A Brief Contra to the Possibility for Post-Mortem Salvation: With Reference to New Testament Teaching

I have been having some discussion with a commenter named, Brian, in the following thread. Brian wants to maintain a possibility for post-mortem salvation; a notion most notably propounded by Robin Parry, in his book, The Evangelical Universalist. The idea, according to Brian, is that there is no “time-limit” on when someone can come to Christ. In other words, the idea would go something like this: Sally leaves this world without repentance and reception of Christ as her Lord and Savior; after she has been judged at the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev 20); cast into Gehenna and Outer Darkness; after she has say been there for a million years (based on our current understanding of linear time), she might finally decide to willingly and repentantly bow the knee to Christ; at which point she will be allowed into the New Heavens and Earth. This is ostensibly the position, Brian, affirms while at the same time rejecting Christian Universalism (of the sort Robin Parry endorses and articulates). This is interesting, at one level, just because Brian borrows Parry’s mechanism of the possibility for ‘post-mortem’ salvation, but rejects the conclusion of universalism. But, there is dissonance here when we reduce the logic to its conclusion (reductio ad absurdum). Dissonance in the sense, that inherent to the notion of the possibility for ‘post-mortem’ salvation, is the hypothetical that all people could finally bow the knee to Christ; we might call Brian’s position hypothetical universalism (not to be confused with what we typically associate with this language in reference to the extent of the atonement; cf. Francis Turretin et al.), since it is plausible, on his premises, that all people, given enough time (I mean eternity is a long time) could subjectively and spiritually receive Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Brian gives no reasons for why this couldn’t or won’t obtain; he is seemingly happy with living with the notion that he is not a universalist while at the same time holding, logically, to what obtains as universalist logic.

One biblically based counter-proposal to Brian’s position can be provided for by intertextually reading I Corinthians 15.20-28 alongside Revelation 20.11-15; qualified by a passage like Matthew 25.41. Let’s note these passages, and then provide some commentary with application to Brian’s proposal.

20 But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. 23 But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. 24 Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet.26 The last enemy that will be destroyed is death27 For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted.28 Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. –I Corinthians 15

11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works.14 Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. 15 And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire. –Revelation 20

37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’41 “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: 42 for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; 43 I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ –Matthew 25

My counter-proposal—and one in keeping with the traditional teaching of the Church over the last many millennia—should be apparent by reflecting upon the emboldened verses from each of the pericopes presented.

In I Corinthians 15 we note that the last enemy ‘death’ will be put under Jesus’s feet at his second coming (per the broader eschatological context of the passage). In Revelation 20 we see that ‘death and hades’ are thrown into the ‘lake of fire’; which we, as we think thematically, can understand as the actualization and fulfillment of what the Apostle Paul is referring to in Corinthians. And then we see the Matthew passage qualifying the character of what this ‘fire’ entails; in other words, Matthew helps us to see how long this judgment lasts. The Matthew passage is also important because it ties the plight of “reprobate” people into the same plight as the devil and his reprobate angels. If this is so, as a further complication for Brian’s position, in order to retain logical consistency, he would have to argue that not only is post-mortem conversion available to lost human beings, but it is also available to lost angels, inclusive of the devil himself. But the primary point I want to draw out of the Matthew passage revolves around the language of ‘everlasting fire.’ The Greek word there, translated as ‘everlasting,’ is αἰώνιον from the lexeme αἰώνιος meaning, “eternal (of quality rather than time); unending, everlasting, for all time.”[1]

The burden Brian must overcome is how the New Testament characterizes the state of judgment unregenerate people are placed under in the eschaton. From the critical lexicons the language refers to a ‘for-all-time’ or ‘unending’ state. This minimal coverage militates, decisively, against Brian’s contention that the possibility for post-mortem salvation is a reality. True, some contemporary Christian Universalists like Ilaria Ramelli, Robin Parry, and now, David Bentley Hart have attempted to offer alternative readings to the traditional teaching in this area, but I haven’t found their respective works to undo the traditional reading of these things. Either way, Brian remains with the burden of undercutting even this minimal proposal as I have presented it (rather quickly) here in this post; he has the added burden of how he is able to deploy what I call the ‘universalist logic’ while at the same time repudiating the conclusion that logic leads to (and from) in so called Christian Universalism.

 

[1] Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger, and Allen Wikgren eds., The Greek New Testament, 4th edition: Dictionary (Germany: Biblia-Druck, D-Stuttgart, 1998), 6.

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Barth’s Rejection of Christian Universalism: CD I/2 §16, 37

Recently I was having a bit of discussion with some fellows about Karl Barth and Christian Universalism. They both claimed or asserted that Barth maintained a Dogmatic Christian Universalist position, while I maintained that he didn’t. I knew he didn’t, and have read him that way directly. Unfortunately, in that moment, I didn’t have a pertinent quote from Barth himself at hand; now I do. The confusion is easy to understand with reference to Barth; he does maintain a doctrine of election that encompasses all of humanity. As such, for Barth, if we want to use this sort of grammar, he believes that the extent of the atonement is objectively (and subjectively, grounded in Christ) universal. Yet while he holds to his unique, but Gospel-faithful (I take it to be) reformulated Reformed doctrine of election, he also maintains the classic position on ‘final salvation.’ Barth believes in what the Bible ‘teaches’ (at least for my money); that is, Barth believes that people who do not come to repentance will be eternally destroyed in outer darkness (e.g. not annihilationism either).

To prove my assertion about Barth let me offer the pertinent quote. In the broader context Barth is indeed talking about justification/salvation, and how that is fully actualized for all of humanity in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Following this snippet from Barth, he gets into Pneumatology and his doctrine of the Holy Spirit vis-à-vis salvation. But for our purposes this small quote from Barth should suffice (if not, pick up his CD and read the context for yourself). Barth writes:

It is the truth, even if man is not in the truth. It is true that God is with us in Christ and that we are his children, even if we ourselves do not perceive it. It is true from all eternity, for Jesus Christ who assumed our nature is the eternal Son of God. And it is always true in time, even before we perceive it to be true. It is still true even if we never perceive it to be true, except that in this case it is true to our eternal destruction.[1]

Rather clear, eh? It is true that many of Barth’s followers hold to a dogmatic form of Christian Universalism; and they do indeed attach it to what they think is taking Barth’s theo-logic to its logical conclusion. But Barth himself, as Hunsinger might call him, ‘the textual Barth,’ rejects Christian Universalism (even if he had theological space to remain ‘hopeful’). Barth’s rejection of universalism was grounded in his radical commitment to Divine freedom. Barth believed that if we foreclosed on God, and what he ‘must’ do, in regard to final salvation, that God’s freedom would be squashed, and His identity as God compromised. The press back to this could be: ‘Well, Barth apparently believes that God does indeed damn people to an eternal hell; how is this not a foreclosure?’ Barth might respond: ‘Because God freely chose this, and not that.’

Others might say: ‘Who cares what Barth thinks!’ Tru Dat. Ultimately as Protestant Christians we will hang our hats on what Holy Scripture teaches. In this case, though, I maintain, that Barth is following Scripture’s teaching; and his theo-logic, in my view, is spot on. Divine Freedom is of the utmost; it means that God is God and we are not. We must acknowledge Divine freedom, and allow Scripture’s teaching to curtail the way we see that applied in the economy of God’s life in Christ. Yes, many have been arguing, attempting to from Scripture’s teaching, that the Bible teaches Christian Universalism. But I’ve read all of that, and I don’t think these arguments are successful; nor did Barth (at least the arguments he would have been aware of at his time).

At the finis, I wish all could be saved. But currently, as I understand Scripture’s teaching, along with Barth, I have to conclude that people who die without Christ as their Lord and Savior, in a ‘perceived’ and repentant way, will be eternally separated from the elect life of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, they will not die in union with Christ who is eternal life for them. This means we ought to be proclaiming Jesus from the rooftops, so that faith, which comes by hearing, hearing the Word of God, might penetrate the hearts of those on the broad way, and allow them to enter the narrow way of eternal life in Christ.

[1] Barth, CD I/2 §16, 37 [emboldening mine].

Responding to Jedidiah Paschall’s Case for a Reformed Universalism: With Particular Clarification on Barth’s and Torrance’s Logic as ‘Erroneous’

Jedidiah Paschall, a friend of the blog, has written a post offering an introduction to an ostensible Reformed Christian Universalism over at Aidan’s blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy. In Jed’s post he offers some critique of both Barth and TF Torrance; it is really an old or overly-rehearsed critique of Barth and Torrance’s theo-logic, but clearly one that still has purchase for folks like Jed and others. Roger Olson, in critique of our Evangelical Calvinism (insofar as that is contingent on Barth’s and Torrance’s categories) has made the same critique; as has Kevin Vanhoozer (even here at the blog), and Robert Letham et al. What I mostly want to respond to is the assertion, by Jed, that Torrance’s logic, when it comes to universalism, is ‘erroneous.’ It really isn’t: that’s what this post will, once again, seek to re-clarify (since I will be reposting a lengthy treatment that responds to this, by appealing to a treatment by George Hunsinger). If Barth’s (and by implication, Torrance’s) broader theological commitments are not appreciated, then folks like Paschall et al. will concluded that they operate with an erroneous logic. But this is petitio principii, since the premise is that if Barth and Torrance don’t operate with the same sort of prolegomenal method and attending theo-logic (situated in a prior metaphysical construal), that by virtue of this, Barth and Torrance’s theo-logic just is erroneous. But this is to think in a circle, and not carefully attend to Barth’s and Torrance’s own approaches, respectively.

Here is some of Jed’s critique:

In the related matter of atonement, which Reformed theolo­gians have classically considered limited in scope, Torrance demands that the atonement, which is grounded in an Athanasian understanding of the incarnation, is unlimited:

We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity – that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact – nothing can undo it.

This makes it all the more curious why Torrance, in general agreement with Barth, forgoes logical consistency to both his doctrines of atonement and incarnation when a mere page later he denies universal salvation with equal vehemence:

Objectively, then, we must think of atonement as [a] sufficient and efficacious reality for every human being – it is such sufficient and efficacious reality that it is the rock of offense, the rock of judgement upon which the sinner who refuses the divine love shatters himself or herself and is damned eternally.

It is not entirely clear why Torrance takes with one hand what he gives with another. The whole question of efficacy, as he has already established, is bound up in God’s work in the Incarnate Christ. Efficacy is cannot reasonably called universal if it is not universally accomplished and applied. It would be odd for Torrance to appeal to an Arminian understanding of free will at this point. Torrance’s erroneous logic can easily be cleared up by eliminating this non sequitur and to simply acknowledge that the atoning work of Christ will be universally effective for all in eventual and ultimate reconciliation.[1]

As I noted, the following will be a lengthy treatment offered by George Hunsinger. The treatment directly responds to the charges of Barth’s incoherence (and by implication, Torrance’s). In the original posting of this treatment, I was responding to something Robert Letham had written; something that directly dovetails with Jed’s claim. Here it is:

Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance are both, and often accused of being incoherent in their material theological positions and conclusions. Robert Letham most recently has made this charge against Thomas Torrance in particular (and it might as well have been against Karl Barth as well). Letham writes against Torrance:

It is simply incoherent for Torrance to say what he says about the definitive justification and reconciliation for all people and yet to deny universal salvation. Moreover, if it is possible for people to reject Christ and what he has done, it cannot be definitive and effective for them and cannot have been complete in Christ’s person. It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis.[2]

What seriously bothers me about such claims is that people like Robert Letham, Roger Olson (who thinks us Evangelical Calvinists are incoherent for the same kinds of reasons), et al. totally fail to appreciate and take Barth and Torrance on their stated terms. It is not as if Barth or Torrance have not provided extended treatments of their terms and prolegomena and approach to things, theological; they have! And so for the rest of this post (and it will turn out to be a long post because of this, but I want to have this available online for whenever I hear that Barth and Torrance are incoherent) I will be quoting George Hunsinger at length on Karl Barth; and Hunsinger will be explaining why Barth (and think Torrance as well, for his own related reasons) is not in fact incoherent while those who are making the claim of incoherence in fact are the ones who are incoherent relative to the particular categories of Scripture and God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ. So here we go:

Testing for Incoherence Within the Framework of the Chalcedonian Pattern

The coherentist mode of testing, as it emerged in the survey of rationalism, also plays a decisive role in Barth’s justification of his position on double agency. Directly and indirectly, therefore, it serves to justify his reliance on the conceptions of miracle and mystery in that position. On the exegetical or hermeneutical premise that the terms of the Chalcedonian pattern are rooted in the biblical testimony regarding how divine and human agency are related, the mode of doctrinal testing proceeds as follows. The Chalcedonian pattern is used to specify counterpositions that would be doctrinally incoherent (and also incoherent with scripture). “Without separation or division” means that no independent human autonomy can be posited in relation to God. “Without confusion or change” means that not divine determinism or monism can be posited in relation to humanity. Finally, “complete in deity and complete in humanity” means that no symmetrical relationship can be posited between divine and human actions (or better, none that is not asymmetrical). It also means that the two cannot be posited as ultimately identical. Taken together, these considerations mean that, if the foregoing conditions are to be met, no nonmiraculous and nonmysterious conception is possible. The charge of incoherence (as previously defined) thereby reveals itself to be abstract, in the sense that it does not adequately take all the necessary factors into account. It does not work inductively from the subject matter (as attested by scripture)–as the motif of particularism would prescribe. Instead, it starts from general considerations such as formal logic and applies them to certain isolated aspects of the more “concrete” position. At the same time, the charge may well have implicated itself, wittingly or unwittingly, in one of the rejected couterpositions.

Without Separation or Division: Against Independent Human Autonomy

No independent human autonomy, Barth argues, may be posited in relation to God. The idea of an independent human autonomy posits the kind of illicit “determinism” that Barth finds to be characteristic of Pelagian and semi-Pelagian positions counter to his own. The actuality of human autonomy or freedom or self-determination (and so on) is, it is important to see, not in question. What is in question is the condition for the possibility of human autonomy, freedom, and self-determination. The Pelagian position finds this condition to be entirely inherent in human nature as created by divine grace, whereas the semi-Pelagian position finds it to be only partially inherent in human nature. The Pelagian sees no need, whereas the semi-Pelagian sees some need, for the special operation of divine grace, if the human creature is to act freely in fellowship with God (I/1, 199-200; II/1, 562-63). Neither position survives Barth’s coherentist form of testing, for neither is seen to do justice either to the radicality of sin or to the finitude of the creature. The same basic inadequacy can be restated with reference to other doctrinal beliefs, and these are actually thought to be the more fundamental. Christologically, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the cross of Christ (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the necessity of the mediation of Christ (as it overcomes not only sin, but the finitude of the creature, by exalting the creature to eternal life). Theologically, moreover, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the divine righteousness (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the divine majesty (as it discloses the essence of creaturely finitude).

In discussing the question of double agency, it is most often the radicality of sin and the majesty of God to which coherentist appeal adverts (although the other beliefs do not cease to be presupposed, of course, and are sometimes invoked). The radicality of sin, as already documented on more than one occasion, is regarded as meaning that we have “completely lost the capacity for God” (I/1, 238). The majesty of God, on the other hand, is characteristically conceived in terms of the “conditioned” and the “unconditioned.” “The creature which conditions God is no longer God’s creature, and the God who is conditioned by the creature is no longer God” (II/1, 580). Or again: “Grace would not be grace if it were not free, but were conditioned by a reciprocal achievement on the part of the one to whom it is addressed” (I/1, 45). Or again: “Grace cannot be called forth or constrained by any claim or merit, by any existing or future condition, on the part of the creature…. Both in its being and in its operation its necessity is in itself” (II/2, 19). That God’s grace is absolutely free in relation to the creature, ant that the creature can in no way condition God, is as axiomatic in Barth’s theology as he believes it to be axiomatic in scripture. Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism both fail, because they posit a creature who by nature conditions God, and a God who by nature can be and is conditioned by the creature. What is worse, these counterpositions do so even in the face of the radicality of sin. They are therefore judged to be incoherent from the standpoint of doctrinal testing. “What takes place in the covenant of grace takes place wholly for the human creature. A creatura mediatrix gratiarum or even corredemptrix is a self-contradiction” (I/1, 45).

Barth’s position over against these counterpositions may be briefly restated. The actuality of human freedom is affirmed (and by no means denied). But the condition for its possibility in relation to God is found not at all in human nature itself, but entirely in divine grace. In the event of human fellowship autonomy is not at all independent. It is entirely subsequent to and dependent on grace. The missing capacity for freedom in fellowship with God is given and received as a gift–“not as a supernatural quality, but as a capacity which is actual only as it is used, which is not in any sense magical, but absolutely free and natural in its exercise” (III/1, 128). In and through him it is called by grace “out of nothingness into being, out of death into life.” The event of grace on which the capacity for freedom completely depends is thereby a miracle and a mystery. But in and with this complete dependence, it is “real in the way in which creation generally can be in its relationship to the Creator.” Human freedom in all its reality is “encompassed,” “established,” “delimited,” and “determined” by divine grace (II/1, 128). The “mystery of human autonomy” is clearly not “an autonomous mystery” (II/2, 194). It is rather included within “the one divine mystery.” It is, that is to say, included within “the mystery of grace,” within “the mystery of God’s triumphant affirmation and love.” Only in this sense (but certainly in this sense) is it included within “the mystery of God’s omnipotence.” The reality of human freedom takes place, therefore, not as “the second point in an ellipse” (the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian counterpositions), but as “the circumference around one central point of which it is the repetition and confirmation” (II/2, 194). Divine grace and human freedom stand, in other words, in a conceptually asymmetrical relationship rather than in one of conceptual interdependence.

The features of this argument may also be stated in terms of the various motifs. The reality of fellowship is in question by way of the problem of double agency (personalism). The mode of testing for incoherence takes place in terms of the remaining web of doctrinal beliefs (rationalism). The bestowal, by grace, of freedom for fellowship with God is described as a miraculous event (actualism). This event also takes place in such a way that divine omnipotence and human freedom coexist in mutual love and freedom as the mystery of God with humanity and of humanity with God (particularism). Furthermore, the miracle and the mystery of the event are said to be dependent upon and mediated through the saving person and work of Jesus Christ (objectivism). The counterpositions (Pelgianism and semi-Pelagianism) are shown to be incoherent at essential points with the presupposed web of doctrinal beliefs (especially “the radicality of sin” and “the majesty of God”), whereas the position in question is shown in fact to be coherent with it in the mode of miracle and mystery (rationalism, actualism, particularism). Since the web of presupposed beliefs is taken to be in accord with scripture, it follows (granted the assumption) that the challenged position is also in accord with scripture, and that the proposed counterpositions are not (although this could and would need to be argued also on independent exegetical grounds) (realism). Thus all six motifs are in force in one way or another in the mode of testing for the possible coherence or incoherence of the challenged belief.[3]

I submit that after carefully considering these various theological motifs that fund Barth’s and Torrance’s theologies, respectively, that Jed Paschall’s claim about Torrance’s theo-logic being erroneous fall by the way. I realize Jed wants to appropriate the universalist theo-logic present in both Barth and Torrance, while at the same time distancing himself from what he thinks represents faulty logic in their ultimate rejection of an absolute Christian universalism (the position Jed wants to argue for as a Reformed Christian). But, again, in light of Hunsinger’s treatment, and simply reading both Barth and Torrance carefully, one will not arrive at the conclusion that they operate with an erroneous logic; particularly when that comes to the issue of Christian universalism as a theological conclusion.

 

[1] Jedidiah Paschall, Source.

[2] Robert Letham, The Triune God, Incarnation, and Definite Atonement in edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 454. When Letham writes of Torrance: ‘…It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis….’ What he is referring to is this in Torrance’s writings:

The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement. Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ. (Atonement, 187-88)

And this:

 (i) Christ’s death for all is an inescapable reality. We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity — that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact — nothing can undo it. That means that God has taken the great positive decision for man, the decision of love translated into fact. But because the work and the person of Christ are one, that finished work is identical with the self-giving of God to all humanity which he extends to everyone in the living Christ. God does not withhold himself from any one, but he gives himself to all whether they will or not — even if they will not have him, he gives himself to them, for he has once and for all given himself, and therefore the giving of himself in the cross when opposed by the will of man inevitably opposes that will of man and is its judgement. As we saw, it is the positive will of God in loving humanity that becomes humanity’s judgement when they refuse it. (Thomas F. Torrance,Atonement, 188-89)

What Letham, as others, fails to appreciate is the very point that Hunsinger (above and below) highlights about Barth’s approach; primarily having to do with the ‘radicality of sin’, and thinking from the grammar and mystery of the Incarnationitself. Torrance, as Letham asserts, is not merely making an ‘assertion,’ but in fact has his assertion squarely grounded within Christian, historical, and constructive theological proposals that are both robust and cogent within a coherent framework of thought. Hunsinger, I believe, defeats Letham’s (and other’s) charge of incoherence against Torrance, and by relation Karl Barth; and for the very reasons that Hunsinger registers in his clarification and defense of Karl Barth. The irony is that Barth and Torrance, if understood through classical patterns of Christian theological engagement are seen to be the coherent ones while those who are critiquing them are the ones who end up being incoherent by engaging abstract patterns of thought that are foreign to the mysterious Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is not that mystery is being appealed to in abstraction by either Barth or Torrance, instead the parameters of thought for both of them is chastened and cordoned off by the mystery of God en sarkos (‘in the flesh’); and any Christian intelligibility must be thought from within this center, and not a center of our own active intellectual making.

[3] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-98 nook version. 

A Probing Tribute for My Cousin, Dana: The Reality of Salvation (Universalism & Particularism)

If evil is to be permanent in any part of the universe, then God is there foiled and the Cross of Christ of none effect…. So long as evil lasts there will be Hell. If evil should cease Hell would be burned out. Now if Christ’s cross means anything it means the destruction of evil everywhere and for ever. The work of the cross is not done while there is a single soul unwon to the mastery of Christ and uninfected by his spirit…. If we believe in the cross then we believe there will come a time when evil shall everywhere cease and sin no longer be.[1] P.T. Forsyth

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.[2] T.F. Torrance

danaWe have, somewhat, two competing accounts from two different Scottish theologians; P.T. Forsyth and T.F. Torrance. Forsyth presents us with a picture and a belief that in the end all will be eternally ‘saved’ through faith in Jesus Christ; that the cross of Jesus has vanquished evil from existence, and established God’s lovely holiness the world over. On the other hand, Torrance focuses on the same reality, but by emphasizing God’s being for us as the ground of our life, independent, as it were from our positive or negative affirmation of him and his work and life for us at the cross. For Torrance what is important is that God has chosen to be for humanity, in and through the vicarious (or representative) humanity of Jesus Christ, in a way that whatever we choose to do with that reality, we will always be held in position by God’s life of love; and that we will never be able to escape his presence whether we choose life or death.

I wanted to open up this post in the way that I did as I begin this tribute for my cousin, Dana Rook– who took his life (just a few weeks ago, at the writing of this post) just recently as a result of brain trauma he suffered from his time in Afghanistan as an infantryman, he was only 23 years old–to identify a nagging concern that many Christians encounter as we grieve the loss of a loved one, or grieve the loss of any life. For some of us, we might comfort ourselves with the idea that our loved ones were ‘saved’ at an early age, and even though they may have had a troubled time after that decision, the decision still holds. Others of us will look at the lives of our loved ones, and we will be concerned about the state of their lives at the time of their passing; we will try to pry into the depth of their hearts by attempting to access their hearts by an empirical process of reconstructing their lifestyles, words, and posture towards others (so we will look at their personal morality, speech, and profession of belief or unbelief in Jesus Christ at the time of their passing, and attempt to discern their eternal standing and destiny from there). And still others of us will follow the theo-logic offered by P.T. Forsyth, and we will claim that the Christian Scripture, and implications of God’s revealed life at the cross necessitate Christian Universalism (the idea that all of humanity will ultimately be ‘saved’ and hell we be completely emptied of all of its inhabitants; so the idea is that all will be so overcome by the beauty and grandeur of God’s love, that each and every person will ultimately bow the knee to Jesus and confess that he is Lord in a salvific or ‘saving’ way). And yet others will find refuge in the fact of who God is for us (love) in Christ, and hold that God’s presence is inescapable, even in hell (so Torrance). We will hold that the ground of the human life, in general, is Jesus Christ’s humanity, and so in a mysterious way, we will recognize that even if someone chooses (in this life) to reject the love of God in Christ for themselves, that God will never reject his love for them even in damnation; because all of human life is covered (objectively) by God’s pledge of life for them in his Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. This latter view (forwarded by Torrance) could be synthesized with Forsyth’s view of Christian universalism, but Torrance himself did not take this final step.

The reason I am proceeding this way, in thinking of my cousin, Dana, is because he struggled deeply with his relationship to God in Jesus Christ; so deeply that at the end of his life he claimed to be an atheist (but I know firsthand, that he was still battling all of this). And yet, early on in his life he made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and showed evidence of that throughout his (at least, as far as I know) early teenage years by reflecting on Scripture, memorizing Scripture, and thinking about God’s handiwork in creation and the great outdoors (he loved nature, especially reptiles, as I recently found out). So for some, especially if you are third party (and not family, or a friend), folks might look at the outward realities in Dana’s life at the end of his life, and conclude that he was not ‘saved’; some might try to build an empirical case from looking at his life and argue that based on how Dana was leading his life, that he is not with Jesus. But I think this is very premature!

My view is somewhere between what Forsyth had to say, and what Thomas F. Torrance has written. I hold that God is for all of humanity in his Son, Jesus Christ; and that human being is given its ongoing reality by the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. It is this pledge of life where Dana’s life rests, independent (objectively construed) of Dana’s choice (or any of our choices) to be for God in Christ. Dana, nor anyone, can escape the fact that God in Christ (because he is love) did for us what we would (nor could) ever do for ourselves; God in Christ chose all of humanity (in and through Christ’s humanity) to be for him and not against him. Dana’s life is grounded in Christ’s life then for all eternity.

Torrance held to the idea that hell was an eternal reality (as does the traditional teaching of the Christian church).  Forsyth held to the idea that hell was a reality, but a temporary (vs. eternal) reality; and that the cross of Jesus Christ as a demonstration and establishment of God’s holiness in a sinful world ultimately rendered sin, and thus hell, eternally vanquished and annihilated. Torrance’s view leaves the door open for Forsyth’s view though; it is possible for Forsyth’s Christian universalism to dovetail with Torrance’s idea that God’s love is a reality that will never let anyone go. Forsyth sounds pretty dogmatic about his view (but in the end he is not); Torrance is dogmatic in his view, but he finally falls back on mystery a bit. My view, using some of the theological categories offered by Forsyth and Torrance is that God’s love is indeed inescapable, and the cross of Jesus Christ establishes the biblical reality that God’s glory, his holiness will cover the earth like the waters cover the seas. I believe that God’s human being in the Incarnate Christ grounds the human being of each and every person who has ever been conceived; which implies, again, that no human being will ever or could ever be out of the reach of God’s life of love and eternal hope. I believe that consistent with this, then, that even post-mortem (physical death), it is highly possible that God could surprise each and every one of us by bringing all of humanity finally and ultimately into his presence where there is fullness of joy (even if they leave this life without a ‘saving’ relationship with him then).

I believe that no matter what state, then, my cousin Dana was in when he passed from this life, that there is ultimate hope; because God is hope, and Dana’s life, as are all of our lives, is/are grounded in Jesus Christ’s life for us. Dana made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ early on in his life, he walked with Jesus (as Jesus walked with him), for many years following his profession of faith. Dana is in the hands of the God who is hope; even though Dana had fallen on hard times, even in his walk with Jesus, the grace of God continued to fund Dana’s life even into eternity. The point is, is that Dana’s life was not contingent upon himself, it was and is contingent upon God’s life for Dana, in Christ. No matter what way we look at it, Dana is in the hands of a God who is love and eternal hope; who is full of grace and mercy, and who is more present with the broken-hearted than he is with the self-righteous (and he is even present with them).

There is always hope with a God of hope. I personally believe that Dana entered into the presence of God in Jesus Christ at the point that he departed from this earth. He was a brokenhearted kid who Jesus promised never to leave or forsake. Beyond this, if you have a loved one who has passed, and who did not have any kind of relationship with Jesus Christ, I still hold out the possibility that there is ultimate hope along with P.T. Forsyth; and yet I hold this in a hopeful and not dogmatic posture. God is love, God is hope, full of grace and mercy; I have to believe at some level that this is the reality that will endure throughout eternity, and that it will shape God’s life towards his creation without end.

RIP, Dana.

 

[1] Peter Forsyth, “The Bible Doctrine of Hell and the Unseen,” 4 cited by Jason Goroncy, “The Final Sanity Is Complete Sanctity: Universal Holiness in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth (1848–1921),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, “All Shall Be Well”: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 305.

[2] T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

A Word of Wisdom from Bruce L. McCormack: On Universalism and Limited Atonement

Universal atonement (and Universalism), and Limited Atonement have been part of the ongoing theological (soteriological) struggle between classical Calvinists and Arminians since at least Dort (but prior to Dort, which kbaewould be the logical/chronological coordinate and presupposition of Dort). The battle, on this particular patch of turf, has to do (if you don’t know) with whether Jesus died for all, and thus all are saved; or, if He died for a limited particular elect group of people, and thus this limited group of people are eschatologically ‘saved’. This has been where a major tussle has been (and is being) had over the years between these two disparate attempts to read the Apostle Paul, in particular, theologically/soteriologically.

Bruce McCormack offers a word of wisdom for these two groups, and it is a word (really) that finds corollary with Thomas Torrance as well; although McCormack has his own Barthian way of providing denouement — in one sense, for McCormack, it is not to provide any resolution, but instead to let the two disparate and apparently mutually exclusive poles stay so, but dialectically (and as the occasion for a fruitful way forward beyond this impasse, through a Barth[ian] escapade of constructive vigilance). It is this kind of dialectic resonance that McCormack suggests, and indeed prescribes for these two classically trained brawlers (i.e. classical Calvinism and Arminianism). Here is McCormack’s word of knowledge:

[I] would suggest that there is a better way of dealing with this, the most profound and important of the tensions found in the New Testament. I am certainly conservative enough in my understanding of biblical inspiration to believe that if something appears in the New Testament, it is there because God wanted it there. So if a tension exists, there must be a reason for it. And if I had to guess, I would say that the reason has to do with the fact that those awakened to faith in Jesus Christ in this world are still sinners. If God told us the answer to the problem in advance of the eschaton, we would harm ourselves on the one side or the other. If Hew were to tell us that a universal salvation will be the final outcome, we would very likely become lax, antinomian even. The sense of urgency that is pervasive in Paul’s Christian existentialism would be lost. If, on the other hand, God told us that limited atonement is the true resolution of the tension, we would very likely despair of our salvation. How could anyone be certain that the atoning death of Christ was really intended for him or her? And so I would venture to guess that the tension I have described is divinely intended — in order to protect us from ourselves.

In short, I think it was a mistake for the Westminster Assembly to seek to resolve this question on the side of limited atonement in advance of the return of Christ in glory — just as I think that it would be a mistake for any church today to teach universalism. Again, these are simply the logical possibilities that arise on the soil of the Reformed understanding of the relation of grace and faith. As such, they constitute the walls within which we are to live in this world. All of us will tilt more to one side than the other. And if individual theologians wish to conclude to one or the other — for the sake of exploring implications and relationships among the various Christian doctrines, they should be allowed to do so. That belongs to their unique calling. But churches need to be responsible for all the faithful. And for that reason, I would say, neither limited atonement nor universalism should ever be made church dogma.

We are now in a position to appreciate Karl Barth’s position on the problem of universalism. [Bruce L. McCormack, So That He May Be Merciful to All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism, 240-41 in, Karl Barth And American Evangelicalism, edited by Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson.]

This is a good word, and provides the proper levity and gravitas that should attend this usually hard chargin’ discussion and theological debate. There are enough passages of Scripture on either side of this to make a half-baked argument for either position (i.e. universalism and/or particularism vis-à-vis limited atonement). The desire to find and then prescribe resolution between either of these teachings is only driven by a chosen prolegomena, or theological methodology that front-loads on the side of precision, absolute coherence, and mathematical execution (e.g. scholasticism Reformed).

What professor McCormack is calling for (as we leave him here, prior to his discussion of Barth on such things), is, if anything, that we approach these issues with chastened attitudes, instead of riled up egos that has to have the answer to everything; and everything in the sense set out and required by a certain a priori commitment to a theological methodology, and even material schema that requires a riled up method of rationalist certitude and precision. McCormack is recognizing that Scripture’s disclosure is a fully loaded one that does not cater to specialized meanderings of whatever our pet and chosen theological paradigms might be. And if this is the case, then we need to let the force of this reality impose itself on us, allow it to create the categories through which we think about God (and subsequent things), and understand that our position as Christians, and theologians, is one that is always in an open-ended provisional stance of learning and reforming accordingly; according to the force and power of God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ.

We ought to heed McCormack’s wisdom. And then listen to Barth ;-).

What the Hell [or Heaven]; what do you think?

This question, which for some should simply be abandoned as a non-starter [for people who would rather not think], continues to be one, at least for me, that should be dealt with. It is not because I hellhaven’t concluded something on this, personally; it is because I think this question occasions an even more important one that lies underneath or behind it. That is, who is God? The way we deal with this question will largely be shaped by what we think about God and how he reveals and deals with his creation, or us.

But before we get to who God is, lets deal with this issue; the issue of whether or not hell should be understood as a place where people who are reprobate (so to speak), or unbelievers when they die (or maybe not so limited?), end up for an eternal, and conscious, and tormentuous time. I have been reading, slowly (relatively speaking), David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies; and while his major focus is not this particular quagmire, he does broach it. And it is his broaching that I want to use as the portal into dealing with this question (or not, maybe it’s a non-starter for you). Hart doesn’t commit to anything, himself (he is Eastern Orthodox, so he probably tends towards a Universalism of sorts, but maybe not!), but he does sketch this in a way that might place some question marks, or at least moments into this query that should make some of us pause more. He writes:

[…] The threat of eternal torment is an appeal solely to spiritual and emotional terror, and to the degree that Christians employed it as an inducement to faith, their arguments were clearly somewhat vulgar. The doctrine of hell, understood in a purely literal sense, as a place of eternally unremitting divine wrath, is an idea that would seem to reduce Christianity’s larger claims regarding the justice, mercy, and love of God to nonsense. But, even here, one must take care to make proper distinctions, for it is not at all clear to what degree such an idea was central or even peculiar to the preaching of the early Christians. The earliest Christian documents, for instance—the authentic epistles of Paul [editor’s note: they are all authentic, Hart … don’t play that trope!]—contain no trace of a doctrine of eternal torment, and Paul himself appears to have envisaged only a final annihilation of evildoers. The evidence of the Gospels, moreover, is far more ambiguous on this point than most person imagine; even Christ’s allegorical portrait of the final judgment in Matthew chapter 25 allows considerable latitude for interpretation, and patristic theologians as diverse as Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Isaac of Nineveh saw in the phrase aionios kolasis (typically translated as “eternal punishment,” but possible to read as “correction for a long period” or “for an age” or even “in the age to come”) no cause to conclude that hell was anything but a temporary process of spiritual purification. Indeed, it the testimony of several of the church fathers is to be believed, this “purgatorial” view of hell was far from being an eccentric minority opinion among the Christians of the first few centuries, especially in the Eastern reaches of the empire. All that said, though, one must grant that the idea of eternal punishment for the wicked or for unbelievers formed part of Christian teaching from an early date. But one should also note that the idea of eternal punishment was not a uniquely or even distinctively Christian notion; its pagan precedents were many; it was an idea well established among, for instance, the Platonists; and it is not wholly fanciful to suggest that its eventual ascendency  in Christian teaching was a result as much of the conventional religious thinking that Christianity absorbed from the larger culture as of anything native to the gospel. Whatever the case, it is doubtful that Christian teaching succeeded much in exacerbating fear of death or the afterlife. All the documentary evidence suggests that the special attention attraction of Christianity in ancient society lay elsewhere, in aspects of the faith that clearly set it apart from other contemporary versions of reality. [David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, 154-55.]

One of the reasons I like this quote from DBH is because it compresses major disciplinarian ways into this doctrine of hell; i.e. Historical Theology, Exegetical Theology, and Dogmatic Theology. This elicits something, or it should, that there are more ways into considering this issue than a simple commitment to scripture all by itself (solo scriptura, nuda scriptura) will, or can, yield. There are fields of meaning and context that need to be considered when discerning this issue of hell.

The grammatical/exegetical aspect is not as cut and dry as Hart demonstrates (quickly); the history of interpretation is not as precise as us conservative evangelicals would like, and the Dogmatic reality of God as love is thrown into relief when we consider what this means for the eternality of hell (maybe it is temporary).

We all have to come down somewhere (some choose to remain agnostic, but that’s no fun!), and all of the above needs to be considered as we begin our descent downwards to ‘somewhere’. God is love, is hell a loving place; is a concept of eternal unremitting divine wrath (as Hart phrases it) commensurate with the grander doctrine that God is love? Can creation be said to be fully redeemed (Romans 8) and death put under foot (I Cor. 15) if hell continues to be an eternal unremitting reality?  Is there an eternal shadow side of God, or is God unremitting light in Christ? Is the koine (NT) Greek able to bear the weight of this question all by itself (lexically, grammatically, and syntactically)? Do earlier Christian thinkers have anything of value to say on this? What did Jesus think?

These are all questions that I won’t try to answer here, I’ll just leave them dangling and let you. I will say though that it won’t do to simply yell your position louder; not if you are serious.

Book Review: What The Hell: How Did We Get it So Wrong? Eternity, Grace, and the Message of Love

Jackson Baer

What The Hell: How Did We Get It So Wrong? Eternity, Grace, and the Message of Love

Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press Inc., pp. xii.+139. Paper. $7.70

I want to thank Jackson Baer for promptly sending me this review copy from his own resources. The following review ends up being a bit critical of Jackson’s presentation, but I want him to know that I still respect him as a brother in Christ; even though I disagree with him. Ultimately, as you will read throughout the review, my disagreement with Baer—in regard to his book—is not as much with his conclusion (although I am not in total agreement with him, and I am not an Evangelical Universalist), but with his form and method of argument (or non-argument). I realize that Jackson Baer is not pretending to be a scholar, and that he obviously writes for the lay people amongst us; but even so, in the end, his method is more than I can bear (pardon the pun). You will have to read the rest of the review to find out what I am talking about. It is rather long (approx. 2700 words), but I wanted to be as thorough and fair to Jackson as I possibly could.

Jackson Baer is a former Youth and Teaching Pastor in an Evangelical church. He was released from his duties as a result of his belief that the doctrine of Hell does not include the Traditional teaching that it involves Eternal Conscious Torment. According to Baer, he wrote this book after spending four years of intense study to understand whether the traditional doctrine of hell was accurate, relative to the teaching of Scripture. Jackson Baer has an undergrad degree from a Bible College, is married with four young children. Baer is not an expert, a trained theologian, or biblical exegete; this reality should be brought to bear as the reader interacts with what Baer has put to print. The following is a review of Jackson Baer’s recently released (self published) book, What The Hell: How Did We Get It So Wrong? Eternity, Grace, and The Message of Love.

The book is made up of eleven short chapters; the total length of the volume is a hundred and thirty-nine pages. There are no footnotes, endnotes, or bibliographic material at the end of the book. The reader should understand that Baer’s book does not intend (it appears) to provide any global arguments, any engagement of recent or past scholarship (biblical or theological), any appeal to the original biblical languages, nor any sense of duty to accurately engage this hot issue in a way that reflects serious, objective, well thought out arguments. In other words, Baer’s book reflects more of a diary of his own personal struggle through the important issue of whether or not the traditional teaching of hell is viable. With that noted, let us enter into the body of Baer’s book.

Chapter 1 is titled, Stuck in Traffic: When One Hour Feels Like Forever. The title, straightforward as it is, identifies Baer’s primary purpose; he is seeking to suggest that time is relative, and thus the punishment of an eternal conscious torment in hell is not necessary in order for God to provide a just punishment for someone’s sins. Baer engages in anecdotal stories in order to “suggest” (versus argue) his point. At the end of this chapter Baer offers one more anecdote about how hell need not literally involve eternity in order to be hell. In the anecdote he is noting a plane trip he made from Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon; he gets stuck next to a chap who will not shut up. Baer uses this to describe how time and hell might relate to each other. We jump into the story as Baer is exiting the plane. He writes:

[I] didn’t want to bash this guy because he was obviously lonely. But as soon as he got off that plane all I could think was, “I’m free!” I felt like I had just finished a prison sentence and was tasting freedom for the first time in years. I was so grateful to be out of that seat. I said to myself as I walked into the airport, “That guy just convinced me that Hell is not eternal.” (p. 22)

Other than the humorous nature of this story; it serves to illustrate a very serious point that Baer is contending with. That is, that hell requires the belief that it involves an indefinite period of eternal conscious torment. Baer seems to want to suggest that hell can be temporal conscious torment, and still be hell. Chapter 2 is titled, You Speak Greek, I Read English. In this chapter Baer seeks to describe and argue how semantics, linguistics, and grammar work in the Bible. This is a key chapter for Baer, it is here where he attempts to relativize the biblical language of  words like eternal, fire, and more. Since Baer does not know Koine Greek (New Testament Greek), he relies on Young’s Literal Translation. The YLT translates the Greek word, found in Matthew 25:46, αíων, or aeon as ‘age-during’; instead of as eternal. Baer takes this translation as a repudiation of the normal translation of eternal; and thus he sees this as a way to understand this passage as denoting a quality instead of a quantity of existence. Or, that hell does not need to be understood as a literal place of eternal conscious torment; instead it could be a place of temporal conscious torment (so ‘age-during’ instead of eternal). I am giving Baer a charitable reading here (I think). Baer presses this as an opportunity to highlight how modern, contemporary translations are ultimately biased (and thus interpretations); and thus the serious Bible student (English speaking only) ought to refer to an “unbiased” translation like Young’s Literal Translation supposedly represents. Chapter 3 is entitled, Gehenna, the Grave, and the Invention of Hell. A very self-explanatory title; here Baer seeks to deconstruct the ‘traditional’ understanding of hell by explaining the way words like ‘Gehenna’, ‘the Grave,’ came to be interpreted as Hell. Baer argues that these words should be understood  in metaphoric ways, and  that it is a mis-translation (and thus interpretation) to translate these words with the signifier as ‘Hell’. His basic point is that this serves to mis-lead people into teaching that hell is taught in the Bible, when in fact the word hell is never used. He wants Bible students to refer back to the literal language (i.e. YLT), and thus disassociate ourselves from a doctrine that the New Testament in particular never teaches. Chapter 4, Good Dad v. Bad Dad, is a chapter that argues a fortiori of sorts; Baer argues that as a good earthly father, he will protect his children at all costs. Similarly he argues; that if this is true of earthly fathers, how much more must it be true of the Heavenly Father (p. 53-4). Chapter 5, entitled, What About The Old Testament, suggests that the God of the Old Testament is harsher than the God of the New Testament, and that the God of the Old Testament requires a works-righteousness salvation; while the New Testament is salvation by grace. Baer writes:

. . . The Old Testament is full of stories where people are sacrificing animals to atone for their sins. It’s a work based faith that required men and women to make a sacrifice in order to be forgiven from their sins. It also shows the darker side of God where He wipes out complete nations and seems harsher than most New Testament portrayals. (p. 69)

Baer continues along this line of thought; his method seems to be one where he is trying to provide a plausible account for how we should understand the apparent disparity between  the ‘harsher’ God of the Old Testament, with the God revealed in Christ in the New Testament. He seems to think the best way to understand the dealings of God in the Old Testament is to see them as metaphorical; he writes:

. . . Another thought is that many of the stories are simply metaphorical and didn’t actually happen. This belief might sound heretical to some Christians but it’s also a valid interpretation. (p. 69)

Baer then ties this into the way Jesus taught, parabolically. Baer seems to be suggesting that the ‘genocidal’ God of the Old Testament can be the God of grace in the New Testament; if we understand some of the ‘harsher’ language in the Old Testament as hyperbolic or parabolic. Thus the language should be understood in way that presents God as someone who is intensely adverse to sin, and not actually a mean, wrathful God—the kind of God who would condemn people to an eternal conscious and tormenting place known traditionally as, Hell. Chapter 6 is, All Merciful Now, Pent Up Rage Later? Here Baer asks his most pivotal question (according to him); it is: Why would God be forgiving here on Earth but extremely harsh and final in his punishment after death? (p. 77) In this chapter, Baer engages multiple passages of scripture—Ephesians 2:4-5; I Chronicles 16:34; Pslam 136; Titus 3:4-7; II Thessalonians 1:9; I Thessalonians 5:9-10; Matthew 18—to suggest (argue) that God’s mercy and grace far over-shadow God’s wrath and sense of justice towards sin. This chapter is Baer’s attempt to appeal to God’s nature, which as Baer would argue, means that God is not vindictive or wrathful forever; and Baer believes that the traditional doctrine of hell portends otherwise. Chapter 7 is labeled, When a Metaphor’s a Metaphor. Again, this is straightforward and self-explanatory. He tackles metaphor and its usage in scripture; he seeks to deconstruct the reality of a literal place called hell by ascribing it to the literary form of metaphor. Baer says it best when he writes of the dominical teaching of Jesus found in Mark 9; note, Baer:

[W]hen you are reading metaphorical language, you have to study it to see what the author was truly saying. In that same passage from the book of Mark, we see Jesus talking about being in danger of Gehenna (incorrectly translated as Hell) if you are not turning from those sins. This metaphorical language shows us that there is a punishment for sin and we are in danger of that punishment after we die. Did I miss the part about eternal torment and burning Hell for all of eternity? I didn’t miss it because it’s not there. Jesus didn’t say that, not even metaphorically, several times. That shows me that punishment for sin will not be pleasant but that there is also hope. God’s judgment is a serious thing to encounter. (p. 90)

Chapter 8 is titled, Aren’t We Forgetting Something? I Didn’t Ask To Be Born . . . . His basic suggestion in this chapter is that none of us chose to be born; so therefore, how would it be fair for God to then condemn us to hell? Baer intones that it is not fair and further, that this is incommensurate with God’s nature and demonstration of grace.  Baer writes, “Why would He not be merciful on judgment day, after a person’s time of punishment and correction? Why would he choose for someone to be born, live their life, and send them to Hell for eternity?” (p. 102) He follows this question, with many other skeptical questions about the fairness of God sending people to hell. You will have to read the book to find out what those are. Chapter 9, It’s Either Good News or It’s Not, continues to ask questions about God’s fairness; if in fact there is a literal place known as hell which lasts forever. His basic premise in this chapter is an “all or nothing” proposition; either the Gospel is good news or not. For Baer that means that everybody is included in the life everlasting offered by the Gospel; and not the eternal condemnation of hell (that would be bad news, and according to Baer negate the Good News). Baer writes, “If the Good News of Jesus Christ is only saving 10-20% of the world’s population, like most Christians estimate, then the news is good for a very small percentage of humanity and horrific for the majority of mankind. It’s either good news or it’s not.” (p. 110) The rest of the chapter follows this kind of “logic.” Chapter 10 is entitled, The Battle of Epic Proportions. In this chapter Baer engages the book of Revelation. Baer believes that “if” Revelation is an actual book that should be included in the Canon [he is ambiguous on his belief here, he appeals to the early Luther who questioned this book’s inclusion in the canon of Scripture (p. 124)—and then he questions the clarity of this book given its notoriously enigmatic history of interpretation (p. 129)], then it might teach that hell involves eternal conscious torment. But he elides this, again, by suggesting that the book of Revelation is a crux interpretum, and thus should not be appealed to in establishing doctrine. Baer seems to be appealing to the analogia scriptura (or fidei), where scripture should interpret scripture (the more clear interpreting the less clear); although he does not identify this, in explicit terms, as his approach at this point. Finally he closes this chapter by pointing the more motivated reader to PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), where he notes that, “PBS online has a great article on the history and facts about the book of Revelation.” (p. 129) Baer’s method in this chapter seemed to be to marginalize the clarity of Revelation, since if taken too literally it would seem to articulate that hell is eternal conscious torment. Chapter 11 is the final chapter of the book, and it is entitled, Restoring a 57’ Chevy. Baer uses this image [the 57’ Chevy] as a picture of what God does; he restores. Here, Baer, presents the Good News, the Gospel Message. Baer makes it clear that while he rejects the Tradition of the historic Christian Church on the doctrine of Hell; that at the same time, he still affirms the historic teaching of Christendom, that the only way to have a relationship with God is through faith in Jesus Christ! Baer is hopeful!

Strengths

The primary strength of Jackson Baer’s book is that it has the potential to cause Christians to return to scripture once again, and test to see if what Baer is asserting is true. Baer is able to write in a way that the reader will feel his heart, passion, and burden to get scripture right. Throughout the book Baer continuously references scripture after scripture; seeking to prove his argument from the holy writ. This book illustrates what it looks like for a non-specialist to engage a timely topic of our day in a heartfelt way.

Weaknesses

Jackson Baer, throughout his book, engages in fallacy after fallacy. This review has already run way too long, so I cannot illustrate this any further at this point (you will simply have to read the book to find out what I mean). He poisons the well, engages the genetic fallacy (over and again), sets up straw men, and probably the most prominent fallacy in Baer’s argument is ‘question begging’ (petitio principii). Baer overstates his case, many times, in order to undercut the traditional teaching of hell. In other words, he is so focused on deconstructing the doctrine of Hell, that he, in the process, tarnishes the integrity of the scriptures (even though he also wants to affirm that). Furthermore, Baer, undercuts the readers ability to trust modern biblical translations; again, simply so that he can make his point about hell (i.e. he believes that modern translations are more akin to interpretations, thus his appeal to a literal ‘translation’ “Young’s Literal Translation [which is actually a terrible literal translation]). There is also a prominent factual error that runs throughout Baer’s book; on pages 40, 124, and 127 he refers to the book of Revelation as apocryphal literature, instead of what it should be, apocalyptical literature—this error does not inspire confidence in the rest of Baer’s research. Finally, for this review, Baer runs rough-shod over any kind of scholarship. He ignores all of the history of interpretation, and only makes cryptic allusions to the history on this issue. This is a great oversight, and in my mind discredits the entire book (with everything else just noted).

Recommendation

As I wrote at the beginning of this review; this book would be more in the genre of diary, and personal reflection on how Jackson Baer has worked his way to his position on the traditional teaching on hell. If you are interested in understanding Jackson Baer’s road to a Christian Universalism, of sorts (he never self-identifies this way); then I could recommend this book to you on those merits. If you are seriously interested in reading a book that critically engages this issue, in a way that reflects careful thinking and argumentation; then I cannot recommend this book to you. For that I would recommend Gregory MacDonald’s (aka Robin Parry) The Evangelical Universalist. In fact, I would recommend that the author of the book under review here (if he has not), read MacDonald’s book. I think Baer would agree with what I have written here, after he does that.

The Wages of Sin Are Not Eternal? [The Foreverness of Hell]

Reading Jackson Baer’s book, “What The Hell,” and the fact that my brother is about to read, and my mom has already read Gregory MacDonald’s (Robin Parry) The Evangelical Universalist; has made me return to MacDonald’s book to review and reconsider his argument for a Christian Universalism. It is obviously not the majority report amongst the history of interpretation in the Christian Church, but it is not without historical precedent; nor does it necessarily require that it be considered heresy (maybe just heterodoxy, at most).

What I want to highlight in this post is how Parry seeks to argue for universalism through biblical exegesis. In his book he works through all the difficult passages and classic passages that “seem” to teach about a literal hell that involves eternal conscious torment. But Parry isn’t totally on the defensive, which is one of the things that make his book so good; he also offers his positive case for Evangelical Universalism. To get a flavor of this let me quote Parry’s closing paragraphs of his exegesis of Colossians 2:15ff; he is using this universalist passage to provide framework and scope for the rest of his argument and biblical theology of Evangelical Universalism. He writes:

[W]hat we find in Colossians, then, is a theology that locates the origin of creation, the revelation of God, and the salvation of the world in Christ. It recognizes the massive rupture introduced into the world through sin, and it sees the solution to this problem in the death of Christ. It requires a response of obedient faith to share in Christ and in the inheritance of eternal life. It offers no hope of a nice God letting everyone into heaven no matter how they live or what they believe. However, in spite of that, it holds before us a confident hope in the salvation of the whole creation. It is God’s covenant purpose that his world will one day be reconciled in Christ. For now, only the Church shares in that privilege, but this is not a position God has granted his people so they can gloat over the world. On the contrary, the Church must live by gospel standards and proclaim its gospel message so that the world will come to share in the saving work of Christ. This is the outline of the evangelical universalist theology I wish to commend to the reader. . . .

This chapter has set out to argue that Colossians works with a vision of reconciliation for the whole creation. We have seen that this vision is perfectly compatible with a strong doctrine of sin . . . , with a Christ-centred account of salvation, with the necessity of faith, with the current division between the elect and those lost in sin, and with a high ecclesiology. This vision, I suggest, can provide the contours for an evangelical, gospel-centred universalism. . . . [Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006), 52-3]

This gives a sense into how Parry communicates, and how he will be proceeding in presenting his case for what he calls, evangelical universalism.

Without a doubt this is a controversial issue, and something that, probably most Christians know very little (to nothing) about. If you hold to the ‘Traditional’ view of hell (“Eternal, Conscious Torment”); then you need to read Parry’s book! I would imagine most Evangelical Christians wish that Eternal Conscious Torment hell was not a reality; well, MacDonald’s book provides argument that articulates a view that says that you don’t have to believe in ECT. In fact, if you are going to follow the Bible, according to Parry, then you must reject ECT.

What do you think about this stuff?

Rob Bell's "Grandpa," J. A. T. Robinson: a 'Christian Universalism'

No, silly, J.A.T. Robinson isn’t really Rob Bell’s “Grandpa,” I used that to provoke a little hook in order to grab some readers for this post. Yet, there is “some” truth to it; theologically. Robinson offers a more robust version of Bell’s apparent “hopeful universalism” before Bell was ever born [by the way, this post isn’t primarily about Bell, it’s more about presenting Robinson’s view of Christian universalism — but of course this will affect how someone might think of the apparent “novelty” of Bell’s points on this subject in his recent book]. I am just beginning to read a volume entitled: Universalism And The Doctrine Of Hell: Papers Presented at the Fourth Edinburgh Conference on Christian Dogmatics, 1991. I was actually hoping to be able to pick up Greg MacDonald’s Evangelical Universalist, but was unable to secure a copy until a later date; in lieu of that I am reading this compiliation, and while it is a bit dated (1991), I think it should prove to be a helpful piece in working through the contours of this particularly lively topic nowadays (plus, it has a chapter from T.F. Torrance, how could we go wrong then?). Alright, now that that’s cleared; let me get right to it and present J.A.T. Robinson’s ‘Christian Universalism,’ summarized by Trevor Hart (then I’ll follow with a brief parting comment):

The essence of Robinson’s universalism consists in fact in the confident assertion that ultimately all will be saved because all will in time come to choose the salvation offered through Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. Thus there is no suggestion that any will be saved other than through faith in Christ, since salvation itself consists precisely in the free choice of life through the death of Christ and the rejection of that hell which is the deserved fate of human beings. Thus, he contends, ‘there could be no greater calumny than to suggest that the universalist either does not preach hell or does so with his tongue in his cheek’. On the contrary, both hell and judgement must be preached with integrity as existentially real alternatives to salvation. ‘Only the man who has genuinely been confronted by both alternatives can be saved. To preach heaven alone . . . is to deny men the possibility of salvation. For salvation is a state of having chosen; and in the moment of choice . . . , both alternatives are existentially as real.’ It is thus that Robinson is able to make sense of the biblical dualism between the saved and the lost. This is, as it were, a perfectly true and necessary account for the person facing the choice between salvation and its alternative. ‘From below’ hell and judgement are indeed realities, since no person can reject Christ and face anything other than eternal death. Thus we must not be too dismissive of Robinson’s ‘kerygmatic hell’ as it has been called. It is kerygmatic not in the sense that it belongs only to the kerygma and not to the real world (a view which would rob the kerygma of its integrity, turning its dark side into an empty threat), but rather in the sense that it is absolutely necessary that the kerygma should present what is the only real alternative to choosing life in Christ. Being saved involves rejecting this dark alternative to life in all its fulness; and that which is rejected is indeed real enough. It is because Robinson is equally convinced that all will in fact make this choice under the compulsion of divine love that he speaks of universalism as the ‘truth as it is for God’ (i.e. from above), and biblical dualism as the all too real scenario facing human beings in their existential viewpoint prior to this decision of faith. All will choose life: but the choice is only a real and significant one precisely because neither the reality of hell nor the urgency of choice is in any way lessened. Thus Robinson concludes that the divine love ‘will take no man’s choice from him; for it is precisely his choice that it wants. But its will to lordship is inexhaustible and ultimately unendurable: the sinner must yield.’ [Trevor Hart, “Chapter 1, Universalism: Two Distinct Types,” in, Universalism And The Doctrine Of Hell, edited by Nigel M. de. S. Cameron (UK: The Guernsey Press Co. Ltd., 1991), 21-2.]

So for Robinson, God’s love in Christ is going to win! It’s important to note, that this indeed is an “Evangelical” and “Christian” form of ‘universalism’; faith in Christ is still required, it’s just that his love is so compelling that all “eventually” will respond (and in their response, their true human freedom is finally realized — pace Robinson). This is in contrast to John Hick’s ‘Pluralist Universalism’ — the other kind that Hart is sketching — that avers that all will be “saved” with no need for Christ (it will just be based upon, basically their habituation in the “light” their particular “tradition” provided for them). There are, Scriptural and Dogmatic problems for Robinson’s proposal; I may try to work through Hart’s work on those (in response to Robinson’s view) in the next post (we’ll see). Anyway, I think, at least, it’s important to note that Bell is not presenting something novel with his recent and dramatic book; Robinson, at least (if not others like Origen, Maximus et al) beat him to the punch — and in much more rigorous ways (and then of course there are more recent proposals like that of Greg MacDonald’s which I hope to get to in the next month or so).