Category: eschatology

Quote: Tom Wright on the ‘delay’ in Christ’s return

The problem of the delay of the parousia is a modern myth. The problem is caused by liberal Christianity’s no longer believing in the resurrection, which means that the weight of God’s activity is pushed forward in time. There’s not much evidence that the early church was anxious about this. First-century Christianity didn’t see itself so much as living in the last days, waiting for the parousia, as living in the first days of God’s new world.

We are still awaiting the final outworking of what God accomplished in Jesus, but there are all kinds of signs to show that, though the situation is often bleak, we are in fact on the right road.


On coming late to The Great Divorce

I’ve just finished C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce for the first time. It is a strange genre of writing, certainly not a novel in a conventional sense. Somewhat like Pilgrim’s Progress, it has a series of encounters with representative people in heaven, hell and in-between, whose responses to their situations have much to teach and warn us about our lives today.

Despite its disclaimer (‘a dream’), the book must surely horrify many evangelicals with its set-up of the afterlife. People’s fates are not fixed; they have the opportunity of visiting heaven and even staying. Their entry seems to depend upon their letting go of the sins which they have become attached to.

Lewis performs a deft twist at the end to exculpate himself and maintain his orthodoxy; the encounters we have read of are perhaps ‘only the mimicry of choices that had really been made long ago’ or perhaps ‘anticipations of a choice to be made at the end of all things’ (107). Better to say neither, advises George MacDonald (C.S. Lewis’s literary hero and his guide in heaven) – ‘do not ask of a vision in a dream more than a vision in a dream can give.’ MacDonald, warns him to be sure to ‘give no poor fool a pretext to think ye are claiming knowledge of what no mortal knows’ (108).

It is one of those rare books which inspire me to be a better person. Actually, perhaps it scares me to be better as much as inspires me – it is frightening to see parts of myself in all these people who are shutting out heaven and holding onto sin. The worst sin in The Great Divorce seems to be joylessness – those who shut out joy will shut out God. This is hard for a gloomy person like me to hear. It’s not the sin Jesus spent the most time on, but I see much truth in Lewis’s depiction of a series of people who will not embrace joy and truth because they are holding onto resentments of various kinds:

…it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine. (60)

Also frightening is Lewis’s depiction of a liberal bishop, who would rather return to the ambiguities of his theological reading group in the gloomy city (hell) than embrace the certainties of knowing God face to face. This is how he became what he is:

Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. (28)

There should be more books like this. The Shack probably belongs in the same genre, but unfortunately not in the same league.

Love Wins: A Review

Love Wins generated heated denunciations before it was even published. It is Jesus-filled, hopeful, and inspiring – and just as the conservatives warned, it points toward a (Christocentric) universalism – without quite unequivocally endorsing it.

In typical Rob Bell style, Love Wins is a generous pastoral… ramble (in the best sense) through salvation and eschatology… or ‘heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived’. He has written this book because

A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it, is in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear. (4)

Bell pulls apart this idea – what qualifies you to be one of the few? Does your salvation depend on having a youth pastor ‘who relates better to the kids’ when you’re a teenager? On the missionary who is coming to bring you the good news not having a flat tyre? If we grant that God might show mercy on children (because even most conservatives find it impossible to send children to hell) who die before the age of responsibility, wouldn’t the most loving thing to do be to kill every child? (8)

Bell goes on to set out his understanding of Christian hope for eternal life (‘the life of the age to come’) and the bringing of heaven to Earth. It will require judgement, the banishing of evil and injustice. He imagines heaven as a place of ‘learning how to be human all over again’ (29), a place of soil and rewarding toil as the prophets looked forward to. He writes:

It’s not about a life that begins at death;

It’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death. (33)


The flipside of this is hell, which Bell says we know is true because we see it in the world today. Examining the sayings of Jesus about hell, he says that rather than talking about hell to convert pagans, Jesus ‘talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love.’ (44) Judgement, Bell says, precedes restoration; the prophet Ezekiel even has a vision of a time when God ‘will restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters’ (Ezekiel 16) – the story isn’t over even for Sodom and Gomorrah (45).

Chapter 4 is called “Does God get what God wants?”, and Bell demonstrates God’s universal salvific will  – ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2). He draws on the picture of God as the shepherd seeking out the lost sheep –

The God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever. (52)

Bell uses a similar style of teaching to Jesus – a lot of questions, which point in the direction of universalism, without insisting on it. He tells of no-one less than Martin Luther being open to the idea of a post-mortem opportunity for salvation; Bell goes on to ask:

And then there are others who ask, if you get another chance after you die, why limit that chance to a one-off immediately after death? And so they expand the possibilities, trusting that there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God. As long as it takes, in other words. At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. (55)

As if he hadn’t tackled enough big issues, Bell moves on to suggest that God is at work in Christ everywhere, beyond the boundaries of the church. It is an inclusivist perspective, finding God at work wherever there is truth and goodness (as opposed to exclusivism) and that God’s work is through Christ (as opposed to pluralism which would see religions as independently valid) – he calls it ‘exclusivity on the other side of inclusivism’ (78).

Bell’s most confronting words come in the context of a chapter about the prodigal son’s older brother –

And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians. They don’t love God. They can’t, because the God they’ve been presented with and taught about can’t be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable. (85)

This is the god, Bell says, who loves every person so much but will eternally punish someone in hell without any hope if they die in a car accident without accepting Jesus. ‘Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die?’ (85) Many Christians’ conviction that God does leads them to be secretly terrified of God. He sums up the entire book well in this passage:

When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity.

Life has never been about just “getting in.” It’s about thriving in God’s good world. It’s stillness, peace, and that feeling of your soul being at rest, while at the same time it’s about asking things, learning things, creating things, and sharing it all with others who are finding the same kind of joy in the same good world. (87)

He goes on to say that we do not need rescuing from God and his wrath; God is the one who rescues us from death, sin and destruction (89).

Bell says in the preface that there’s nothing in his book which hasn’t been taught before; the historic, orthodox Christian faith is ‘a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years’ (6). He’s right, of course, and his book popularises ideas recently presented by Gregory MacDonald in the Evangelical Universalist as well as some (but not the universalism) from Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope. But the suggestion of universal hope is not one which has been flowing in the evangelical stream, not by a long shot, and Rob Bell has become a major evangelical figure. Nineteenth century devotional writer Hannah Whitall-Smith has routinely had chapter 22 of her autobiography excised for its embrace of universalism. ‘Gregory MacDonald’ wrote under a pseudonym to protect his position at an evangelical publishing house. When conservative pastor John Piper tweeted ‘Goodbye, Rob Bell’ and sparked the pre-publication frenzy, he was surely farewelling Bell from evangelicalism. I think there are many middle of the road or slightly right of centre evangelical churches which will farewell Rob Bell, adding him to the suspicious list and no longer playing Nooma DVDs in their youth services. Of course, he is already on the suspicious list for New Calvinists, the evangelicals in the mould of John Piper. But there will also be many of Bell’s readers who have felt so blessed by his deep love of Jesus and communication of God’s love that they will stick with him, and feel both challenged and liberated by this latest book.

‘Love Wins’ – the start of an evangelical debate about universalism? (1119 comments and counting!)

Bell’s book isn’t out till the end of the month, but already it’s generating buzz. ‘Love wins’ – everyone ends up reconciled with God. Hell is emptied. Apparently that’s the substance of his book.

I understand why conservative, moderate and even many progressive evangelicals find this disturbing or dangerous. At stake for them is motivation for evangelism and the integrity of the Bible.

Universalism has not been on the radar enough to register as a serious option for evangelicals. I wonder if this book will bring it onto the radar as one (to the chagrin of opponents) or whether it will widen the gulf between postmodern (post)evangelicals and the rest. A new test of orthodoxy? ‘Do you deny the heresy of an empty hell?’  “Gregory Macdonald” put forward a biblical case for universalism several years ago, and recently followed it up with a collection of writings from univeralist theologians over the years, called All Shall Be Well.

I don’t see much chance of this debate being irenic. There is much at stake on both sides. May there be an irenic converation in the middle and may all of us be ready to be wrong, be ready for God to speak truth through someone we least expect.

Notes on the Return of Jesus

  • How long can the church sustain the hope that Jesus will return, that there will be an(other) eschatological intervention by God in history? The clock has reached 2000 years; there are some of us who can still believe it is only a matter of more time. But what about 10,000 years after Jesus? And if 10,000 years is possible, what about one million years? Would there still be believers clinging to this hope? At some point will there be a strong sense: it’s been too long; we can no longer believe in it? (That has been there since the earliest generations of Christians. But it seems to only have afflicted some in each generation. It is perhaps a sustained conviction of many believers in the liberal stream. {Are there any liberals who believe in the literal return of Jesus?})
  • For me, a Christianity without the expectation of Christ’s return has ceased to be one grounded in real hope of God’s will being done on Earth as it is in heaven. If there is no hope for historical intervention – if our faith is only in eschatology after death – our hope seems wishful thinking, so far has it gone from the words of Jesus and the teachings of Paul.
  • It might have been 2000 years so far, but no-one has to wait more than one life-span. Once it’s been 100 years, it might as well be 1000 – in one sense. In another sense, we live in our forebearers’ time too. If Christ returns fifty years after my death, or if I can believe strongly he will, that means something different than he may return sometime in the next million years.
  • You can argue:

1. We are waiting for the last people group to be evangelised, to have the gospel proclaimed to them. The Bible wasn’t exactly wrong – the writers just didn’t know how big the Earth actually was, that it stretched so far beyond the Roman empire. This is the position of a certain kind of fundamentalist, probably into missions – and part of the impetus behind the 19th/20th century missionary movements? Or, we are waiting for something to do with Israel, the Jews and the Books of Romans and/or Revelation.

2. Jesus has already returned, but it was invisible or known only to a select few. This is the position of some cults.

3. Jesus didn’t actually expect to return soon; the gospel writers have misunderstood him. Thus we can trust Jesus but not the Bible.

4. The gospel writers do not actually say that Jesus is to return very soon. For example: many of the eschatological passages actually refer to the destruction of the temple – N.T. Wright. This is also the position of fundamentalists who cannot imagine different parts of the Bible saying different things, and thus read the gospels through the explanations in Peter’s letters for the delay of Jesus’s return.

5. Jesus and the Bible both expected Jesus to return soon but neither was wrong – God’s plans changed, because he has an openness to events in the world.

The Evangelical Universalist

Years ago for my first year theology class, I read Four Views On Hell. The alternatives offered were literal flames, metaphoric flames but eternal conscious torment, annihilationism, and a Catholic explanation of purgatory. I was convinced by Clark Pinnock’s idea of annihilationism or conditional immortality. It contends that we are only made immortal through God’s intervention, and the fate of those who reject God is extinction – not eternal punishment but non-existence.

It is a view that has some scriptural support, taking seriously the idea in the New Testament that without Christ we will perish, that death is the fate of those who have not found salvation. If not hopeful, it at least eased my conscience; the thought of an eternal torture chamber continuing on underneath the new creation is distressing.

An option not presented in Four Views of Hell, indeed an option that few evangelicals consider open to them is of hell as restorative punishment – or, to use a word evangelicals tend to be scared of – universalism.

A month or more ago I read an intriguing book called The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald. Gregory MacDonald is actually the pseudonym for an evangelical writer who works for a prominent evangelical publishing house, and didn’t want the rest of his work and his employers’ work dismissed by association. Gregory of Nyssa and George MacDonald are two noteworthy universalists. MacDonald kept a blog where he kept his readers guessing as to his identity for a couple of years, assuring them he was not Rick Warren or John Piper, before finally revealing his identity a few months ago.

I have wanted to write about it, but I feel myself unable to; I’m not sure of my conclusions about the book. So I have called on two of my friends to offer their contrasting views of it. Please direct all your concerns about their heterodoxy or whatever to them.


Bill Barclay

The Evangelical Universalist is a splendid book. It offers both a theological and biblical framework for understanding that the New Testament actually affords us hope for a universal reconciliation between humans and God.

For MacDonald, universalism is an implicit doctrine in the New Testament, ready to be teased out, in an analogous manner to the way the Trinity has been developed as a doctrine. In particular, Colossians ‘provides the contours of a grand theological narrative with a universalist ending. It is this basic theology that I suggest can form the framework within which the rest of the Bible can be appreciated.’ (p.7) MacDonald makes important the verses which proclaim that one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.

So when I claim that universalism is biblical, I do not mean that all biblical authors were universalists but that the universalist tendencies of some authors provide the big picture within which we can happily accommodate the teachings on hell of all the biblical writers. (p.40)

MacDonald obviously has a lot of work to do to go against the tide of centuries of interpretation of passages about hell and final judgement. He certainly believes in the reality of hell, and that is a terrible place we should do everything possible to avoid. But he argues that its function is not to punish forever but to bring people to repentance. (Yes that does sound a little like purgatory, doesn’t it?)

MacDonald believes that Bible clearly teaches that God desires that none shall perish but that all should have eternal life. He doesn’t agree with Arminian logic that people are able to, finally, resist the love and will of God. If God desires that all should have eternal life, then He shall bring it about.

Many free-will defences of hell make the importance of free-will so much that protecting it justifies anything, even eternal punishment for eternity. Many discussions of hell also insist that while God’s justice – his need to condemn sin – is immutable and absolute, his mercy has its limits – that in the end, God’s justice will win out over his mercy for lots of damned people.

MacDonald spends considerable time with the relevant Bible passages about hell and makes a case for how they can be interpreted consistently with (eventual) universal salvation. His proposal about the lake of fire in Revelation is perhaps the most intriguing. Who is it that is thrown into the lake of fire? The rebellious nations who have followed the Beast. Who is it that is welcomed into the New Jerusalem in the next chapter? All the nations! Why are the gates of the New Jerusalem open day and night? Who are they open for? What is outside the New Jerusalem? Well, the lake of fire, and the people leaving it.

Most evangelicals will find the idea of universal salvation utterly disturbing. Which says something of how perverted evangelicals are. One can’t help but sense that most evangelicals will be a little disappointed if everyone gets to join the party in the new heavens and new earth.

If evangelicals are only driven in their mission efforts by the heat of the flames of hell, then perhaps their good news isn’t good enough.


Will Shedd

MacDonald makes the most sense in this whole book when he writes on p.3, ‘…universalism is so far off the ‘soundness’ radar that it does not even register! Universalism is so obviously false that it can be rejected with hardly a moment’s thought.’

It disturbs me, the plague of young ‘evangelicals’ who sound like liberals. The essence of liberalism is that whenever one encounters a biblical truth that one finds unpalatable, one reinterprets it in the light of other knowledge to make it palatable. Being evangelical means standing under the authority of the Bible.

You have to strain very hard to make the New Testament universalist, and MacDonald strains very hard indeed. Unclear passages, like the one in Colossians that he builds so much on need to be reinterpreted in the light of clear teaching of the rest of the Bible – which, in this case, we have so much of.


Resurrection and Renewal: Bigger and Better Than Going to Heaven When You Die

Here’s the text of that sermon I gave at  Network Vineyard Church on 12 July 2009.

1. Introduction

I want to talk about an area of faith where my whole way of thinking was turned upside down. And that’s about heaven. I’m anticipating three possible reactions – boredom, disagreement and excitement. I hope the excited group of people is the biggest one. If you already know everything I’m going to say, come see me and I’ll arrange for you to get your money back out of the offering. If you disagree with me because you have a strong contrary opinion, I understand, but have a think about it. But I’m thinking there are some of you here today who will be inspired to find new hope and meaning in your life and your understanding of what your faith is all about.

I spent the first nineteen years of my life with an unhealthy view of physical reality. I believed that God was going to destroy the Earth one day. I believed that my future state was to live as a soul floating around in heaven, with no physical body.

When you think that God is going to destroy his creation, plucking out as many souls as he can before he throws the Earth on the fire, you tend not to care as much about what happens here and now. The injustices that plague our world become unimportant. Doing good seems futile. Things can only get worse; why try to do good? Why care about the environment? About climate change? It’s only going to get worse; the whole earth’s going to be thrown out like a disposable cup. More than that, all of life feels a bit pointless. You’re waiting around for heaven, and the only useful thing you can do is evangelise.

When I was nineteen and studying theology at uni, at one stage I got overwhelmed. I had so many questions and challenges to what I’d thought in the past. Fortunately, there was a man named Ian who was a mentor to me. I rang him and he told me to come around. I didn’t have a car, so I had to catch a bus into the city and then one out to his place; it took nearly two hours. When I got there, I was ready to pounce on him with all my questions about the sources and authorship of Genesis and Deuteronomy and the history behind them. But instead, he asked me a question. I think the Holy Spirit inspired him to ask it, because on the face of it, it had nothing to do with my situation.

He asked me, ‘What happens after we die?’
I said, ‘We go to heaven.’
But then he asked, ‘What about after that?’
And when I looked at him like he was playing a trick on me, he told me two things.

First of all, that the Earth wasn’t being thrown in the bin, but was going to be redeemed and renewed.

Second of all, I wasn’t going to live as a disembodied soul in heaven forever, but at Christ’s return, I would be resurrected to live on the renewed Earth. Our resurrection bodies were to be more physical, more real than our current ones – not less. Heaven, he told me, was only a waiting place for something better.

Basically he told me that Christianity was bigger and better than going to heaven when I died.