January 13, 2008
Greetings all! As usual, it’s been quite a while since I last wrote, and a lot’s happened. First, quick update on my life. I’ve been working at Epic for two and a half months now, and I continue to really enjoy it. I’m still in training, working on practice projects and taking tests, but things are going well. Nikki and I had a great Christmas which we spent in South Dakota with my uncle’s family and my siblings, and that was very special. I hadn’t seen my siblings in quite a while, and it was good to see them again. If pressed for more details, I might provide them.
Universalism, roughly speaking, is the idea that all people go to heaven eventually, i.e. that people are universally saved. It’s been debated across the centuries, with orthodox Christian opinion always (or almost always) against it. And that’s how it was first presented to me, as one of many Christian heresies. Two and a half years ago, my dad sent me a paper on Universalism and asked me to respond to it: I gave him a quick emotional reaction (didn’t like the author’s disdain of “tradition” and “orthodoxy”) which was unsatisfactory to my dad. A year later, Master Wilson sent me a like to this paper which is something of a defense of Universalism from a fairly orthodox perspective. I read it, thought about it, and changed my mind a little bit. At least, my position against universalism loosened a bit. I figured you could hold it without being a terrible heretic, even though I was still a bit iffy on it. I don’t change my mind that easily.
I’m not sure why I thought of it again today. Part of it might do with renewed discussions with a former-pastor-turned-atheist friend of mine, another part with other theological thoughts I had that day which may make their way into a separate post. But it did come up again, so I’d like to summarize my thoughts. I think at the moment, I cautiously accept universalism, with the caveat that it’s not a position I hold strongly and one I would be ready to change if presented a good case.
Reading the paper I linked to above is going to be a better discussion of universalism than this post, so you may wish to go there. But I here are some of my beliefs/thoughts on the issue. Besides, if I am falling into heresy, best that it come into the light so that it can be corrected by my fellow believers, eh?
The first thought I have is this: why are we so dead certain that once in hell, a soul will never leave it? Where in the Bible does it say that all who are damned are damned forever? It certainly says there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Some of the most familiar and graphic passages on hell and eternal damnation come from Revelation. I’ll quote one of them:
the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
It’s pretty obvious from here that the devil and the false prophet and the beast are going to burn forever, but those whose names were written not written in the Lamb’s book of life ... might not. It doesn’t say specifically.
Again, from the parable of the rich man in hell that Jesus tells in Luke where Abraham says:
Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. 26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
Luke 16:25–26, KJV
(Sorry for the King James English; gnomesword crashed on me and I decided to revert to good old ‘bible.’ One of these days I may try to figure out how to make that lovely little program work on the SWORD data files.)
That does make a good case that people in hell cannot get out, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t get out ever. Just not now. Perhaps they’re there until they repent (though that rich man sounds like he’d be willing to repent).
Right now, all I’m trying to do is undermine the traditional certainty that those in hell are lost forever. I just don’t think that the issue is quite so cut-and-dried in the Scripture. Besides, there’s that one weird verse in Ephesians where Paul writes,
Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?
Ephesians 4:8–9, ESV
Some have taken this verse to mean that Christ descended into hell after His death and preached to those there, and, when he ascended, freed their souls. Interesting.
If CS Lewis is correct in believing “the gates of hell are barred from the inside,” is it not possible that a person may eventually choose to unbar the door? That a person is only in hell until he or she repents and accepts the lordship of Christ?
Actually, I can make a case that the person in hell will never make a choice to unbar the door, because the only reason anyone makes that choice is through the gracious action of the Holy Spirit, who is not present in hell.
If those in hell are not bound there forever, one of the most troubling objections to Christian doctrine is removed: i.e. what about those who have never had Christ preached to them (or where the message was preached by incredibly unworthy ministers)? Are they too condemned?
I suppose I’m not really sure where I stand in all this. I think that it can be said that I’m fairly agnostic about whether anyone is going to end up in hell in the long run. I just don’t know. And I’m ok with that.
Finally, to deal with the primary objection to Universalism, that it undermines a missionary impulse. That is a serious problem, and I definitely wouldn’t want to encourage it. But first, if it’s true one should believe it regardless of whether it undermines a missionary impulse, and second: by that logic, once someone is saved you have no motivation to teach them more about Christ. After all, they’re saved and they’ll learn it all eventually, right? If there’s reason enough for discipleship that a person should progress from infant to adult, isn’t that reason all the stronger for people to progress from unborn to infant?
But it could undermine a person’s feeling of desperation and possibly guilt. And that might be a good thing.
Your thoughts are welcome. Just please remember, I’m not trying to be heretical and I’m not 100% convinced in my own mind anyway.
This post has been classified as "Musings"