Descendit ad inferna (3) theological and pastoral questions

Catherine Ella Laufer’s book Hell’s Destruction: an exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead is a great example of how to use a narrow lens (the descent clause in the Apostle’s Creed) to magnify and expand a plethora of profound, important and controversial theological questions.

Whether you agree with where she ends up, she integrates the historical story of the descent clause and critical theological analysis with aplomb.

What she does do is raise big questions about hell, justice, grace and love. Christians need to be thinking about these things because these are big public questions floating around post-Christendom cultures.

What are your answers to these questions?

1. What is your theology of hell, universalism and the justice of God?

Can humans endlessly resist the redeeming love of God? Who will have the last word?

Rob Bell [she never mentions Bell, I’m just bringing him in as a conversation partner] had an empty hell as a strong possibility, but he had too central a place for absolute libertarian free will to say with any certainty that hell would be empty. If anyone was there, it was determinedly self-chosen and wasn’t God’s doing.

Similarly Laufer tends to distance God from hell rather than have an emphasis on the retributive justice of a holy God against evil and sin.

For me there is simply too much in the Bible about God’s retributive judgement of sin and evil to believe in universalism. Sin and evil aren’t just ideas, they are child soldiers, torture, rape, violence, exploitation, ruthless greed, hatred of the Other, cynical disregard for the poor and vulnerable, arms traders dealing in death,  ad infinitum …

She isn’t as strong as Moltmann on universalism but is sympathetic to his universalist image of God’s transforming grace emptying hell.

At one moment she says

‘If he [Jesus] has gone through death and hell for each and every soul ever created, and been raised from thence, then we can hope that ultimately, his work will be complete.’ (189).

This is optimistic universalism, not dogmatic universalism.

But this is vague on the basis of such salvation ….. how does each and every soul come to share in the complete work of Christ?  Is it some sort of endless post-mortem opportunity to come to faith? How does this fit in with very ‘terminal’ images of judgement in Revelation 20 and the final destruction of all forces of evil, death and sin? Where does the atoning work of Christ come in?

Yet she also speculates that the presence of God in heaven will be hell for the wicked. ‘The only hell is the hell of our own making’ (203)

I’ve a couple of problems with this. First, it seems to contradict her optimistic universalism. Second, it is proposed as a possible solution to the impasse between biblical texts that point to both universal salvation and eternal punishment.  I’m not convinced that Hitler & co experiencing heaven as hell actually solves the impasse. Hell still exists and God is still ‘on the hook’ for making possible the existence of hellish experience.

Linked to this is a second big question:

2. In the midst of suffering, what sort of God do you believe in ?

Christianity does not believe in a distant transcendent deity. I found Laufer really helpful here on the pastoral implications of how the descensus clause speaks of the real human death and suffering of the Son.

We do not suffer alone. Christ is with us. Laufer gives examples:

Heidelberg Catechism Question 44:

Q. Why does the creed add,
“He descended to hell”?

A. To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation
that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul,  on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment

Bonhoeffer: ” Only a suffering God can help”

Luther: In Christ’s descent to hell, we can know our hell is defeated

Pannenberg: ” But since Jesus dies, no one who lives and dies in communion with Jesus and in trust in him need die this death any more.”

Moltmann of course wrote The Crucified God and is opposed to notions of an apathetic God. Laufer quotes him in History and the Triune God as saying ” … the Son of God who died forsaken by God, helped me … in a messy concentration camp in 1945, tormented and forsaken by God ..” (123)

Laufer goes as far as arguing that ‘God’s presence in the grave’ is the controlling motif of the gospel. It is Christ’s descent to the dead, she argues, is the place to begin gospel proclamation in a broken and fearful world.

Well, I wouldn’t go all the way with her there, the gospel is the good news of the victory of God in Christ over sin and death and Jesus is the risen Lord. It is more than Jesus died our death.

But neither is it less than the good news of the immeasurable self-giving love of God who ‘died for our sins’.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Evangelical Universalism? (1)

A significant debate goes on within the latest Evangelical Quarterly between Robin Parry and Derek Tidball among others on whether evangelicals can also be universalists. Robin Parry is the (formerly anonymous) author of the The Evangelical Universalist. Derek Tidball is ex-principal of London School of Theology, author of Who are the Evangelicals (and coincidentally our current external examiner at IBI and my former PhD supervisor).

Parry’s argument here is not so much a detailed case for universalism (see his book for that), but an appeal for evangelicals who are universalists to be considered and accepted as authentic evangelicals – to see this as an inner-evangelical debate. In other words, to see this as a secondary sort of matter of interpretation and theology.

What do you reckon? Is the notion of universalism ‘out of bounds’ for authentic evangelicalism? What’s your reaction (emotional and/or theological!) to those like Parry arguing that universalism should have a respectable place at the evangelical table? Is such a project a sign of capitulation to an increasingly pluralist and inclusivist culture or a theological awakening prompted by currents within culture? Or something else?

[Rob Bell is close to Parry but Parry’s book is far far better than Bell’s – Bell is not quite all the way with Parry down the universalist path in that he (Bell) says people can freely choose hell]

Parry roots his case in a two part argument.

In Part 1 he asks and addresses 10 common objections to universalism within evangelicalism:

  1. Universalism in unbiblical – he argues the Bible can be interpreted in universalist-compatible ways. And evangelicals holding this interpretation do not cease to be evangelical. Universalism is not incompatible with core evangelical beliefs.
  2. Universalism undermines the seriousness of sin: he says not. Evangelical universalists believe in the seriousness of sin but God’s love is bigger and deeper than sin.
  3. Universalism undermines divine justice and wrath: see point 2.
  4. Universalism undermines hell: evangelical universalists believe in hell, but also believe redemption from hell is possible.
  5. Universalism undermines Christ’s role in salvation: he rejects the charge that his universalism is a form of pluralism. Rather he quotes Bell here on a universal salvation based on the unique and effective work of Christ.
  6. Universalism undermines the importance of faith in Christ: Parry affirms its importance – he just argues that in time, whether before or after death, all will come to such exclusive faith.
  7. Universalism undermines mission and evangelism: while Parry agrees this can well happen, it need not do so.
  8. Universalism undermines the Trinity: while there has been overlap between universalism and unitarianism, Parry again says this need not be so. There is nothing in evangelical universalism than requires unitarianism.
  9. Universalism was declared ‘anathema’ by the Church (especially Origen): he argues that universal restoration is compatible with the great Creeds and Councils of the Church
  10. Historically, evangelicalism has rejected universalism: He admits this is true but argues for the evolution and development of a living tradition, open to reform and change in light of the heartbeat of that tradition.

In Part 2, he proposes that evangelical universalism has historic antecedents within a narrow stream of evangelicalism and, more significantly, universalism grows out of theological reflection on core evangelical concerns. He has a creative line of reasoning here: combine aspects of Calvinism and Arminianism and you can get evangelical universalism – therefore there is nothing intrinsically ‘un-evangelical’ about evangelical universalism since both Calvinism and Arminianism fall within its orbit.

1. God, being omnipotent, could cause all people to freely accept Christ

2. God, being omniscient, would know how to cause all people to freely accept Christ

3. God, being omnibenevolent, would want to cause all people to freely accept Christ

(Premises 1 and 2 are Calvinist, 3 is Arminian)

4. God will cause all people to freely accept Christ

5. All people will freely accept Christ.

So he concludes

Evangelical universalists are christocentric, trinitarian, evangel-focused, biblically-rooted, and missional … what else does one have to be to be an evangelical?

Next post will be on Derek Tidball’s response.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Hermeneutics of the New Creation

Today, Kieron Lynch, a recent IBI MA graduate, gave a paper at our IBI ‘research group’ on ‘The Hermeneutics of the New Creation’ specifically addressing the question of what happens to the earth in the future new creation.

Before getting into it, a question linked to what was said the other day in this post:

How does your eschatology (belief about the future Christian hope) shape your life, your conduct, your mission here and now?

This is one of the biggest questions lying behind the New Testament and huge theological ramifications flow from how it is answered.

Some answer it emphasising radical discontinuity – the earth will be destroyed and remade. Everything will be utterly new. And this can impact how we look at things like environmental concern, social action, the scope of the gospel and so on. The purpose of the gospel can be taken to mean ‘a ticket to get the hell out of here’ …

Others answer emphasising continuity – the future new heavens and new earth are this creation made perfect. And then argue out the implications of this theology for environmental concern, social action, the scope of the gospel as including the redemption of this earth and all creation. The gospel is presented more in terms of holistic mission.

Kieron examined three key texts and focused on the future of this earth:

2 Peter 3:10-14: the classic discontinuity text talking about the annihilation of this earth? But rather than interpreting it as destruction and remaking of the earth, it is better understood as a purging fire that will purify this earth.

Romans 8:18-23: the classic continuity text – this creation will be liberated. It makes no sense at all for the creation to be liberated and then destroyed!

Revelation 21:1-5: a discontinuity and continuity text. The old does pass away, the new does come. A transition from one to the other (rather than annihilation).

There are parallels to the great resurrection passage in 1 Cor 15: the continuity between the old and new body, yet discontinuity that ‘flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of God’.

And the big issue so often reversed in popular understandings of heaven is that the final destiny is God descending to the new earth to be with his people. The future is not some sort of ‘uncreation’ of disembodied souls floating around in the clouds.

Creation is good.

‘Man’s ultimate destiny is an earthly one’ George Eldon Ladd

So what are the implications?

Kieron followed people like Stephen Williams and Tim Chester who, while agreeing with some form of continuity rather than annihilation, caution against continuity as the main basis for social action, environmentalism and mission. In this they are pushing back against what they see as an over-continuity seen in Miroslav Volf and to a lesser degree in Chris Wright [and Rob Bell]

Rather our main basis for such action is LOVE.

Love for God. Love of others. Love for God’s creation.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Rob Bell, Resurrection and dogmatic continuity theology

A couple of blogs I read have highlighted this video on the Resurrection by Rob Bell.

One was extolling it as an example of fantastic communication skills. [I think this is a ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder’ sort of judgement. I wonder what’s your opinion of Bell’s style?]

Another on its excellent presentation of resurrection hope and the reality of life to come. It’s this bit I want to discuss. But first some positives:

He sure does capture the daring, extraordinary, paradigm-shifting and revolutionary Christian belief in the future fulfillment of God’s kingdom, resurrection and a new creation. And the challenge to believe Jesus’ own words that he is the resurrection and the life – that death is not the end, and to embrace the hope that Jesus offers in himself.

And he’s terrific on the discontinuity of death, violence, injustice, hatred. These things will have no place in the new creation; they do not ‘belong’ there and this is cause for rejoicing and hope.

And he’s absolutely right to insist that what we believe about the future profoundly and deeply should shape how we live in the present.

So please don’t read this as another Rob Bell bashing exercise.

But what caught my attention amid all the psychedelic special effects, was the strength of Bell’s continuity theology. Check it out from about 1.30 in. It goes something like this:

Resurrection means that God has not given up on ‘THIS WORLD’. This world is being restored and redeemed by God. So every act we do with ‘THIS BODY’ matters – every kind word, every good business transaction, every act of compassion, every kind word, every work of art – they all matter because ‘this world’ and ‘this body’ have a continuity into the future.

“They all belong and they will all go on in God’s good world. Nothing will be forgotten, nothing will be wasted and all has its place … Resurrection affirms this life and the next as a seamless reality embraced, graced and saved by God.”

Now pretty well all Christian eschatology has to involve some form of continuity and discontinuity between this present order and the one to come. 

But tying down just what continues and what does not is not as sure and certain as Bell makes out. He may be right. But he can’t be sure he’s right. No-one can.

The exact form of continuity between this world and the next is simply not explained in any detail in the Bible.

The promise of a bodily resurrection captures this. There is continuity in personhood and some form of an embodied existence. But there is also strong discontinuity – flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom  (1 Cor 15:50), it is a new type of ‘spiritual body’ fitted for life in a new order of existence. And Jesus makes clear that there is discontinuity in marriage for example.

So I question his view that ‘this body’ continues into the next world. It does not allow for a profound discontinuity that is there in Jesus and Paul alongside some form of continuity.

He also insists that ‘this world’ continues. I’m with him here. Some have interpreted 2 Peter 3:10-14 as suggesting this world will be completely destroyed and a new one made. But overall the biblical evidence points to a restoring of this world.

However, even here Bell makes too much of too little. He’s got a lot invested in a theology of strong continuity. Notice the ‘leap’ from saying God is redeeming and restoring this world to insisting dogmatically that every good thing done in this life will somehow continue into the new creation. ‘Nothing will be forgotten, nothing will be wasted’ he says.

What I’d like to know is how he can be so sure? It is not at all clear how or if all ‘good’ that is done in this life ‘continues’ into the next. He mentions works of art –  once you start asking questions it soon becomes apparent that we haven’t a clue what we’re talking about. ‘Which works of art will continue?’, ‘From what time periods and cultures?’ ‘What about art capturing the despair, sin, brokeness and injustice of this world? Will it also belong in the new creation to come?’

No, the thing that makes me most uneasy about the video is not Bell’s personal style or the big picture theology being presented – it’s his dogmatism on things on which there is no basis to be dogmatic; all given more ‘weight’ by the dramatic, insistent, highly professional and ‘prophetic’ tone of the production.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

For whom the Bell tolls

One benefit of the furore unleashed by the pre-publicity marketing of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, is that Steve Holmes has been spurred out of blogging limbo.

Over at Shored Fragments he has begun what is shaping up to be a detailed and likely unsurprassed series on Bell’s book.

What is so refreshing is:

the honesty and catholicity of his critique – of Bell’s detractors and of Bell himself;

how his wide knowledge of historical theology gives a much needed context to what has been mostly an a-historical and sometimes hysterical debate. I suspect ‘outside’ observers must think that Rob Bell has daringly thought up questions that no-one else in the history of Christianity has ever risked broaching before. Post 2 on how Bell is articulating, probably without knowing it, a long tradition within Reformed orthodoxy (that God will save most people, not just a few), is wonderful, especially since his most hostile opponents are self-appointed defenders of Reformed orthodoxy. It’s worth a quote ..

I suppose that Bell does not even know that the position he is defending is traditional Reformed theology – surely, he would have mentioned it if he did know this? It remains the case, however, that on this point, on the question of the relative proportion of the saved to the lost, it happens that Bell is on the side of historic orthodoxy and his many zealous detractors are not.

This is profoundly important, it seems to me. This is about who God is. A God who saves only a few is niggardly and ungracious …   The broad witness of Scripture is overwhelmingly to the generosity of God in salvation, or so Warfield, Hodge, and most others thought.

and his tone, which is fairminded and generous. Maybe not being an American is helpful here, he has no axe to grind or soul of American evangelicalism to fight over.

Worth checking out.