A Scandalous Gospel, Part 3
In the first two parts of this mini topic, A Scandalous Gospel, we looked at various passages of Scripture, verses that beget a discovery. That the Message of Jesus speaks of a grace we can barely believe, a mercy we can scarcely conceive. That the Gospel is indeed scandalous in a truly wonderful way.
Obviously, a lot of questions surface. Good questions. Honest questions. Questions that must be pondered and answered. Questions that demand honest answers.
In this article, we try to do just this (including sharing a little bit of my own journey in processing this scandalous revelation).
This is the 16th article in our series on Messy Dogma. Our objective? To re-engage with the Message and Mission of Jesus. In this final of three parts, The Scope of Jesus Message, we look at the questions that arise in response to the scandalous message of Jesus. If you’re just joining us, you’ll find it more helpful to start with the first article in the series, Year Zero: The World Jesus Invaded. You may also want to peruse the explanation and disclaimers to the series.
2528 words (c. 7 pages) = 25 minute read
What about a person’s free-will?
The question that immediately surfaces goes something like this: “Doesn’t God respect our free-will, even if it will damn us forever … even if we stubbornly choose a path that leads to our own destruction?”
Yes, God respects mankind’s free-will and allows him to reap the consequences of his wrong choices. This is true for believers too; God forgives us, but as a faithful, wise Father, He allows us to learn through the consequences of our faithless decisions. And, as a believer, we too must “appear before the judgment seat of Christ” and give an account to our Father and Maker (2 Corinthians 5:10).
As for those who reject Him, they’ll face God’s displeasure and be chastised as Paul says in Romans 2:6, “according to [their] deeds,” which is certainly no trivial matter.
I just think most unbelievers will eventually surrender their free-will to God; in fact, they will continue to bear the brunt of God’s justice until they do so.
Why do we assume that death ends a person’s free-will?
Yes, the Bible says, “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Yes, we will all face our Father and Maker. But it doesn’t say this judgment ends our exercise of free-will. Interestingly, the next verse extols the scope of Christ’s sacrifice: “so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:28).
For me, the free-will question is trumped by another question:
Is our free-will to damn ourselves stronger or more substantial than God’s free-will to redeem His children?
The answer is a slam-dunk for me in the light of God’s Fatherhood.
A wise father respects his child’s free-will within boundaries; boundaries that will allow his child enough space to learn and grow and make mistakes, but not enough to ultimately endanger their life. God respects our free-will within the boundaries of His purpose to redeem us. After all, we do not own ourselves. In Ezekiel 18:4, God says, “all souls are Mine”.
If the power of our free-will to damn ourselves to eternal torment is greater than God’s sovereign-will to save us, who really suffers most—mankind or Father God, who loves His children with a love we can never understand?
So, will everybody be saved, regardless?
This question might be framed like this: “Will everybody be saved … even those Hitler-types … regardless of what they’ve done?”
Another way of asking this question might be, “What about passages like 1 Timothy 4:1, 2 where Paul talks about those who sear their conscience? Or like those double-barrelled, freak-me-out passages in Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-30 that refer to the apostate? Or even those passages in John’s Revelation about the devil and Hades and all those not found in the Book of Life who are thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15)? Surely, you can’t see the devil coming to his senses?”
Personally, I do not think everybody will be saved, regardless. While I don’t doubt that God’s love is powerful enough to win over the most depraved heart, I can’t see, say the devil himself, making an about-turn.
I think that there will be some who, like a rabid animal, continue to bite the hand that feeds them and persist in resisting God … foolishly choosing to reject God forever. Those whose choice-trajectory (or life-orientation) on this earth has so twisted them, so warped their soul, that they view every act of God’s remedial kindness with suspicion and lash out at every expression of God’s chastising love. I think this would certainly characterise the devil, for instance, and anyone who has, in this sense, given their soul over to him.
Even after death, they continue to reap judgment upon themselves as they continue to defy God’s goodness—even in the clarity that the age to come provides. Perhaps this is “the second death” John alluded to in Revelation 20:14?
Importantly, in this sense, the possibility of ‘indefinite judgment’ is not metered out against their ‘finite time’ on earth, but against their continued rebellion.
That’s a critical point.
Rotten, defiant and unrepentant, they continue to reap God’s perfect justice upon themselves (an expression of His love) … forever. Forever, God lovingly attempts to correct them. Forever, they resist and rebel. God continues to express His love … and they continue to reap His perfect justice. The time continues to fit the ongoing crime.
Maybe somewhere down this road, the rebel ceases to be. Perhaps they lose a bit of themselves each time, and they fade away? (In this sense, the views of annihilation and chastisement might marry together.)
Having given my opinion on this, it’s worth mentioning that some of the early church fathers actually taught that the devil would come to salvation. For example, Gregory of Nyssa (332-398 A.D.) wrote: “Our Lord is the One who delivers man, and who heals the inventor of evil himself.”
Jerome (347-420 A.D.) wrote: “I know that most persons understand by the story of Nineveh and its king, the ultimate forgiveness of the devil and all rational creatures.”
Jerome was even more emphatic when he wrote: “In the end or consummation of things, all shall be restored to their original state, and be again united in one body. We cannot be ignorant that Christ’s blood benefited the angels and those who are in hell; though we know not the manner in which it produced such effects. The apostate angels shall become such as they were created; and man, who has been cast out of paradise, shall be restored thither again. And this shall be accomplished in such a way, that all shall be united together by mutual charity, so that the members will delight in each other, and rejoice in each other’s promotion. The apostate angels, and the prince of this world, though now ungovernable, plunging themselves into the depths of sin, shall, in the end, embrace the happy dominion of Christ and His saints.”
Wow! My belief in God’s unbelievable grace may require some stretching still. I’m not there yet.
But isn’t this view just re-hashed universalism?
A simple answer here won’t adequately take into account all the nuances around the teaching of universalism. To keep things simple, let me comment on what most opponents claim concerning universalism; that is, it essentially claims that all roads lead to God. That is, every religious faith is a salvific way to God.
This is not what I’m saying.
Religion—any form in which it comes, Judaism, Christian, or otherwise—is not meritorious, and there is no other valid way to God outside of Jesus. None.
Jesus is the only Way to God, but … because His victory on the cross is just so complete, everyone will be saved. It’s like an “exclusivist inclusion.” Only because of Jesus (exclusivist); everyone will be saved (inclusive).
Some will label these thoughts Christian universalism, and others may be happy to wear the label. I would prefer to avoid all labels. Shoehorning thoughts that we find contrary into little boxes we can shelve and thus, dismiss out of hand, is a typically closed-minded thing to do. There’s only one benefit in adopting prejudicial labels that I know of. It gives intelligent people an excuse to stop using their brain.
So, what’s the motivation to follow Christ then?
To be honest, this question is rarely asked by someone walking in a love relationship with the Father, one who knows the incredible joy of doing so. However, let me give the question due consideration.
Threats of hell and promises of heaven will never genuinely win a heart. True love is wooed, not forced or bribed. Yes, threats and promises might illicit short-term reactions, but they can never spark and sustain love. In my reading of the Bible, I do not believe that extortion or payoffs were parts of Jesus’ message.
Yes, Jesus promised many blessings along the way; every father loves to reward his kids. And yes, He warned us of the consequences of our wrong choices; every loving father disciplines his kids when necessary. But He never sought to threaten or bribe people into a relationship with Father God. And He certainly didn’t cajole them into religious posturing with threats of never-ending torture.)
Jesus essentially did two things: He introduced His audience to a loving Father, and He invited them into a Kingdom adventure.
- By introducing us to a relationship with a loving God that delivers us from our chronic myopia and crippling self-absorption, Jesus fulfils our deepest security. We are loved unconditionally.
- By inviting us to partner with Him in His restoration of all creation, using the gifts and abilities He has given us, Jesus fulfils our deepest significance. We are important and our contribution matters.
With mankind’s most basic (and greatest) needs for security and significance met in Him, following Christ brings a growing sense of heaven—God’s Kingdom—into our lives as we align our choices with His values, even when we go through the inevitable challenges of life.
In contrast, rejecting or resisting Christ, we continue enslaved to our own self-centredness, reaping the dire consequences of our self-seeking choices.
Need any more motivation than that?
Let me say it a different way.
If a person isn’t won over by the love of God, they won’t thrive: they won’t be fruitful and they won’t endure.
Yes, it is possible to continue a life of religious pretension for any number of selfish reasons. However, only love opens the heart to the sublime joy and peace found in Christ.
Why follow Christ? Because He is so wonderful.
Why preach Christ? Because He is just so wonderful.
But won’t such notions lead to an apathetic church?
This is a valid reaction until one is asked another question:
So, do you think the church isn’t already stuck in a quagmire of chronic apathy?
Even with a prevailing backdrop of the threat of never-ending damnation for the lost, the church at large remains chronically indifferent and listless. And to be honest, the notions presented in this section won’t necessarily change this.
Take Bob, for example.
If believing that his neighbour will burn in excruciating torment forever and ever didn’t shift Bob into zealous action, then nothing will.
However, perhaps Bob will now be free from the soul-sucking false guilt that has crushed the life out of his spirit—not only his guilt at his inefficacy in saving his neighbour from such a fate, but also from the troubling questions concerning God’s nature that secretly crippled him. Maybe Bob will rediscover the awe and wonder of Christ’s redemption plan, and with purer motive, freshly engage with Jesus’ ongoing work on this earth.
Or not. Either way, Bob’s level of apathy doesn’t affect the validity of the notion.
In fact, apathetic believers who do hold to a doctrine of endless damnation should answer for their lethargy before making ringing judgments on views different to their own. I find it sad that many who are quick to condemn a doctrine of remedial chastisement live in blatant and active disbelief of the doctrine they claim to believe.
In Why Revival Tarries, Leonard Ravenhill writes about a criminal on death row named Charlie Peace. On the man’s death-row walk he is accompanied by a prison chaplain who reads indifferently from The Consolations of Religion about hell. Astounded by the preacher’s shocking lack of belief in the very words he proclaimed, Charlie Peace apparently said these words:
“Sir, if I believed what you and the church of God say that you believe, even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it, if need be, on hands and knees and think it worthwhile living, just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that!”
Ouch! Amen … or O me?
Personally, I loved Why Revival Tarries … and laboured under layers and layers (and layers!) of guilt for many years because of my own lack of application in my belief in endless torment. And believe me, I tried to change it!
In my attempts to try to stoke my conviction on this matter, in many and various ways (prayer, fasting, Bible meditation, reading books like Why Revival Tarries over and over again!), I could not silence the burning questions of what such a doctrine said about the nature of God. To maintain my position on a doctrine of endless torment, I had to consciously suspend reason over its contradiction with the Father-heart of God, and had to constantly manage my guilt over my chronic apathy in living and ministering as one who believed endless torment was real.
Exhausted, weary, and hollowed out, I wondered how on earth I could ever enjoy “righteousness, peace and joy” so long as even one unbeliever remained unconverted. How could I rest or take a day off or sleep, for that matter, if people are toppling into the fires of unending torment every single minute of every single day?
To survive, to prevent from going insane, I had to suspend reason (as I think any reasonable person who believes in endless damnation must do). Keep plodding on, managing guilt, denying those troubling questions.
And then … then I discovered there were other valid options in the Christian tradition. And not just valid, but an option that fully reconciled with the Father-heart of God.
I wish I’d found this out earlier. And now I cannot but help others consider these options, even though I know it may mean that I’m persona non grata to some.
What’s the key point to ponder?
Can I ask you a question? Why are you a Christian, a follower of Jesus?
Let me suggest that unless love for the Father is your primary reason for being, you may well be allowing a secondary (or defeating) motivation to govern your life.
Unless I am living to bring pleasure to my Father1, I will live trying to please myself, others, the world.
The first brings life and liberty; the latter, striving and bondage.
Embrace the Father. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8).
In love with the Father, we’ll never lack for motivation. Participating with Him in His plan to restore all creation is a thrill second only to knowing Him.
1 “Living to bring pleasure to the Father” has nothing to do with labouring to appease Him. That’s religion. However, in any relationship of love, each person in the relationship seeks to delight the other. It boggles my mind that God takes pleasure in us (Psalm 149:4). We delight Him! We don’t have to earn His pleasure. It’s ours. Living in such a way as to bring Him further delight is a response of grateful love not religious striving.
WHERE WE’RE GOING NEXT?
It will feel like a shift gears as we head into the next section, The Societal Machine. However, it’s the essential next step in connecting Jesus’ Message to our world.