[The following are extracts from conversations I’ve had in the past month.]
Paul, you’re opposed to inclusionism and you’re skeptical about universalism. Why do you want to condemn people to hell?
I’ve come to embrace inclusionism (or universalism) because I cannot conceive of a good God torturing people for eternity.
Neither can I, but what has that to do with inclusionism, universalism, or any -ism?
Uni/inclusionism says God loves his enemies…
Actually, the Bible says that – it’s Romans 5:10. It’s the gospel of grace.
But the traditional church view is that God will torture sinners for eternity.
Since when has the traditional church understood the gospel of grace? If our traditions have misled us about grace, isn’t it possible they have also misled us about hell?
Exactly! So what does the gospel of grace say about hell?
Nothing. The gospel is good news; hell is bad news. There’s no bad news in the good news.
So you don’t believe in hell?
No, I do. Jesus and the apostles spoke about it too often for us to ignore. I’m saying it’s a mistake to use the threat of hell – however you define it – to call the prodigals back to their Father. Love makes no threats.
Yeah, but what is God going to do to those prodigals who refuse to come home?
What makes you think he is going to do anything?
Wait – you just said you believed in hell?
I do. I just don’t believe God sends anyone there. Hell is for those who choose it.
Recall Jesus weeping over the imminent fall of Jerusalem. He said, “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Mt 23:37). Jesus is a gatherer, not an executioner. He longs to gather us to himself, but not all are willing.
So what happens to the unwilling?
That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? There are three options:
- the traditional view – the unwilling suffer for eternity
- the universalist view – the unwilling become willing and enter the kingdom
- the annihilationist view – the unwilling exit stage left
Some people speculate about the possibility of hell being some kind of waiting room or health spa, but ultimately there are only three outcomes.
You’re not a universalist and you just told us you don’t subscribe to the traditional view, so I guess that makes you an annihilationist.
I hate that word. It sounds like a villain in an Avengers movie.
So if you don’t think the end is annihilation, what is it?
Death, or more specifically, the Second Death. We’ve been told that our souls are immortal, but Jesus never said this. In John 3:16 he gives us two choices and only one of them leads to eternal life. He also said that he who believes has crossed over from death to life (John 5:24).
There are nearly two dozen scriptures in the New Testament that talk about hell and the majority of them – like 80% – indicate a final death for those who refuse life. On top of that there are many passages that don’t mention hell but refer to fatal consequences, such as this one: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life” (John 3:36). Two outcomes; you either have eternal life or you will not see life.
What about all the babies who die in infancy? What about the children who had the misfortune of dying in non-Christian countries? Are you saying they’re just wiped out?
Not at all! Those kids are with Jesus, every one of them. I know there has been a lot of theological hand-wringing over this issue, but as I explain elsewhere, the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. Grace is for the helpless, and there’s no one more helpless than a baby or young child.
I’ll have to read that post. Getting back to hell – or annihilationism…
Let’s ditch that word. It’s not scriptural. Why don’t we use the Biblical phrase instead, which is the Second Death.
Okay, Second Death. How does that work? Does God toss the unbelievers in the Lake of Fire?
God gives life, not death. I don’t believe he is the instrument of death. People do it to themselves. God didn’t kill Adam; Adam killed Adam. Because of Jesus we all get the same choice Adam had. Tragically, some people make the same choice Adam did.
I don’t understand.
We were made in God’s image. Define yourself as something less than a dearly-loved child of God and you diminish yourself. You opt for an inferior reality, one defined by limits and fear. The Bible teaches that when we live apart from God we become enslaved to our appetites and anxieties (Eph 4:18-19, Tit 3:3). It’s a degenerative path that leads nowhere good.
I’ve never heard this before. Who else teaches this?
Jesus did. He said, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:25). The word for lose in this passage means perish or fully destroy. Jesus is telling us that this broken-down world is doomed. Sell yourself to an idol such as manmade religion or a career and you literally lose yourself – you depersonalize and diminish your true self until you are gone.
And this is God’s punishment for not choosing him?
Not at all. This is the consequence of tying yourself to a sinking ship.
What does that look like?
Religion has told us that sinners are the bad guys, but grace tells us that God loves sinners to bits! Good guys, bad guys, they’re all welcome at the house of grace.
The question isn’t whether you’re good or bad. The question is whether you’ll join the party. Sadly, not everyone does. I’m talking about those who harden their hearts to the Holy Spirit. They are numb to his love, numb to the love of others, even numb to their own God-given desires.
Sounds like you are describing cynics
It goes deeper than that. I’m not talking about people who are a bit skeptical, weary, or sick. I’m talking about those who, for whatever reason, have decided to hate life and love.
A desire for love burns in all our hearts. That desire is there to show us the way home. But some never return. They extinguish the flame, deny their humanity, and refuse to come in. Even if Jesus stood in front of them inviting them to the feast, they wouldn’t be interested.
Can you give us an example?
Think of the religious people who resisted Jesus. How far gone were they?! The Lord of Life walked into town, healing cripples, turning thieves into givers, and restoring dead girls to their daddies, and they wanted to murder him! Who does that?
To me, that’s inconceivable, yet it happened. Heaven came to earth and they said, “We’re not interested.” The Lover of our souls came to wrap his arms around them and they said, “We prefer the cold embrace of our ideology.”
Jesus said to them, “You refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:40). Let’s not over-spiritualize this. Jesus wasn’t just talking about life in the hereafter but life here and now. These men had sacrificed themselves on the altar of their religion so you can imagine the wreckage. Loveless marriages, dysfunctional families, arguments that were settled by stoning, and an entire nation gone astray.
These men were literally flogging people in their synagogues and killing in the name of God (Matt 23:34). They defined “ministry” as smashing skulls with heavy rocks! (Just ask Stephen and Paul.) They were dealers in death because they themselves were lifeless. They were the original zombies, the walking dead.
And this is why Jesus rebuked them sharply. He was trying to wake them from their stupor. And this is why Jesus wept, because they wouldn’t listen.
Those men were blinded by religion. Do you think if they saw Jesus as he truly is, they would’ve repented?
No. They were blinded by choice. They weren’t born that way; they chose it. They chose worldly religion and lost themselves as a result. Jesus gave them many chances to change their mind and they never did.
It’s a stretch to think that if religious people saw God as he truly is, they would not reject him. Tell that to Adam. Adam was untouched by sin. He saw God as he truly is – walked with him, even – yet he still rejected him.
At least the Pharisees saw Jesus. What about those who have never seen him or heard the gospel?
Jesus is the only way to the Father, but there are a million ways to Jesus. You came one way, I came another. Don’t fret – God’s got this figured out. You’ll see.
Time to wrap up. What would you say to those who have a different perspective of hell?
I know some people will be upset because I refuse to condemn the lost to an eternity of fiery torment. And others will be upset because I don’t assume that all will be saved. But I would say that the choice Christ offers – his kingdom or the sinking ship – is the most gracious option because everyone gets their heart’s desire. Those who want the abundant life that Christ offers shall have it. Those who don’t won’t.
Our Father isn’t going to force the stubborn and the hate-filled to come to his party. He gathers the willing because he’s a God of love, and love must be free.
Can you give us a soundbite to finish on?
Choose life! That’s the central message of the Bible. Not “avoid hell,” or “do nothing,” but “choose life.” That’s what God preached to Adam and it’s what we preach today.
Choose Jesus who is the Life.
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