Hell, Part 8
Common objections to the doctrine of Universal Reconciliation:
1. If God saves everyone, then why bother to become a Christian?
This question betrays a drastic lack of understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Being a Christian is not about obtaining a "Get Out of Hell Free" card--it is about having a relationship with the Living God, here and now. Christianity is not about a set of propositions or doctrines--it is about knowing God and living each day in the awareness of God's love, peace, presence and purpose.
Additionally, because Christian Univeralism does away with notions like, "Once saved, always saved", it fosters a much more serious attitude towards discipleship, sin and holy living. Sure, God will ultimately save everyone, but how one lives one's life will have a direct bearing on how severe God's merciful judgment will have to be. I could lead a wanton and wicked life, but as a result my entrance into God's presence might be "as though through a fire." The more hardened and twisted by sin one's heart is when they stand before God, the more severe the action will be that is necessary to soften and straighten their heart.
It is modern Evangelicalism's emphasis on "cheap grace" and "decisions for Christ" and "once saved, always saved" that has led to a de-emphasis on the importance of living a holy life. By reducing salvation to a transaction--"Just pray this prayer and you'll be saved"--Evangelicalism has produced a Church that is "a mile wide but an inch deep" when it comes to discipleship. Is it any wonder that Christians in America and Europe are nearly indistinguishable from non-Christians when it comes to lifestyle?
To use an analogy about the question of why bother becoming a Christian if Universal Reconciliation is true: Suppose I decided to begin drinking heavily, using drugs, visiting prostitutes, smoking cigarettes and gambling--with the intention of quitting it all in twenty years. I can have twenty years of "eat, drink and be merry" and then quit before it kills me. But we all know that even if that lifestyle doesn't kill me, it will exact a heavy price on my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. Maybe, twenty years from now, I *will* be able to quit all of these vices and addictions, but it won't be easy or pleasant. And I'll still have to deal with the many residual effects. Why not instead just avoid them altogether and live a fuller life beginning now? In the same way, why not begin living in the Light now rather than later? Why not begin the relationship with Christ now and learn to hear Him and experience His peace now? Why not enter into His amazing abundant life now? Why not live a life of meaning and purpose? Those of us who have become followers of Jesus are the first fruits of His salvation. Our task is to proclaim this Good News to everyone else. It is extremely motivating and hopeful! We can begin living in the Presence of the Living God here and now--enveloped in His love--guided by His Spirit. Who wouldn't want that?
In Acts 3:19-21, Peter addressed a crowd in Jerusalem with the following words: "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets." Jesus will return someday to bring universal restoration. But in the meantime, we can have "times of refreshing" from the presence of the Lord.
There is an old story about Hosea Ballou, a 19th century Universalist: One day he was riding in the hills of New Hampshire with a Baptist minister. They were arguing theology as they traveled. At one point, the Baptist looked over and said, "Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle, and ride away, and I'd still go to heaven." Hosea Ballou looked at him and replied, "If you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you."
2. What about free will?
One has to ask, just how free is free will? To what degree are the various choices you make completely free of influence from your environment, culture, upbringing, theology, education, etc.? If I persuade you to change your mind about something, have I violated your free will? If a parent successfully modifies the behavior of their children--in the childrens's best interest--has that parent violated their children's free will? Is that a bad thing? I believe that God will ultimately convince everyone to freely choose to bow the knee and confess that Jesus is Lord. This turning of His enemies into His friends is a much more complete and satisfying victory than if they forever remained His enemies in Hell.
How many people who "reject Jesus", do so with full knowledge of who Jesus is? As the hymn says, "I was blind, but now I see." If, apart from Christ, we are blind and "darkened in our understanding" (Eph 4:18), then how can rejecting Christ be an informed and rational decision? Don't you think that if any person saw Christ as He truly is, they would immediately fall to their knees in worship before Him? Perhaps some people really do "reject Christ" with informed consent, but most people don't really know who Christ is. I know I didn't during all the years I rejected Him. If people hear the Gospel at all nowadays it very often is so distorted that it is barely recognizable (think, for example, of the "prosperity gospel" preached on Christian television). What about the devout Mormon who faithfully followed his whole life the only representation of Christ he ever encountered? What about those who's only exposure to Christianity was in the form of brutal European colonialism? What about the billions who never even heard the name of Christ? Did they "reject" Him? I used to engage in online dialogs with hardcore atheists. Invariably what I found was that what they were rejecting was not so much God but fundamentalist Christianity (or Catholicism) which they assumed was an accurrate represention of Christ. "If that's Jesus," they reasoned, "I don't want to have anything to do with Him!" I once had the same view and probably would never have come to Christ if I had not had a direct encounter with Him.
Here is another crude analogy regarding free will: What if I took a group of blind children to the edge of the Grand Canyon and told them to wander freely but stay away from the precipice? If a child strayed too close to the edge, lost her balance and fell into the canyon, who's fault would it be? The child's? Or mine for placing them in such a precarious position? The teaching of Eternal Torment says that although people are lost and blind without Christ, they are responsible if they fall into the Abyss.
Paul had an interesting take on free will in Romans 7:14-25:
"We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
If we are helpless, and Christ rescues us from our sin, has He violated our free will?
If you know Jesus, you know what an awesome, beautiful, merciful, compassionate, kind and loving person He is. Do you think that anyone who really sees Him for who He is rejects Him? Look what happened to Saul of Tarsus when he really saw Jesus for who He is! Did God respect Saul's free will on the road to Damascus?
A central Christian teaching is that salvation is entirely a work of grace. Even the motivation to accept Christ is considered to be a gift. This is why Calvinists believe that God predestines those who are saved and they can do nothing to change thier "elect" status. In this sense, Christian Universalism is like Calvinism, except that Christian Universalists believe that everyone is "elect" and predestined for salvation. But there is also a choice involved. The choice is whether to begin living in that "elect" state now or later.
Thomas Talbott, a Professor of Philosophy at Willamette University puts it this way:
"A virtue of the Christian religion, as I see it, is that Christians are never permitted to take credit for their own redemption or even for a virtuous character (where such exists). All credit of this kind goes to God. But the Christian religion also stresses the importance of free choice, of choosing this day whom you shall serve. Nor need there be any tension between these two emphases, provided that we regard our free choices as determining not our eternal destiny, but the means of grace available to us. Essential to the whole redemptive process, I am suggesting, is that we exercise our moral freedom--not that we choose rightly rather than wrongly, but that we choose freely one way or the other. We can choose today to live selfishly or unselfishly, faithfully or unfaithfully, obediently or disobediently. But our choices, especially the bad ones, will also have unintended and unforeseen consequences in our lives; as the proverb says, “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (16:9). A man who commits robbery may set off a chain of events that, contrary to his own intentions, lands him in jail; and a woman who enters into an adulterous affair may discover that, even though her husband remains oblivious to it, the affair has a host of unforeseen and destructive consequences in her life. In fact, our bad choices almost never get us what we really want; that is part of what makes them objectively bad and also one reason why God is able to bring redemptive goods out of them. When we make a mess of our lives and our misery becomes more and more unbearable, the hell we thereby create for ourselves will in the end resolve the very ambiguity and shatter the very illusions that made the bad choices possible in the first place. That is how God works with created rational agents. He permits them to choose in the ambiguous contexts in which they first emerge as self-aware beings, and he then requires them to learn from experience the hard lessons they sometimes need to learn."
3. You can only accept Christ during your mortal life. Once you die, there are no more chances.
I'll let Martin Luther answer this one: "God forbid that I should limit the time of acquiring faith to the present life. In the depth of the Divine mercy there may be opportunity to win it in the future." (from a letter to Hans von Rechenberg, 1522)
Martin Luther knew the Bible extremely well. He knew that nowhere in the Bible is it stated that one can only be saved during one's mortal life.
4. Universal Reconciliation is not a historical Christian doctrine.
Actually, it is.
According to the highly respected church historian Philip Schaff, "In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked." (Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Page 96).
Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) was an influential theologian of the early Christian church and head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria. He was fluent in Greek. He also believed in Universal Reconciliation: “And how is He Saviour and Lord, if not the Saviour and Lord of all? But He is the Saviour of those who have believed, because of their wishing to know; and the Lord of those who have not believed, till, being enabled to confess him, they obtain the peculiar and appropriate boon which comes by Him."
Origen (185–254 AD) is considered one of the first and one of the greatest Christian theologians and the founder of Biblical textual criticism.. He played a key role in defining which Christian writings ultimately became canonized as the New Testament. He wrote commentaries on nearly every book of the Bible and produced the Hexapla, a monumental work containing the Old Testament in six different parallel versions. Origen taught Universal Reconciliation and referred to it in many of his writings. Here is one example: "... our belief is that the Word shall prevail over the entire rational creation and change every soul into his own perfection in which state every one by the mere exercise of His power will choose what He desires and obtain what He chooses. For although in the diseases and wounds of the body there are some which no medical skill can cure yet we hold that in the mind there is no evil so strong that it may not be overcome by the Supreme Word and God. For stronger than all the evils in the soul is the Word and the healing power that dwells in Him and this healing He applies according to the will of God to every man. The consummation of all things is the destruction of evil although as to the question whether it shall be so destroyed that it can never anywhere arise again it is beyond our present purpose to say." (Against Celsus, VIII lxxii)
Marcellus, Bishop of Ancyra (died 374 AD): "For what else do the words mean, 'until the times of the restitution' (Acts 3:21), but that the apostle designed to point out that time in which all things partake of that perfect restoration."
Diodore, Bishop of Tarsus (died 390 AD) was considered a champion of orthodoxy and played a key role in the Council of Constantinople: "For the wicked there are punishments, not perpetual, however, lest the immortality prepared for them should be a disadvantage, but they are to be purified for a brief period according to the amount of malice in their works. They shall therefore suffer punishment for a short space, but immortal blessedness having no end awaits them...the penalties to be inflicted for their many and grave sins are very far surpassed by the magnitude of the mercy to be showed to them."
Didymus the Blind (313-398 AD), head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria and considered the greatest Christian teacher of the 4th Century: "Mankind, being reclaimed from their sins, are to be subjected to Christ in the fullness of the dispensation instituted for the salvation of all."
Ambrose (337-397 AD), Bishop of Milan: "Our Savior has appointed two kinds of resurrection in the Apocalypse. 'Blessed is he that hath part in the first resurrection,' for such come to grace without the judgment. As for those who do not come to the first, but are reserved unto the second resurrection, these shall be disciplined until their appointed times, between the first and the second resurrection."
Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390 AD), Archbishop of Constantinople is generally believed to have been a Christian Universalist, though he was not dogmatic about it: "God brings the dead to life as partakers of fire or light. But whether even all shall hereafter partake of God, let it be elsewhere discussed." "Let them, if they will, walk in our way and in Christ's. If not, let them walk in their own way. Perchance there they will be baptized with fire, with that last, that more laborious and longer baptism, which devours the substance like hay, and consumes the lightness of all evil."
Basil the Great (AD 330-379), Bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia (part of modern day Turkey) confirms that Eternal Conscious Torment was not the majority view in his day: "The mass of men [Christians] say there is to be an end to punishment and to those who are punished." He too believed in Universal Reconciliation: "The Lord's peace is co-extensive with all time. For all things shall be subject to him, and all things shall acknowledge his empire; and when God shall be all in all, those who now excite discord by revolts having been pacified, shall praise God in peaceful concord."
Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 AD), one of the "Cappadocian Fathers" (along with Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil the Great) who established the theology of the Eastern Orthodox church: "Being good, God has pity for fallen man; being wise, He is not ignorant of the means for man's recovery." "I believe that punishment will be administered in proportion to each one's corruptness...Therefore to whom there is much corruption attached, with him it is necessary that the purgatorial time which is to consume it should be great, and of long duration; but to him in whom the wicked disposition has been already in part subjected, a proportionate degree of that sharper and more vehement punishment shall be remitted. All evil, however, must at length be entirely removed from everything, so that it shall no more exist. For such being the nature of sin that it cannot exist without a corrupt motive, it must of course be perfectly dissolved, and wholly destroyed, so that nothing can remain a receptacle of it, when all motive and influence shall spring from God alone."
Jerome (347-420 AD), is best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate) which was used by the Church in Europe for over 1,000 years: "In the end and consummation of the Universe all are to be restored into their original harmonious state, and we all shall be made one body and be united once more into a perfect man and the prayer of our Savior shall be fulfilled that all may be one."
Theodore the Interpreter (350-429 AD), Bishop of Mopsuestia (in modern day Turkey) and head of the Catechetical School of Antioch. One of the most highly regarded Bible teachers of ancient times: "The wicked who have committed evil the whole period of their lives shall be punished till they learn that, by continuing in sin, they only continue in misery. And when, by this means, they shall have been brought to fear God, and to regard him with good will, they shall obtain the enjoyment of his grace. For he never would have said, 'until thou hast paid the uttermost farthing,' unless we can be released from suffering after having suffered adequately for sin; nor would he have said, 'he shall be beaten with many stripes,' and again, 'he shall be beaten with few stripes,' unless the punishment to be endured for sin will have an end."
Other early church leaders from before the 6th Century who's writings indicate a belief in Universal Reconciliation include: Gregory Thaumaturgus, Bishop of Caesarea (d. 220); Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (d. 265), Pamphilus of Caesarea (d. 309), Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers (d. 368); Isidore of Alexandria (d. 370); Titus, Bishop of Bostra (d. 378); Tyrannius Rufinus (d. 410); John Cassian (d.435); Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus, Syria (d. 457); The Monks of Nitria (4th Century); Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria (d. 444); Maximus, Bishop of Turin (d. 422); Peter Chrysologus, Bishop of Ravenna (d. 450); Gennadius, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 471); Evagrius Ponticus (d. 499).
In the 5th Century, Augustine wrote, "And now I see I must have a gentle disputation with certain tender hearts of our own religion, who are unwilling to believe that everlasting punishment will be inflicted, either on all those who the just Judge shall condemn to the pains of hell, or even on some of them, but who think that after certain periods of time, longer or shorter according to the proportion of their crimes, they shall be delivered out of that state." Augustine was a champion of the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment. But he also provides us with proof that many Christians in his time believed in Universal Reconciliation. The "tender hearts" Augustine was disputing with would have been other Bishops, theologians, teachers and church leaders.
The first official condemnation of Christian Universalism appears to have come from Emperor Justinian at the 2nd Council of Constantinople in 553 AD. Anathema IX from that council reads: "If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema."
What this clearly demonstrates is that Universal Reconciliation was a view commonly held and taught by Bishops, theologians and church leaders in the first 500 years of the Christian church. It was not until the 6th Century that it became "heresy."
Additional Resources about Christian Universalism / Universal Reconciliation:
Hope Beyond Hell (http://hopebeyondhell.net/): An excellent, thorough and easy to read overview of Christian Universalism which can be downloaded for free or purchased in book form for a very low price.
The Inescapable Love of God (http://www.thomastalbott.com/): You can read several chapters for free online at the author's website. Thomas Talbott is a retired Professor of Philosophy and a Christian who looks at the doctrine of Universal Reconciliation from both a theological and a philosophical/logical viewpoint.
If Grace Is True and If God Is Love: Two wonderfully encouraging, edifying and affirming books by Quaker pastors Philip Gulley and James Mulholland.
Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During its First 500 Years, by J.W. Hanson: (http://www.tentmaker.org/books/Prevailing.html): From 1899. Incredibly detailed.
http://fromdamascustoemmaus.com/questioning-hell/ : A great series of blogs by Randy Olds about Hell and Universal Reconciliation.
http://www.tentmaker.org/ : THE site for articles and resources about Christian Universalism
http://www.evangelicaluniversalist.com/forum/ : A discussion forum on Christian Universalism hosted by Thomas Talbott and Dr. Robin Parry.
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