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

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….

gbbf-glass

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.

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BMS Catalyst Live – Reading, UK

catalyst live

Not Catalyst Olive, as one guest poet humourously suggested, but Catalyst Live!

Anyway, I’ve digressed already!  The event held in Manchester and Reading this week by the BMS team has been very well received.  There were many highlights, many of them great, some funny and some weird, but that’s a bit like me so I was happy with that.

There was a stupendous tumbleweed moment during the Q&A with Jurgen Moltmann and John Lennox.  Moltmann was asked a question about his universalism (I forget the details of the question even though it was stated twice – and quite differently both times),   and his reply caused a reaction in the gathering as if someone had let off a stun-grenade!  SILENCE….then murmering, then another question was asked.  The two men behind me were talking about it the whole while we spent trying to get our coffee.

Moltmann’s reply also seemed to cause the wonderful John Lennox to contort his face in some kind of disapproving horror (was he surprised by this reply?  Had he never read any of Moltmann’s writings? Have I over-interpretted his face and the crowd reaction?).  Maybe, but for now, I’ll assume not.

How does Moltmann’s theology of ‘hope’ interact with faith as a pre-requisite for securing one’s eternal security/destiny? “Do you believe all will be saved?”

“Yes.  Yes I do!”  Boom.  Silence.  Tumbleweed.  Murmerings.  Next question…

This was very exciting.  Had the Catalyst Live team forgotten that arguably the world’s greatest living theologian was well known for his universalism (Baptist supremo Nigel Wright has written on universalism in the theology of Jurgen Moltmann)?  Had they bargained for Moltmann’s brutal but refreshing directness, his honesty?  Well I say “bravo” to the BMS and Catalyst Live team for inviting a theologian who you must have known would not shrink back from his conviction.  In fact, why not invite speakers around this subject alone for next years Catalyst?  You’d have to find a bigger venue and expect a lot of nasty people, writing nasty letters on why they are upset that hell, in the end, will be empty – according to Moltmann (and many others I might add)!

It is a curious thing, that when we come to Scripture, the hell texts really do mean what traditional theology has taught; whilst when we come to universalist texts (of which there are many), traditional theology tends not to deal with them in the same way.  So what tends to happen is we latch on to certain texts, believe a certain theological eschatology around them and ‘fix’ ourselves like oak trees in the ground of certainty.  Or we don’t think too much about it and live with a kind of mushy eschatological agnosticism: we can’t really know and God will sort it out in the end.

But in reality, the hell texts and the universalist texts (not to mention John Stott’s position – the annihilation texts), sit there, in our Bibles, inter-mingling with each other.  All the while we fail to see that the universalist texts offer us hope that perhaps all will be saved; and the hell texts warn us not to take this for granted.  And so it is the Bible, not we, who are the controllers and masters of Scripture, for here is evidence of Scripture controlling and mastering us, as it should!

The Bible, by offering us both visions, will not allow us to settle down with a comfortable scheme of how the future will pan out (we are such control freaks)!  Instead it invites us to respond with hope yet without complacency.  This was Moltmann’s emphasis, he taught us about biblical hope – in Christ no less – a hope that given his personal standing, credentials and sheer theological genius, could never be accused of being complacent.

Nigel Wright himself in the above mentioned essay wrote, “Scripture is given not to bestow upon us all the answers but to create a narrative context in which we may live and which certain matters remain constructively if agonizingly open.”  The wisdom outlined by Wright can help to preserve us from complacency and self-satisfaction.  God truly does know the human heart.

Finally, the reason why I find this Scriptural and theological tension not only fascinating but challenging is because most Christians in the Western world do advocate that the vast majority of humanity will be punished for ever in a hell of fire.  What is tragic about this is the temperature of their blood, twice as hot as hell, as they defend their view against the one that God might actually accomplish the salvation of every person, as He declares in Scripture.  They seem to want people there and they would be disappointed if there wasn’t.  Of course, it goes without saying they know where they’re going!

Here is a quote I found on the Baptist Times web site in response to an article that suggested we need to talk about hell – If Jurgen Moltmann is world-class, likewise Anthony Thiselton who wrote, “…we should not characterise the Augustinian tradition of eternal torment as “the orthodox view.” At least three very different views competed in the early church, all of them seeking some support from Scripture” quoted in The Last Things, pg.148.

I end with something Moltmann actually said yesterday, in contrast to Dante’s words written over the entrance to Hell ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here,’ Moltmann said, “The abandonment of hope is to be in the entrance of hell.”  And it is precisely because he understands the hope offered in God, a God who does not abandon, a God known to us as ‘The God of Hope’ that he can say, with no shame, that this God, revealed in Christ Jesus, will rescue his people, his grace will trump our weak faith and petty lives and neat theology.  I love that he added sometime later in his talk, “We are expected by God.”

Indeed we are.

Thank you Catalyst Live 2013