Wednesday, August 06, 2008

"I wish I was a universalist"

Ever since I became the topic of a conversation on xmedia I've popped in occasionally to see what's being argued about, this one has been there for a while. Felicity writes:

"Someone please convince me! I'd be the happiest person in the world if I thought everyone was going to heaven, but it doesn't seem to be the case. I can't cope with hell, the thought horrifies me and I almost lost my faith over it. Keep thinking surely if God is loving and powerful he could fix it for everyone? It just seems so hard to have faith, why would God make it so hard and uncertain if eternity hangs in the balance? I'm just clinging to the possibility that God will do something as people die, or maybe even in between death and the last day..."
In September I'm preaching on part of 2 Corinthians and the issue arises in the text. Paul writes of himself, before exclaiming 'who is sufficient for these things' (who can handle this responsibility!): ..we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.

There are only two categories of people here. Those being saved and those perishing. And then the objections fly. But, I wonder, what are the alternatives?
  1. Everyone goes to hell? No-one has ever got very far pushing that view.
  2. Everyone (or the otherwise hell-bound) ceases. Dawkins and his new atheists like this as do many who don't like the idea of hell. And trying to escape God's judgement is a wise move, but believing in annihilation after death is just that isn't it - a human idea to vanish hell rather than a serious reckoning with the offence of sin, the holiness of God and the necessity of hell. Initially feels better but ceasing to exists is a disturbing idea.
  3. Everyone goes to heaven? Felicity things she'd prefer this as to many in the discussion thread. But if everyone goes to heaven then you need room there for Pol Pot and for Paris Hilton. Everyone has to include everyone doesn't it - otherwise we're just moving the line slightly to include a few extra people who we deem to deserve being saving.
  4. Second chance? Alternatively you say that after death there is a way out - whether the christianised error of purgatory or reincarnation.

Felicity admits she is 'clinging to the possibility that God will do something as people die, or maybe even in between death and the last day' (point 4), and 'I'd be the happiest person in the world if I thought everyone was going to heaven' (point 3).

And yet, as C.S. Lewis wrote (cited by Amy Orr-Ewing, But is it real? p97)

"In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: 'What are you asking God to do?' To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficult and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does." (The problem of pain, p130)

Not so much alone, but rather abandoned from all God's favour to experience his good and holy response to human rebellion. Here is why Christians speak of Jesus so much. Here is why Paul always goes around announcing that the old king is dead, long live the king - Jesus is Lord! Spreading the aroma of the knowledge of Jesus everywhere.

An aroma that is the odour of putrification to some and life to others. What aroma? Not the smell of moral improvement and human effort. That is death to everyone - Christian or otherwise. The aroma of the good news about Jesus. The proclamation that he is victorious. This smells of life. This is fresh coffee, fresh bread and grilled bacon on a saturday morning to the Christian.

This announcement is like water. To some it is water thrown on hot oil that makes it spit and fume and flame. Without overly revisiting my talk on Hell at Exeter University earlier this year - whilst I spoke of hell I did mostly speak of the free gift of life offered by God in Jesus, and yet this speech was termed by one student to be worse than the actions of a paedophile.

To others the water of the gospel is the refreshing needed by a parched person on a summer day. It is the comfort they need in their affliction. It is a fresh start, a new life, a new creation. He becomes sin for us, we become righteous, he takes our poverty and we gain his riches - this is the great exchange of Calvary.

God has done it. Already. No need to wait until death, or after death. This life is freely offered now. God has found the way, and it is the way to be the happiest person in the world - Paul says as much of himself, though he loses all things outwardly, the gospel has reconciled him to God now and forever. His ears hear the song of Christ's rule. His nose catches the sweet scent of the gospel. His eyes see the glory of God manifest in Jesus in the scriptures. He's a renewed creation, being ever-increasingly transformed to be like Jesus whom he will one day be with, not with all people - but with all who come by the way God has long since opened for anyone to come through.


  1. I love the way you are actively looking for fresh, engaging, uplifting ways to communicate - the smell of fresh bread, fresh coffee and bacon on a Saturday morning.

    Keep at it, Dave, along with all the gang who want to give the lie to the fact that preaching should ever be boring. Give the time to communicate with authentically sparkling words and concepts.

  2. Yeah, this is good.

    I've wondered a similar question about cult members and other badly distorted theology - should I wish for them to be saved, despite their problems? My heart says yes, even if those problems aren't fixed.

    Yet the Bible would say that they will not be saved- and if Christ's glory is as important as the Bible says - surely we should prefer JWs to go to hell than Christ's glory suffers?

    This is hard.

  3. Paul, indeed. We have to wrestle with anguish for our fellow human beings and with our concern for the glory of God to be vindicated. We will celebrate his victory in the end.

    Ezekiel would be good fuel for the heart in this.

  4. I'll just echo the rest... great post! Whenever people try and criticise the gospel as cruel we have to be confident that it is what it is: more full of overflowing goodness than we could ask or imagine.