The Universal Reconciliation Challenge

Exactly two months ago today, I presented The Everlasting Hell Challenge which, as of yet, nobody has been able to win. A poster on the message board where I first presented the challenge asked me to, using the exact same criteria as my original challenge, try to prove Universal Reconciliation. The challenge presented to me was:

Demonstrate convincingly that the idea that “everybody has been (or eventually will be) reconciled or saved by Christ” is a much clearer teaching in Scripture than the idea that “the punishment for those who die without putting their faith in Jesus Christ alone to save them (apart from any works) is everlasting.” You must not contradict any other parts of Scripture or any other of your own theological positions in order to demonstrate this.

I decided to take the challenge, and the following is what I came up with:

The easy part of this challenge is, of course, to refer to my own Everlasting Hell Challenge and note that there’s nothing in Scripture that teaches that anybody who dies without putting their faith in Jesus Christ alone to save them (apart from any works) will spend eternity in torment, at least nothing that anyone has pointed out in Scripture yet anyway, so unless someone comes up with something on that front this seems to leave ET (Everlasting Torment) out of the running as an option. This leaves Annihilation and UR (Universal Reconciliation) as the only other options that I can think of.

So is there anything in Scripture that might suggest Annihilation, and if so does it seem to be a stronger argument than for UR? The only passage that I’m aware of that might suggest annihilation for those who die without putting their faith in Jesus Christ alone to save them (apart from any works) is 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9, “In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power” (King James Version). Of course when we look at that passage in a more literal translation we see it translated as, “in flaming fire, giving vengeance to those not knowing God, and to those not obeying the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall suffer justice — destruction age-during — from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of his strength” (Young’s Literal Translation), so even that passage might not support Annihilation if we go by the YLT since it seems like the destruction might only last until the end of the age (or ages) rather than forever according to that translation.

So while that seems to eliminate ET as an option, and leaves Annihilation as a possible option, we still need to consider whether Scripture suggests the idea of UR at all, and if so does it seem to point more strongly towards UR than it does towards Annihilation? To be honest I’m not even sure where to begin here, there are so many passages in Scripture that seem to indicate UR. I’ll just post a few of these passages, along with my thoughts on some of them, but if you want to see a extended list (and not even necessarily an exhaustive list at that) of passages that seem to point us towards UR you can read them here: The Ultimate Redemptive Purposes of God: Scriptures Concerning the Reconciliation of All Things.

I’m going to start with a few passages from the Old Testament to show how it reveals God’s attitude towards judgement:

“O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; For His mercy endureth forever.” – I Chron 16:34

“For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime; Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning.” – Ps 30:5

[This actually seems to be a theme repeated throughout Scripture. God’s judgements can be severe but His mercy and grace will always be the end result.]

“And the Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain [Mount Zion]…and on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, even the veil which is stretched over all nations. He will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces.” – Is 25:6-8

[If God is going to swallow up death for all time, I would think this would include everybody who has ever died.]

“All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” – Is 53:6

[Most Christians believe that this prophetically refers to Christ. If the iniquity of us all have fallen on Him then all of us have been forgiven.]

“For the Lord will not reject forever, for if He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness.” – Lam 3:31-32

[Enough said. 😀 ]

That’s enough Old Testament for now, time to move on to the New Testament:

“What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? Thus it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish.” – Mt 18:12,14

[I really don’t think it gets much clearer than the parable of the lost sheep. I don’t see how one can read or hear this parable without coming to the conclusion that the Good Shepherd will find every last one of us.]

“Jesus said, “Father forgive them; they know not what they do.” – Lk 23:34

[Yes, He could have just been speaking of those who crucified Him, but if someone who committed that act gets forgiveness how could any of us not be forgiven (not to mention the fact that many Christians believe that all of us are responsible for His death)?]

“The next day he [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”” – Jn 1:29

“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” – Jn 12:32

[Do we believe that Christ will keep His promises?]

“So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One, the many will be made righteous. And the Law came in that the transgression might increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more!” – Rom 5:18-20

[Granted, the Bible isn’t an algebra textbook, but if we were to break this passage down formulaically (assuming that the “all” and “many” in both groups refer to the same people) it would be very difficult to come to any conclusion other than UR.]

“For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it in hope, that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” – Rom 8:19-21

“For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all. Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” – Rom 11:32,33

[These two passages tell us that God is ultimately responsible for the state the world is in, which means that He planned both sin and the fall, but for a reason. They also seem to indicate that His plan for causing us to suffer in this fallen world will ultimately be positive for everybody.]

“For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fulness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.” – Col 1:19-22

“Christ is all, and is in all.” – Col 3:11

“Even though I [Paul] was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor, yet I was shown mercy, because I acted ignorantly in unbelief.” – I Tim 1:13

[As David Sprenger put it, If the prerequisite for mercy is ignorance and unbelief, then who will fail to qualify?]

“For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to be borne at the proper time.” – 1 Tim 2:5,6

“For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.” – 1 Tim 4:10

[“Especially” doesn’t mean “exclusively.” Please note that it also doesn’t say that God is the “potential” Saviour of all men but that He simply is the Saviour of all men, and in order to be a Saviour you have to actually do some saving, hence all men are (or will be) saved.]

“In these last days He has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” – Heb 1:2
“But now once at the consummation He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” – Heb 9:26

[Sin isn’t put away by our faith, it was put away by His sacrifice 2,000 years ago.]

“And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” – 1 John 2:2

[You knew I was going to bring this one up, didn’t you? 😀 ]

While there are many more passages I could go over, I’ve probably taken up enough space here already (but check the page I referred to above for lots more). So while the Annihilation option has 1 potential passage to back it up (and depending on the translation and/or interpretation one uses one could argue quite convincingly that it doesn’t even do that), I quoted 20 passages (out of many others that I didn’t post) that seem to point us towards UR (and not just point towards, some of them seem to state the position quite clearly, at least when taken at face value). If we were simply going by quantity I’d say that UR wins hands down, but even after we’ve taken context and interpretation into consideration I would posit that UR still has much more going for it that Annihilation (and 100% more going for it than ET for non-believers, seeing as we couldn’t find any passages to back that position up).

Now there is one more position we haven’t covered, and that’s the idea of ET for those who don’t do certain works (including the work of not avoiding certain actions/inactions), which pretty much every passage traditionally used to argue for ET could easily be interpreted as saying. I’ve obviously left that position out since neither I, nor most other Protestants I know, believes that salvation is by works, and the challenge included the clause that you must not contradict “any other of your own theological positions in order to demonstrate” your conclusion. Also, depending on one’s translation and/or interpretation, it can easily be argued that these passages are referring to an age of punishment rather than an eternity as well (check out Young’s Literal Translation and see for yourself).

So I leave it to you. Zero passages supporting ET for non-believers, one passage possibly supporting Annihilation for non-believers, and twenty-plus passages supporting UR (ignoring the ten or so passages possibly supporting ET for those who don’t do certain good works, depending on one’s translation and/or interpretation). With all that in mind, I would ask why anybody would continue to believe that the Bible teaches that non-believers in Christ suffer everlasting torment in hell after death (apart from the fact that it’s what you were taught by your church and many would suffer negative consequences from other Christians for changing their mind on this issue)? Equally, I would ask how anybody can not believe that Scripture clearly teaches Universal Reconciliation in Christ?

Are Heretics Really a Threat?

Throughout history, various heretics (not to mention infidels, apostates and other non-believers in particular doctrines and dogmas) have been ostracized, persecuted, tortured and even killed for their particular beliefs (or lack thereof). Apparently we are often considered to be such a threat to the well being of society that if we are not eliminated we might actually be responsible for sending souls to everlasting perdition.

This fear, however, just goes to demonstrate the inconsistency in the theology of those who hold such a mindset. For those who believe in the idea of “free-will,” the individual is a free agent and completely responsible for whatever punishment one happens to bring upon oneself. This means that, while a “heretic” might reveal methods of bringing punishment upon oneself, the heretic can take none of the actual blame for the choice to believe whatever the heresy might be. Likewise, for those who believe in predestination, there is nothing a “heretic” could do that could change God’s election of one’s eternal destination. For a “heretic” to be at all responsible for somebody else going astray means that the heretic’s will is more powerful than the individual’s will or God’s will (depending on one’s stance on free-will vs. predestination).

This means that, even if everlasting torment in hell were true, us heretics should be considered to be no threat at all unless you believe us to be more powerful than both yourselves and God.

Salvations?

Lector: In the last post here, it was pointed out that if there is anything at all that we have to do to “get right with God,” even if it is simply “trusting Jesus,” then salvation would be by work and not grace as it would be a transaction between us and God. So how does one get saved apart from some sort of transaction?

Auctor: The only way for that to work would be if faith came after salvation. The faith one has would be faith that Christ has already saved them, in other words.

Lector: So then what does faith do for us if we’re already saved?

Auctor: Why it saves us, of course.

Lector: Ah, of course, it… wait, it does what? If we’re already saved how do we get saved again?

Auctor: Because “salvation” isn’t always the same thing as salvation. The same word can mean different things.

Lector: So “salvation” means two different things then?

Auctor: Actually it can mean many more than just two things, but for what we’re discussing here it actually refers to three different things.

Lector: Do tell.

Auctor: Well, to begin with, there is ontological salvation. This is the salvation I already referred to, the salvation that God gives us even before we begin to have any faith. This salvation happened to all of us in Christ apart from anything we have done or will do. When Christ died all died, and when He rose all rose, and we have all been saved, ontologically speaking, in Him.

Lector: That’s a pretty bold statement.

Auctor: It is.

Lector: How do you justify such a claim?

Auctor: It’s not my intention to even try to do so right now, that would too big a tangent for this discussion. For now it’s enough to remember that if God doesn’t save us apart from anything we do then salvation is a transaction.

Lector: Okay. So what about faith?

Auctor: That’s the second sort (or stage) of salvation, what I refer to as noological salvation. While ontological salvation is (among other things) the promise of the resurrection of the dead at some point in the future, noological salvation is freedom from the power of sin by being given knowledge of our ontological salvation and truly believing it. Faith, in other words. When someone comes to realize that they are already united to God through Christ and that there is nothing they have to do to please God or earn His forgiveness they are freed from the power of sin, which is the law or religion.

Lector: Ah, I see. But you mentioned three different types of salvation. What’s the third one?

Auctor: That would be what I refer to as sacramental salvation, the physical realizing of salvation which occurs at our resurrection when the mortal puts on immortality and we can finally see the salvation that we had all along in Christ.

Lector: Interesting. So we’ve been saved, we’re being saved, and we will be saved, all at the same time.

Auctor: That’s one way to put it. As long as we remember that there is nothing that we ourselves do to gain any of these salvations.

Lector: But what about faith? If we have to have faith to have what you called noological salvation then isn’t that still a transaction?

Auctor: Not if the faith is given to us by God. Remember, we’re saved by grace through faith, and that is not of ourselves but is a gift from God. The only way that it can be a gift is if God gives us the faith. If we have to build that salvific faith up then it would be a work.

Lector: Even if it’s just the amount of a mustard seed?

Auctor: Even that would still be a work. We don’t have to worry though. Only God can give us the faith that is necessary for the freedom that is noological salvation, we couldn’t possibly muster it up on our own anyway.

Christian Magic

Many of the evangelicals I grew up with were horrified at the idea of magic and witchcraft, all the while promoting the biggest magic spell ever, known to many simply as “The Sinner’s Prayer.”

This magical incantation, when spoken out loud (and truly believed), is supposed to somehow change the location that we end up in after we die from hell to heaven. Not only that, but speaking (and believing) this spell aloud is supposed to also spiritually transform the speaker into a better person, a “new creation.”

Of course there are some Christians who have realized that “The Sinner’s Prayer” is not actually spelled out anywhere in the Bible and they will tell you that it’s not the prayer that transforms your spirit and alters your afterlife itinerary but rather it’s the accepting of Jesus to save you that does the trick. The problem is that this still makes salvation into a transaction between you and God. Even if it’s just a small transaction, a transaction it remains if there is something, anything, that you have to do to “get right with God.” Unfortunately a transactional salvation is not salvation by grace, it’s salvation by work, even if that work is simply “trusting Jesus.”

So with all that in mind, how exactly is one saved apart from some sort of transaction? Well, I’ll get to that in an upcoming post. 🙂

The Open Church

I’ve been a part of at least two really good house churches over the last decade. The fact that they were house churches, however, was not the important factor here, the fact that they were “open churches” was. This means that we didn’t have sermons or dress codes or have to put up a false spiritual front. Instead we had theological and spiritual (and secular) discussions (and sometimes even friendly disagreements), where any point of view was allowed because we recognized that every human has a different one. We had full meals, not just a piece of bread and a sip of wine. We could wear whatever we felt like wearing, and it was always casual (I never saw a tie once except for perhaps in the closet of the person who’s house we were in). Most importantly, though, we had fellowship. We became friends who didn’t have to hide the truth about ourselves from each other because we knew we weren’t going to be kicked out for not having fundamentalist views or preferences (or even for not having non-fundamentalist views or preferences). Even after each of the house churches stopped meeting regularly (because, in my experience, very few house churches make it to the end of year three) most of us are still good friends who enjoy hanging out with each other or just chatting on the phone. As I said, the fact that this took place in a home, while helpful, was not absolutely necessary. In fact it could even be done in a church building if the members were open to it. 

The key is in not trying to make it a house church but in making it an open church where fellowship is more important than being right. On that note, I highly recommend the book The Open Church by James H. Rutz. I was introduced to this book by my ecclesiology teacher back in Bible College and my life has never been the same since. This book was actually probably the first major spiritual turning point for me in my adult life. If I hadn’t read it I could very well still be the fundamentalist guy I was back when I began Bible College.

Make Them Prove It

Admittedly it’s only a few days old, but so far no takers on my Everlasting Hell Challenge here on my blog, and only one taker on the website where I originally posted it and so far he hasn’t come up with anything substantial.

So with that in mind I want to give a piece of advice to all of my readers that has served me well in life. If somebody tries to convince you of something, make them prove it. Sounds obvious, yes, but too many people just take it for granted that when somebody they trust tells them something it must be true. The problem is, just because somebody is generally trustworthy it doesn’t mean that they know what they’re talking about. This goes especially for matters of religion. For instance, most Christians are positive that the Bible teaches that non-believers in Christ go to a place of conscious torment called hell for eternity after they die, even though the Bible doesn’t spell this out anywhere. Most Christians are also convinced that a good angel named Lucifer led a third of the angels in a rebellion against God and got them all kicked out of heaven and turned into demons (and Lucifer was renamed Satan), even though this also isn’t found anywhere in the Bible. I could go on and on with example after example of what I call Christian Urban Legends that Christians are convinced are in the Bible but are surprised when they find out they’re not. So I repeat, if somebody tries to tell you dogmatically that something is definitely true, always make them prove it. If they can’t, you are under no obligation to believe it.

The Everlasting Hell Challenge

On a Christian message board I sometimes visit we’ve been discussing the issue of hell which got me to thinking and I came up with a challenge for Protestant Christians who base their theology on the Bible alone:

Demonstrate convincingly that the idea that “those who die without putting their faith in Jesus Christ alone to save them (apart from any works) will end up in a place of torment called hell forever with no chance of escape” is a much clearer teaching in Scripture than the idea that “hell is not a place of everlasting torment.” You must not contradict any other parts of Scripture or any other of your own theological positions in order to demonstrate this.

How to Lose a Dispute

I am declaring a new rule: As soon as one side in a particular dispute or disagreement begins persecution of the other side they have automatically lost and the other side is the victor by default (and if both sides are persecuting each other then they both lose; there’s no excuse for persecution, although the side being persecuted more loses just a little less 🙂 ). If those on one side of a disagreement have to resort to persecution to try to win, they obviously don’t have enough valid arguments to back up their position.

The Heretic has spoken.

Is it Evil or Sinful?

Regarding my post on evil on Tuesday, I was asked how I would define the difference between evil and sin. As I said in that post, I define evil as an action or experience which we perceive in a negative way. Sin is a bit trickier, but not much once you deconstruct it a little. As most Christians are no doubt aware, “sin” literally means to “miss the mark.” From what I can tell, to sin is essentially to fail to be perfect at something, so if I am playing golf and fail to get a hole-in-one on every shot I have technically sinned. From a theological perspective “sin” would be simply failing to do something God wants me to do or doing something God doesn’t want me to do (not being perfect from His perspective, in other words). What makes this interesting is that something can be evil and not sinful at the same time, and vice-versa as well. For instance, if God tells me to kill a random person on the street it would be evil but not sinful for me to do so, and likewise it would be sinful but not evil for me not to do so. Let me know if that makes sense.

Evil Doesn’t Exist

It seems that most people, whether they be religious or not, believe in something called evil. The problem is, there is actually no such thing as evil because “evil” is really nothing more than an English word we use to label an action or experience which we perceive in a negative way. If nobody had emotions or the ability to feel discomfort or pain then nobody would believe in evil. This goes for good as well, by the way.

One key to understanding all of this, at least from a Christian perspective, is to remember is that evil and sin are two completely different concepts.