Consider this: A guy cheats on a couple of exams in school, flirts with a woman who is married, and lies on his taxes one year so he could have some extra cash for his wife and kids for Christmas. Now, is it fair, is it just, to send this guy into an eternity of torment and misery . . . billions of years just for starters, for these little faus pas?
Universalism says that God will never send anyone to an eternity in hell. Sounds like pretty good news, you say? Puts a whole new spin on the good news of the Gospel. Maybe a few years for either rehab or punishment, but eternity? Naahhh.
Universalism thinks that after a while in a torture chamber, even the most hardened vicious criminal would look at Heaven and think, “Why am I suffering here if a loving God is willing to let me join Him and the redeemed over there in their free-wheeling banquets and parties?” Pastors Philip Gulley and James Mulholland write that you can call over to this loving God and get His grace applied, even post-mortem, and that is Why God Will Save Every Person, the partial title of their book on this theme (not worth buying). Given God’s limitless love and grace, you can pretty much do whatever you want in life, and at some point, He will figure you’ve paid your “debt to society” and give you a Get Out of Jail Free card.
The issue though is plainer than Gulley and Mulholland pretend it to be. Theirs is an itemization of sins and their reasonable refusal to accept that a loving God would punish someone eternally for temporal malfeasance. “Let the punishment fit the crime,” one might say. Sounds fair to our western civilized minds, maybe even just, but we will not go into that detail of the differences between fairness and justice.
There are no errors in Gulley’s and Mulholland’s logic. Begin with their premises and it is impossible to come rationally to a different conclusion than they have. So let’s look at their premises, because if a logical progression is predicated on faulty assumptions, you will wind up at a wrong, however logical, conclusion.
The first premise is that the church, as a whole, has been judgmental and presented an angry God who will not tolerate sinful actions. The second is that our experience with God will provide a clearer picture of what God is like than a dusty old book that is unreliable at best, and somewhat fantasy at worst. The third is that if people see how wonderful Jesus is they will want Him and His grace. The fourth is that anyone will choose what is best for themselves if someone shows them why it is best, and God is so persistent that He will never give up on you, ever.
The first premise actually holds water. The church has been judgmental and made God look like an angry grandfather in the sky just looking for anyone having too much fun so He could zap them with lightning bolts and yell, “Stop that!” Not just the “church,” that ethereal “they” on whom it is so easy to blame everything, but I have been judgmental and frightened people away from the grace that could save them. The sin of the Pharisees was that they thought they could see clearly, and so their sin remained (John 9:41), even as they loaded people with burdens they would offer no help to bear (Luke 11:46).
This is not news. Jesus reserved His harshest comments, not for the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) nor for the cripple from the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-14), but for religiously serious. It seems our human nature culls us into a lethargy, that once we have figured something out, anyone who has not advanced to “our level” is either stupid or evil. And we judge without reference to the unseen issues of the heart: where one has come from, what has happened that has shaped him/her, what the hidden motivations and desires are. We evaluate based on outward appearances while the Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7b).
The other premises, though, show major fault lines that easily crack if examined at all. The Bible is an infallible rule of faith and practice, presenting The God Who Is There as the I AM, a perfect balance of grace and truth, mercy and justice. One’s experiences with God must be evaluated on the basis of what the Bible says, not what I wish it said, not from my very limited and shortsighted view. There are “spiritual experiences” that one can have that have nothing to do with God, but “feel” right. “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness.” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15) In our society, how we “feel” has taken preeminence over what the Bible teaches.
The third and fourth premises, that everyone will choose Jesus if they really see Him and that with God’s persistence, eventually everyone will see Him and how good He is. I have addressed the heresy of the third premise before (July 19, 2015), so suffice it to say that the Pharisees and religiously serious got a front row seat to see and know Jesus . . . and they chose to crucify Him. That choice was still forgivable while they were alive. My sins were my choice to crucify Jesus; I put the nails in His hands just as forcibly as the Roman centurions on Golgotha, but I have been forgiven.
In The Great Divorce C.S.Lewis presents a more accurate description of why some people will wind up in a place that is separated from the life and joy and peace and everything good that God designed for all people. I offer nor find any comfort in this warning, but the fact is that “Milton was right. The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words, ‘Better to reign in hell than to serve in Heaven.’ There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy – that is, to reality . . . There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”
Now there’s a Get Out Of Jail Free card, but there are constraints on when and how to use it. Next week, , I will examine some of those.