment of praise, unity, vindication, victory, blessing, joy, and honor on the one hand, and also of bearing humiliation and suffering rejection on the other? And who, above and beyond all these things, was the "Son of the Right Hand"? It could only be Jesus. In his own person, he fulfilled the experience and identity of Old Testament Israel by bearing the rejection of the cross, rising to victory at his resurrection, and bestowing joy, unity, and honor upon his people.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Photo of the Week

The Lord your God has blessed you in all your work and has watched over your journey.

- Deuteronomy 2:7

Monday, July 09, 2018

Quote of the Week

"Not needing wealth is more valuable than wealth."

- William B. Irvine, contemporary philosopher, from his book on the Stoic lifestyle, A Guide to the Good Life

(Painting: "Philosopher," anonymous, 17th cent.)

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Dear Jesus,
Help us to spread your fragrance everywhere we go.
Flood our souls with your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly
That our lives may only be a radiance of yours…
Let us thus praise you in the way you love best
By shining on those around us.
Let us preach you [...] by our example
By the catching force
The sympathetic influence of what we do
The evident fullness of the love our hearts bear to you.

- Mother Teresa

(Painting: "Christ Bearing the Cross, with a Dominican Friar," by Barna da Siena, c.1340)