An eternal tormentist, annihilationist and universalist walk into a pub…

What follows is part of a wider response to various questions that theologian Rob Knowles has responded to.  Here, after writing a thorough response and critique of C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, to which the opening of the article below refers, Rob proceeds to outline the actual biblical view(s) of what is associated with biblical notions of judgment and hell.

This debate suffers from the worst kinds of crappy-Christian polemics, historical amnesia and hermeneutical foreclosure, and dare I say, the real possibility that many Christians are going to be really cheesed off if God does indeed save everyone! Similarly, if God does or will save everyone, would that constitute what my brother refers to as ‘a pleasant hostage situation’?

If someone of the scholarly stature of A. C. Thiselton can confidently and unashamedly assert that within the Bible there exists three contradictory traditions, the interpreting community that is the Church had best sit up and pay proper theological attention!  At the very least, this would make an interesting discussion actually worth listening too, if our three traditions named in my title ever got into that pub!

Anyway, enjoy.  Cheers….


How could hell be just?
I have already said a lot on this question in my earlier theodicy on “the problem of evil”. There I offered a highly modified version of C.S. Lewis’s theodicy in his book, The Problem of Pain (see above). The theodicy went into some detail on the question of hell, and broadly rejected C.S. Lewis’ thinking on the matter in favour of A.C. Thiselton’s view, which we might call the “deliberate ambiguity” approach to hell. Lewis’s theodicy, in my view, was at its strongest in describing how, given that God had decided to create “persons” with (at least some measure of free will), then this was impossible without (a) some kind of neutral background – creation or “nature”, and (b) the possibility of us deciding to do wrong. These two factors explained 80% of the suffering in the world: that is, when it comes to the question: “why is there so much suffering in the world?” our answer is – roughly speaking – about 80% in agreement with the atheists. They say: there is no God; there is suffering; so humankind must have caused the suffering. We 80% agree that humankind must have caused the suffering – with the qualification that demonic influence on humanity also has to be accounted for.

The main exception to this was (c) what Lewis referred to as remedial suffering – suffering associated with God’s disciplining intervention into our lives, and with our going “cold turkey” on sins once we had decided to follow God – a “cold turkey” experience that Lewis, rightly, likened to crucifixion, since Paul speaks of the crucifixion of the sinful nature in the Christian.

In my view, though, Lewis’s theodicy was at its weakest in its depiction of God as being less than able to fully resolve the problem of human sin – as though the Almighty God was threatened by sin, and could only partially guarantee a partial salvation that heavily depended on our co-operation and works. The effect was to leave the reader exhausted, thinking that his or her works could be the deciding factor in his or her salvation.
To my mind, this view, whilst rightly stressing human responsibility, fails to present the biblical picture of God’s sovereignty. Yes, God is the crucified God, who suffers with us in weakness. And, for God as a man in Jesus Christ, nobody can under-estimate the suffering of the cross, and the difficulty God faced at that point, given the parameters that he had placed upon himself.

The cross aside, though, then there are no limiting parameters that God has placed upon himself except for the patience and forbearance he shows as his kingdom forcefully advances into enemy territory. Our weakness and fragility makes the Lord proceed slowly, in love for us. He no longer has any weakness or fragility, though. He is the Almighty – nothing whatsoever is impossible for him; nothing is too difficult for him. To say that God is “threatened” by human sin, or by the “difficulties” human sin presents to him is like saying NASA is threatened by the difficulties presented by cleaning a goldfish tank. It is a preposterous under-estimation of God.

No plan, no wisdom, no scheme can succeed against the Lord. That is what Scripture says. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. His power enables him to bring everything under his control. Everything is sustained in existence by his word only. His breath animates his every enemy. All our ways and all our lives are in his hands all the time. His understanding has no limits; his greatness no one can fathom. That is what Scripture says. And the Scripture “must be fulfilled”, Jesus says. No-one can hold back his hand, or say to him, “what have you done?” That is what Scripture says – and the Scripture must be fulfilled.

When we are saved, therefore, we are carried to heaven by a mighty hand. And nobody can snatch us out of that hand. In that process, we are given saving faith, and we are given repentance, and we are worked on to will to do right until we do will to do right. Even our good works are prepared in advance for us to do. Naturally, those who wish to boast in their own righteousness prefer a greater stress on human responsibility than this. But Paul says that even our righteousness is a gift from God.

If I get addicted to heroine, then I lose the freedom to say no to it. If the rehab centre picks me up off the streets, puts me in a locked room, and forces me to go cold turkey, then I gradually regain my freedom to say “no” to heroine. And, when I am completely better, I have a complete freedom to say “no” to heroine – so much so, that I am able to work at the rehab centre and help other addicts go cold turkey.

It is the same with sin: we had the freedom to say no, but lost that freedom (for everyone who sins is a slave to sin, and potentially to demons too). But God’s will is even stronger than what enslaves us, and he works in us to restore our freedom to say no to sin. Just like the drug-addict going cold turkey, however, we thrash about in the pain of cold turkey, and may even at times hate God, our jailor. In the madness of cold-turkey, we may thrash about and insult God, curse him, beg for release, reject him, and say and do anything to avoid the cold-turkey experience. But still, the door is locked, for strong is the hand that holds us captive.

And eventually, the madness subsides; the rage subsides; and sanity returns – and then we find that we love God and that, all along, he had been loving us. And when we are fully in our right minds, the door is opened, we are released from prison, and we breath the air of true freedom again. Then, in complete freewill agreement with God, we agree with his decision to lock a different door – the door that leads back to sin and addiction. So it is when we enter heaven – that which had previously enslaved us, and was indeed more powerful than us, now seems unthinkable and, indeed, becomes impossible.

I find this picture of the salvation experience to be more biblical than Lewis’s. It accounts for our will, our responsibility; but it makes salvation completely the Saviour’s domain, which it is, for ‘salvation belongs to him’, Scripture says. Our salvation requires a will stronger than ours to overrule a power greater than ours. God has to enter our house and tie up the strong man who is holding us captive, Jesus says. The idea that it all depends on us leaves us exhausted and hopeless, which is why I disagreed with what I saw to be Lewis’s emphases earlier, which left God at the mercy of our decisions, it seemed. This was a counsel of despair.
But what about hell? How can it be just? Well, several points have to be held in tension here, as follows:

(a) Thiselton, the theologian I trust the most in this matter, says that there are three teachings in Scripture that contradict each other, and that God has deliberately allowed these contradictions because of the resulting ambiguity, and because of the effect this ambiguity has on our obedience. The three teachings are: (i) hell as eternal torment; (ii) annihilation; and (iii) universal salvation. Thiselton notes that the church has regarded all three of these traditions as orthodox (the official doctrine) at some stage or other in its history though, admittedly, hell as eternal torment is the predominant orthodox view.

(b) The eternal torment view of hell is the view that causes most of the queries about God’s justice. The standard objections are as follows: (i) sin is finite, but eternal torment goes on forever; therefore, since justice is proportionate, hell is unjust, being disproportionate; (ii) Sin robs God of God’s property, so divine justice has to do with the restoration of God’s property – i.e. us – to God; if some go to hell, though, then justice can never truly be done, since only some of God’s property is restored to him; (iii) God is love, and is eternally loving; love always hopes, always perseveres, and never fails; so God will never give up on those in hell, but will continue to reach out to them until every last one of them is saved; since such restoration of loving community is the real justice – the real lawfulness – that God desires, then justice will not be done until God’s love has restored that community of love completely, meaning that hell will end up empty; (iv) God is compassionate, kind, and merciful, like the Father of the Prodigal Son – he could not tolerate the eternal suffering of even the worst sinners, for this would make him sadistic, which he is not.

(c) The standard replies to the standard objections are as follows: (i) sin against God is an infinite sin in some way; since God deserves infinite honour, then sin against him is infinite; moreover, those who keep sinning against God have made a decision to keep sinning against God indefinitely; so hell as infinite or indefinite suffering is just; (ii) God can compensate himself for his losses, and does so in creating for himself a new people, and perhaps in other ways that we do not yet know about; as God’s property, he created us in the first place, so he can simply create for himself a new people, which he does, for we ourselves as Christians are new creations; (iii) God is love, and love always perseveres, but on this very basis, that which is “not loving” is excluded from God’s presence since it is inconsistent with his nature; whilst God reaches out to redeem the unloving, those who say “no” to this redemption have made a permanent decision to remain unconformed to God’s nature, and so remain excluded from loving community because they are unloving; God accepts this loss, and compensates himself as already explained under “(ii)”; (iv) Even the Father of the Prodigal Son waited until the Prodigal Son had made the decision to return before running out to meet him to show him compassion – those in hell have made the decision not to return to the Father; since love does not control the other person, then even God has to wait for people to freely choose him before he can show compassion; furthermore, some argue that consciousness of torment does in fact get less and less in hell as there is less and less of the person left to experience anything.

(d) Neither the arguments against the justice of hell, nor the arguments for the justice of hell, ever seem entirely satisfactory. Partly, this is because we simply do not know enough about hell to come up with adequate arguments for or against its justice. Partly, it is because it is potentially us human beings (though not true Christians) who will go there, and so since we are sinners who have restructured ethics to centre upon our egos, we cannot conceive of a notion of “justice” that could harm us, or of a God who could eventually come to loathe us. In our narcissism, be blind ourselves to the truth of how we come across to others, or to God, and think that we are lovely. We find it astonishing when we realise just how guilty we actually are – it “can’t be true”, we think. But it is true.

Partly, then, we have come to conceive of God as an extension of our egos – as somebody who will always like us, smile on us, love what we are, and so on.
Partly, though, there really does seem to be a double-mindedness – even in Scripture – about the question of hell.

On the one hand, if we say “there is no hell”, Scripture contradicts us and our own outrage at the evils in the world often aligns with that contradiction – when faced with some evils, we are utterly convinced that, for that evil, hell is the only answer; such is the outrageous, utterly appalling, detestable arrogance of the perpetrators, and such is the appalling tragedy for others that they have created, that we often agree with God: hell alone can serve as justice for that evil.

Once, I was watching television, and a little old lady was looking for her dead son. Before her stood an open-sided shed full of thousands of skulls. She knew that one of those skulls may have belonged to her son, but could never know which one. So, this little old lady, was trapped in torment, for ever in tears – along with thousands of other little old ladies – for Pol Pot had effectively murdered between one and three million people – a quarter of Cambodia’s entire population – through his executions and forced labour camps. It was impossible to watch the documentary without thinking: “Pol Pot should go to hell for this”. His crimes were so immeasurably great, that words were not enough to describe them.

I visited the Killing Fields of Cambodia (Dec 2015) and saw this utterly tragic scene myself.

 And yet, on the other hand, a different spirit can take hold of us. In another documentary on Pol Pot, it showed him as a self-deceived, frail, little old man, admitting that he “had made some mistakes”. If, during the interview, somebody had rushed in with a machete to kill him, one’s instincts would want to see this act of butchery stopped. It would seem like just “more of the same” evil, and that it was the evil that had to be stopped, not Pol Pot the little frail old man who no longer had any power. Now, doubtless, there is too much sentiment in what I am saying here. And yet, there comes a point where even mortal enemies become so tired of the bloodshed that they agree to terms of peace despite past evils. They want a different paradigm to prevail. There is a principle in justice that seeks to “add the good” back into the offender’s life – not to simply destroy out of vengeance, but to make the bad good.

And so, in Scripture, Jesus speaks to us about eternal torment; but he asks the Father to “forgive, for they do not know what they do”. Even if the latter utterance was intended just for those who crucified him, the utterance came from a principled place, and not from a man ruled by sentiment.

Thus, the problem is over-neat doctrinal resolutions that either completely flatten the hell teaching on eternal torment in subservience to annihilationist or universalist traditions, or that flatten the annihilationist or universalist traditions in subservience to the eternal torment tradition. Thiselton argues that such over-neat resolutions prematurely bring assertions of certainty to what is really ambiguity.

Somehow, the Almighty will resolve the tensions between the equally right, and yet seemingly contradictory, aspects of divine justice. God is the Lawgiver and Judge, and his decisions are right and they are final. There is no appeal court with God, for it is unthinkable that he would ever judge wrongly, unjustly, or unfairly. We know his judgments will have surprises in them. And we ourselves behave better if we are left in the dark on exactly what God will do. Three kinds of outcome can happen: that means it could be eternal torment for some. And so, we’d better choose to serve Jesus – to make peace with the army advancing against the sinful world before it is too late.

The Lord, though, is certainly capable of saving everybody if he chose to do so. To suggest otherwise is a gross under-estimation of God’s foresight and creative abilities. Will the cross be ineffective? Will Jesus’ prayer be unanswered? Can God’s enemies thwart his purposes? No-one can hold back his hand.

And yet it would be dangerous to assume that our thoughts are his thoughts or our ways his ways. He is not an ego-extension: he makes his own decisions about us, and it is quite possible that we will not like what he decides. Better by far to repent, and leave nothing to chance. No-one will be condemned who takes refuge in him.

C.S. Lewis’ writes in A Grief Observed (which should be read in conjunction with The Problem of Pain): “I will not, if I can help it, shin up either the feathery or the prickly tree. Two widely different convictions press more and more on my mind. One is that the Eternal Vet is even more inexorable and the possible operations even more painful than our severest imaginings can forebode. But the other, that ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’.”

We live with tensions and difficult realities, and not with cheery certainties – though one cheery certainty is that there is such a thing as a contrast between wisdom and folly. Progress in understanding can be made, even in a subject like hell.

Perhaps, here, we might recommend some reading. It is always best to consult the experts on difficult subjects such as hell. Here are some useful books on this subject: The Last Things: A New Approach (A.C. Thiselton; this work also appears under a different title: Life After Death: A New Approach to the Last Things; it is the same work – don’t buy it twice!); The Evangelical Universalist: The Biblical Hope that God’s Love Will Save Us All (Gregory MacDonald aka Robin Parry); Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell and the New Jerusalem (Bradley Jersak); The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed (both by C.S. Lewis).”

I would add Thomas Talbott’s tour de force The Inescapable Love of God and All Shall Be Well (an excellent historical resource ranging from Origen to Moltmann, edited by ‘Gregory MacDonald’.

Moor Sillouette

I took this picture on Dartmoor, January 2016

One thought on “An eternal tormentist, annihilationist and universalist walk into a pub…

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  1. Another excellent post. For me, while immeasurably higher than my own, the love of God for us only makes sense if it is in some way commensurate with human love. It has to be in some way compatible (likewise his justice, etc). Becoming a father massively expanded my understanding and experience of love. It is simply inconceivable that I could ever stop loving my son, even with a full knowledge of his actions and intentions as a free agent. God’s love simply cannot be a deficient form of this, capable of disowning or actively casting out into eternal punishment, making us non-children by divine fiat. True, there is a lot of sentimental narcissism in love for one’s children (though that is just the pathological form it seems to take, not the real thing), and a discussion like this can’t afford to give much room to such things. That said, why did we ever imagine that God’s love for all of us should be so pinched and mean, while all the time saying it was perfect, while knowing all the while that it wasn’t?

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