From Charismatic to Agnostic: How the International House of Prayer Influenced My Journey

“Rationalizations often appear when a religious movement suffers the falsification of its prophecies.” - Dale C. Allison

People have asked me several times since “coming out” as an agnostic what impact, if any, the International House of Prayer has had on my journey. The truth is that it has had a profound impact, but probably not in the way many people might think.

I’ve been out of the end-times charismatic world for almost a decade now, and I’ve really grown to love many of the more traditional, progressive, and ecumenical expressions of the faith I’ve been exposed to in that time. My “loss of faith” is not the result of a sudden pendulum swing or naively equating the more ecstatic and apocalyptic expression of my youth with the whole of Christianity. What my experience at IHOP has done, however, is give me a first-hand framework for understanding crucial aspects of the early church (e.g., its more ecstatic and apocalyptic elements) that might otherwise be difficult for a modern Christian to understand.

Much of my theological energy over the past decade or more has been spent trying to avoid the conclusion that I now find unavoidable: that the earliest period of the church “was a time of excited and sometimes (from the typical twentieth-century standpoint) fantastic beliefs and practices to whose atmosphere we have a clue in the uninhibited enthusiasms of contemporary Pentecostalism and the unshakable certainties of marginal sects expecting the imminent end of the world. In that early apocalyptic phase of the Christian movement the canons of plausibility were very different from those operating within today’s mainline churches” (John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, 16).

The discerning reader of this blog may have noticed a trend in recent years, as many of my posts have focused on the question of non-fulfillment in biblical prophecy (e.g., this post), and particularly on non-fulfillment in the prophecies of Jesus (e.g., this post). That is one dimension of a matrix of questions about the historical foundations of Christianity, all of which might be boiled down to a fundamental set of alternatives: Did it all happen like the New Testament writers say it did, or was there something else going on? Reading such posts in retrospect, I see myself trying desperately to find an honest interpretation of the evidence while still upholding an orthodox Christian faith—two goals which I now find to be in conflict with one another.

I offer no pretense of objectivity here. As a student of the New Testament who grew up in an atmosphere of unshakeable apocalyptic expectations, I can’t help but see many parallels between modern charismatic groups like IHOP and the early church, and my first-hand experience with the former makes it difficult for me to avoid skepticism toward the latter.

To cite one example, it has become increasingly fascinating to me how IHOP’s “prophetic history” has undergone so many stages of redaction and reinterpretation over the last 30+ years, despite being told by the same leader who experienced it all in the first place, and despite being told to essentially the same community. One of the best illustrations of this phenomenon is the story Mike Bickle tells about the fulfillment of Bob Jones’ drought prophecy in the summer of 1983. This is just one example, but anyone familiar with source, form, or redaction criticism will immediately see its relevance to the New Testament.

 “A sign in the heavens”

Here’s how Mike told the story in 1989:

“Then Bob [Jones] stands up at the end [of the fast] and he says, ‘I got bad news.’ He says, ‘The Lord told me that there isn’t gonna be a revival being poured out at the end of this 21 days.’ He said, ‘Worse than that, we’re goin’ to have three months of total barrenness. And there’s gonna be a drought upon the city.’… [So] we watched it day by day and there was a drought those three months. He (Bob) said, ‘The Lord will break the drought in the natural over Kansas City, and it’s a sign that He will, on an appointed time, break the drought in the Spirit, but not until He appoints the time.’

And he told us on the end of May, he said, ‘This drought will last three months in the natural. It will last a number of years in the Spirit… But there is an appointed time when the drought breaks in the natural as well as in the Spirit.’ And he said, ‘And here’s the proof…It will break on an appointed day in the natural.’ On August 23, the drought will end and the rains will come to the city. Three months from, from now, the rains will come… Obviously that took place and that was glorious. And it was a supernatural sign to us. We waited all summer for that.” (Mike Bickle, “Overview of Our Prophetic History,” May 1989, emphasis mine)

Note that, according to this early telling of the story, Bob Jones prophesied that there would be a three-month drought from the end of May (“from now”) until the end of August, and on August 23 (“an appointed day”) God would end the drought (“On August 23, the drought will end and the rains will come to the city”). This fledgling community waited all summer for the rain from heaven to come on August 23, so of course they were beside themselves when it actually happened. It’s hard to exaggerate how important this story is to IHOP’s identity and worldview.

Mike also stated the following concerning this drought prophecy in 1986:

Quoting Bob Jones: “‘This is the sign in the heavens… For three months there will be a drought in this city.’… there will be a pattern in the heavens—a weather pattern, and you can’t manipulate weather patterns.’ So we said, ‘Okay. If it comes to pass, we know the word is true.’… But he [Bob] says, ‘On August 23, God will send a sign from heaven...’ I said, ‘Bob, I hope this is right.’ Cause it was terrible. June—no rain… August 23, 6:00 at night, it rains, what, three to four inches of rain… It was a sign in the heavens that no man could have manipulated; it was spoken publicly for all to hear.” (Mike Bickle, “Prophetic History 2,” Spring 1986, emphasis mine)

This version gives us some extra details: it didn’t rain at all in June, and it rained three to four inches on the night of August 23. It’s also interesting how Mike emphasizes the public nature of the prophecy, much like Paul emphasizes the public nature of some of the appearances of the resurrected Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7. That should shut the mouth of every skeptic, right?

Well, maybe it would have, if Mike’s story was the only record we had. But thanks to modern data collection and meteorology, we can actually test Mike’s recollection of the weather patterns in the summer of 1983 against hard data—and that’s exactly what one person did.

In 1990, the pastor of a large charismatic church in Shawnee, KS named Ernie Gruen wrote an open letter in which he called Mike out on some of the details of this story:

“These are the facts concerning rainfall during the months of June, July, and August, 1983. They were obtained from the National Weather Service and the newspaper weather reports from that timeframe:

1. July and August were below normal in rainfall, and very hot, but July and August are always hot in Kansas City.

2. June’s record showed well above average rainfall: 5.03 inches in the northern part of the city, and 7.37 inches in the southern part, where Kansas City Fellowship is located.

3. It rained only .32 inches on August 23, not 3 to 4 inches. Regarding this rainfall on August 23, the newspaper’s comments were, ‘Tuesday’s watered-down attempt at rain here, though half-hearted and half-heated, eased area sneezes, dropping the pollen count to only 23 particles per cubic meter of air. Gesundheit.’ (KCT, Thursday, August 25, 1983)

4. On six separate days in June, there was more rainfall recorded than on August 23, with one day showing over 2 inches of rainfall, and two days showing over 1 inch of rainfall. There was no drought. Anyone who went outside or read the newspaper could not have considered June a month of drought. The sprinkle of rain on August 23 was not considered a drought-breaker.” (Ernie Gruen, “Documentation of the Aberrant Practices and Teachings of Kansas City Fellowship,” May 1990)

Of course, people within the IHOP community rarely bother to fact-check Mike’s stories. I mean, why would they? Those stories are practically the foundation of their worldview. I myself was heavily involved at IHOP for eight years and I simply accepted the prophetic history as 100% true, a fact which now stands as a humbling personal example of confirmation bias and the halo effect. I didn’t know anybody who actually read Gruen’s report, and the only thing I ever heard about him was that he eventually recanted his accusations against Mike (a claim which he adamantly denied).   

Despite the insulated nature of the IHOP community, however, Gruen’s report seems to have made a real impression on Mike, because he now tells the story somewhat differently. He now says “it only rained about a third of an inch” instead of “three to four inches” like he used to, and he now has Bob prophesying that the rain on August 23 would come “in the midst of a drought,” not as the event that would “break the drought” like he used to (Mike Bickle, “The Early Days, Cairo Egypt, and the Solemn Assembly,” September 17, 2009). He also repeats three times in the handout that the prophesied drought was from July 1 to October 1, not from the end of May to the end of August like he used to.

This awkward change in the timeline of the prophecy is the only way Mike can account for the fact that there was actually higher than average rainfall in June, and on six separate days there was more rainfall than on August 23. Once confronted by these facts, Mike was faced with a choice: either (a) admit that the prophecy did not come to pass, or (b) redact and reinterpret it to fit with the facts.

As an aside, perhaps it is worth pointing out that even if we go with Mike’s revised timeline of July 1 through October 1, it still rained on 21 of those 93 days, which means that Bob Jones would have had more than a 1 in 4 chance of naming a day with rain in that period, and 8 of those other days saw more rain than on August 23. So even if we granted Mike’s tampering with the timeline, it still hardly qualifies as “a sign in the heavens that no man could have manipulated”.

How Stories Change 

Ernie Gruen thought Mike was being intentionally deceptive, much like the early critics of the NT Gospels thought Jesus and/or the early Christians must have been intentionally deceptive. As someone who spent almost a decade under Mike’s leadership, however, it’s hard for me to reach that same conclusion. I think a much more plausible explanation, based on a more informed understanding of human psychology, is that this is a classic case of cognitive dissonance and wish fulfillment. It also illustrates what recent studies of memory are showing:

“Every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the later recall of the event. Thus, the next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but what you remembered the previous time… Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval” (Northwestern).

Despite all the changes Mike has made to the story of the drought over the last 30 years, it really did rain on August 23 just like Bob Jones predicted, and that must have made a powerful impression on that young charismatic community at the time, especially since they had been praying and waiting for that very outcome. Never mind that the odds were actually better than flipping tails twice in a row; in their minds, conditioned as they were, it simply must have been God, and so all the little details that didn’t fit were easily ignored or reinterpreted, and any embellishments only served to reinforce what they genuinely believed to be true. I can’t help wondering how the story would have evolved had Mike’s early embellishments not been challenged.

A Psychological Contagion

Over a century ago Otto Pfleiderer said the following with reference to the development of early Christianity: “It is a well-known fact of experience that states of the extraordinarily excited life of the soul, and in particular religious enthusiasm and ecstasy, have a sort of infectious character, and master whole assemblies with elemental power” (Philosophy and the Development of Religion, 2:116). I know this to be true from my own experience. And the more I study the New Testament, the more I think it explains a good deal about how Christianity began.

Imagine you are a devout first-century Jew following a charismatic prophet who you believe confidently to be the deliverer of Israel. Imagine that this prophet, coming to terms with the inevitable outcome of his revolutionary message but trusting also in the divine vindication of his cause, on numerous occasions foretells of his own death and resurrection. What would you think, then, if only a short time after his death, in the midst of your grief and guilt, you hear that his tomb was found empty? Would you not, through your attachment to him, have sufficient cause for hope? And as a devout Jew, wouldn’t the natural outworking of such hope be fasting, prayer, and fervent searching of the Scriptures? And suppose that, through this process, you and perhaps several others have visionary experiences in which you encounter your master alive from the dead, offering forgiveness and telling you to carry on his message. What would you think? What would you do? How would you express those experiences?

Point being: If the disciples carried the kind of eschatological expectations the Gospels say they did, and/or if Jesus ever said the kinds of things about resurrection that the Gospels say he did, then the mystery of the empty tomb would have presented itself to them as a highly suggestive mystery. Indeed, Luke’s account says that Peter “marveled” when he saw the tomb empty (Luke 24:12), and John says that this was all the beloved disciple needed to believe that Jesus had risen (John 20:8). It was their rain on August 23, the event that drove them into a state of hopeful expectancy for an encounter with the risen Jesus.

But like the rain on August 23, the empty tomb is much more vulnerable to a naturalistic explanation than most apologists admit. Grave robbery was not uncommon at the time. Indeed, the so-called Nazareth inscription confirms that it was a problem specifically in first-century Palestine (see Bruce M. Metzger, New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic [NTTS 10; Leiden: Brill, 1980], 75-92). Any number of persons could have stollen Jesus’ body. Necromancers, for example, were often eager to find body parts for their magical rituals. That might seem strange to someone in the post-Enlightenment West, but as Dale Allison shows, it only takes a little bit of disciplined historical imagination to see the plausibility of such a scenario:

“Not only might the remains of a holy man have been particularly tempting—recall the power of Elisha’s bones in 2 Kings 13:20-21, of Thomas’s bones in Acts Thom. 170, and later superstition about the healing powers of relics—but the remains of the executed were also thought particularly powerful (cf. PGM 4.1885-1886). Jesus was desirable on both counts. Furthermore, necromancers, ‘who were, almost by necessity, body snatchers,’ had a special interest in those who died violent deaths” (Dale C. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters [New York: T & T Clark, 2005], 202-203).

This is purely speculative, of course, and it’s impossible to quantify the likelihood of Jesus’ body being taken by necromancers, or by any other party, like we can quantify the likelihood of it raining on August 23, 1983. But the point is to show that, like August 23, this was hardly a “sign from heaven that no man could have manipulated,” however much it may have seemed that way to the disciples at the time.

And here’s the implication, which I plan on arguing in more depth later: Once we have the empty tomb, the early testimonies for everything that happened thereafter are more plausibly explicable in terms of known psychological patterns than they are by the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead. It simply fits the evidence better. As Christopher Knight observes,

“What is clear from psychoanalytic case study—irrespective of whether the Jungian exploration of it is considered valid or adequate—is that, in certain unusual mental states, especially at times of great emotional stress or need, there occur visions of a dreamlike character, containing imagery which reflects that of ancient and primitive mythology, and which may be a vehicle for an experience of the numinous. Given this factor in human psychology, the historian who is able to acknowledge the presence of all these factors in the resurrection appearance accounts seems to be faced with a compelling account of the psychic mechanism through which they began their formation.

Nor is this conclusion nullified if one judges the accounts to be accurate insofar as they report corporate experiences—even by several hundred (1 Cor. 15:6). Though much rarer than individual experiences, the corporate visionary experience of archetypal content is far from unknown (as witnessed, for example, by several well-documented cases in this century whose content has been ‘the Virgin Mary’). Jung himself analyses a related type of phenomenon—which he labels the ‘visionary rumor’—in terms which seem extraordinarily applicable to Jesus’ resurrection appearances, even though he is talking about something quite different. He talks, for example, of a prerequisite to the experience of such visions being ‘an emotional tension having its cause in a situation of collective distress or danger, or in a vital psychic need’. Moreover, he recognises the affinity of the phenomenon to the explicitly religious visions of ‘the crusaders during the siege of Jerusalem, the troops at Mons in the First World War, the faithful followers of the Pope at Fatima, Portugal’. Indeed in the context of his own study on a modern manifestation of the phenomenon, he particularly notes a situation ‘calculated as never before to arouse expectations of a redeeming, supernatural event’” (Christopher Knight, “Hysteria and Myth: The Psychology of the Resurrection Appearances,” Modern Churchman 31 [1989], 39-40).

I didn’t allow myself to pursue this line of thought for years, because I thought my experience made me susceptible to prejudice, prone to read cognitive dissonance and wish fulfillment into places where the evidence doesn’t really support them. As much as I tried to avoid this line of thought, though—and as much as I tried to replace it with a coherent alternative with the help of scholars like G. B. Caird, N. T. Wright, and Richard Bauckham—the more I grappled with the relevant exegetical questions, the harder it became to avoid the conclusion that Jesus was actually a failed apocalyptic prophet and Christianity was born through the same kind of psychological contagion that I experienced first-hand at the International House of Prayer.

Confession of an Agnostic Jesus Follower

“I find it no light task to follow my vocation, to put pressure on the Christian Faith to reconcile itself in all sincerity with historical truth. But I have devoted myself to it with joy, because I am certain that truthfulness in all things belongs to the spirit of Jesus.” - Albert Schweitzer

“I want to know the truth, even if I cannot cheer it.” - Dale C. Allison

Following the evidence wherever it leads has always been a strong value of mine, even if that means entertaining possibilities that might call into question my most dearly held beliefs. This is why I have Paul’s advice from 1 Thessalonians 5:21 tattooed on my wrist. It’s a constant reminder to always keep my mind and heart open to other ways of looking at the world, regardless of the consequences.

Following Paul’s advice has recently led me to entertain some serious doubts about many core tenets of the Christian story, not least the resurrection and divinity of Jesus. I’m not convinced it’s all false, and I harbor no fundamental bias against it, but I no longer find it plausible enough to base my whole life on it. As a worldview, a way of answering all of life’s most important questions, the Christian story has significantly lost its explanatory power in my mind. Thus I can no longer in good conscience call myself a Christian.

But at the same time, and despite the shrill insistence of the culture warriors that such a position is impossible, I remain just as committed as ever to following Jesus’ vision for humanity, the way of loving my enemies, serving instead of being served, turning the other cheek, etc. I want to follow Jesus’ way of being human, not because I think I have to, because Jesus is God and I have to do what he says or else, but because I think the power and wisdom of that ethic stands independently of the credal, metaphysical claims of the Christian tradition. So I’d call myself an agnostic Jesus follower.

I’ve kept most of my doubts pretty close to the chest for the last few years, not wanting to be a “stumbling block” to anyone else, but I don’t think that’s really helpful to anyone anymore. I’ll probably be processing through my journey more publicly in the future, engaging with the issues that led me to doubt the Christian story even as I try to follow Jesus' vision for humanity.

In the meantime, here are a few articles from around the web that helped me process my journey. If you're on a similar path, I highly recommend reading more from these authors. 

5 Reasons Why I Am A Secular Jesus Follower by Tom Krattenmaker

Five Times When Jesus Sounded Like a Humanist by Neil Carter

What it means to be a “secular” Jesus follower by Tom Krattenmaker

A Biblical Case For Universalism: Beyond The Concordance

“Hell, so limitless to the man who has chosen it, is still bounded by the ‘nevertheless’ of divine love.” - John A. T. Robinson

Introduction

A section of the 1852 painting The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin

A section of the 1852 painting The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin

As we saw in the last post, the Old Testament has very little to say about the fate of individuals after death. In fact, most of the OT assumes that death is the end, not just for the wicked but for everyone, and the few texts which seem to anticipate something more beyond death still do not offer anything close to the systematic clarity of the three main Christian views.

Many have concluded from this that the OT has little relevance to the questions of hell and final judgment. But this is a huge mistake. While the writers of the OT say little about judgment in the hereafter, they say quite a lot about judgment in the here and now; and when the NT writers talk about hell and final judgement, they often use the same language that the OT writers used to speak of God’s judgment against nations within continuing history.

If we want to have a truly biblical understanding of hell and final judgment, therefore, we need to move beyond the concordance to the larger themes of divine judgment in Scripture. From this vantage point we can see that the OT contains some of the most important material on the questions of hell and final judgment, because it establishes the primary paradigms and vocabulary by which the NT writers speak to those realities.

A Paradigm of Restoration

One of the great virtues of Edward Fudge’s case for annihilationism is the detailed attention he gives to the OT background of judgment language in the NT. In chapter 7 of his book The Fire That Consumes, Fudge observes that although the OT has little to say about hell and final judgment directly, it nonetheless provides a “lexicon of judgment” from which later biblical writers draw in their descriptions of postmortem judgment. “When later biblical writers wish to describe some future judgment against sinners, they often go to this lexicon of judgment for an appropriate descriptive symbol” (The Fire That Consumes, 59). Thus,

“As we become familiar with the symbolism used by Old Testament prophets, we will learn to look to those earlier Scriptures for the meaning of those symbols when used in the New Testament, always realizing that New Testament authors are free to change that meaning as needed” (The Fire That Consumes, 71).

While I fully agree with Fudge on this point, I believe his characterization of the OT as a “lexicon of judgment” falls short. More than a lexicon, the OT is first and foremost a story — an engrossing, tumultuous, many-sided story about God’s dealings with Israel and her neighbors. This is an important distinction, because Fudge and other annihilationists often reduce the value of the OT to abstract images and isolated technical terms, forgetting that those descriptions of judgment appear in context to a larger narrative full of all kinds of unexpected twists and turns. By paying attention to the twists and turns of that narrative, I believe we can see that the OT establishes not only a lexicon of judgment, but also a larger paradigm of restoration after judgment.

Permanent Desolation?

When it comes to unexpected twists, there is one event in the OT era that stands far above the rest. The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 587 BC, and the deportations of thousands of Jews that followed, constituted a tragedy of unparalleled significance for the Jewish consciousness. As Craig C. Hill observes, “It is the watershed event that divides Old Testament history, much as the holocaust divides modern Jewish history and September 11, 2001, divides recent American history. Afterwards, life could never be the same” (In God’s Time, 50-51).

In the years leading up to that event, the message of the biblical prophets was largely negative, warning the people of Judah that a terrible cataclysm was coming as the result of their unfaithfulness. Prophets like Zephaniah and Amos turned the popular eschatology on its head, saying that the coming of the “day of the Lord” would mean, not deliverance and prosperity, but fiery destruction and complete desolation (Zeph. 1:7, 14-18; Amos 5:18). After the great cataclysm arrived, however, the message of the prophets changed dramatically. No longer the harbingers of doom and gloom, they became the bearers of hope against hope.

The words of Jeremiah provide a particularly important case study of this phenomenon, since he prophesied both before and after Jerusalem’s destruction. Prior to that event, Jeremiah proclaimed God’s judgment in the most extreme terms imaginable:

“You have rejected me, says the Lord, you are going backward; so I have stretched out my hand against you and destroyed you — I am weary of relenting… I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever” (15:6, 14).

“But my people have forgotten me, they burn offerings to a delusion; they have stumbled in their ways, in the ancient roads, and have gone into bypaths, not the highway, making their land a horror, a thing to be hissed at forever. All who pass by it are horrified and shake their heads” (18:15-16).

“I will surely lift you up and cast you away from my presence, you and the city that I gave to you and your ancestors. And I will bring upon you everlasting disgrace and perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten” (23:39-40).

“I am going to send for all the tribes of the north, says the Lord, even for King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these nations around; I will utterly destroy them, and make them an object of horror and of hissing, and an everlasting disgrace” (25:9).

Note especially phrases like “burn forever”, “utterly destroy”, “everlasting disgrace” and “perpetual shame”, as well as the imagery of people walking by a smouldering wasteland like Sodom and Gomorrah. Jeremiah applies this same imagery to the valley of Gehenna in 19:6-13, saying that the whole city of Jerusalem will become an extension of its own garbage dump. We will return to some of these passages later when we see them echoed by NT writers in eschatological contexts.

For now it is enough to note that, if we were to read passages like these on their own, we would naturally think that Jeremiah expected the land of Israel to be completely destroyed with no hope of ever being restored. And yet Jeremiah goes on to offer words of profound hope for restoration:

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (29:11-14).

Other prophetic books follow this same paradoxical pattern of destruction followed by restoration. In Isaiah 34:1-4, for example, God speaks against “all the nations” and says that he has “devoted them to destruction”. To be “devoted to destruction” means to be left entirely without survivor (cf. Deut. 2:33-34; 7:1-5). There is no stronger term in Hebrew to describe the complete annihilation of Yahweh’s enemies. And yet after this judgment, Isaiah 45:22-25 says that “all the ends of the earth” will turn to God and swear allegiance to him alone.

Consider also the fate of Sodom, which becomes the standard template for understanding the fate of the wicked throughout the OT (e.g., Deut. 29:23; Isa. 13:19-20; Jer. 49:18; Zeph. 2:9). Summarizing this tradition, Fudge notes that Sodom’s destruction supplies the images of fire and brimstone, rising smoke, and eternal fire which later biblical writers apply to the final judgment (e.g., 2 Peter 2:7-9; Jude 7). Fudge concludes from this that “Sodom will never be rebuilt” (The Fire That Consumes, 71). According to Ezekiel 16:53-55, however, God will restore the fortunes of Sodom, so that even the archetype of everlasting destruction will become a testimony to his great mercy. This is most remarkable, since Ezekiel was not ignorant of the traditional status of Sodom as a byword for everlasting destruction (16:56).   

How do we explain the paradox of these passages? How can there be any hope for Israel if they are completely destroyed? How can the nations turn and be saved if there are no nations left to be saved? How can the fortunes of Sodom, the archetype of everlasting destruction, be restored?  

Prophecy and Parataxis  

As strange as it might seem to us, the Semitic peoples were quite used to making extreme and apparently contradictory declarations without explaining the logical relationship between them. This is called parataxis, and it is a hallmark of Hebrew style which often gets lost in English translations, since English prefers sentences with plenty of conjunctions and prepositions to make the logical connections between ideas clear. Thus, for example, when the Psalmist says of the heavens that “their voice is not heard” and then adds “their line goes out through all the earth”, most English translations place the conjunction “yet” before the second line so that it doesn’t seem like such a bald inconsistency.

G. B. Caird helps explain the crucial role that parataxis plays in Hebrew thought:

“Anyone who habitually employs parataxis in expression will be sure to think paratactically as well. He will set two ideas side by side and allow the one to qualify the other without bothering to spell out in detail the relation between them… Paratactical thinking enabled the ancient Hebrew to set in close proximity two different, and even apparently contradictory, senses of a word, without the discomfort felt by the modern reader” (The Language and Imagery of the Bible, 118-19).      

A classic example of this can be seen in 1 Samuel 15, where the prophet Samuel explains that God is not a man that he should repent (v. 29) right between two statements saying that God “repented” for having made Saul king over Israel (vv. 10, 35). To a modern reader this may seem like an irreconcilable contradiction, but the tension between the two statements is resolved by the context: God’s regret over having made Saul king is not due to some unpredictability or capriciousness on his part, but to Saul’s abdication of his responsibility: “for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel” (v. 26).

This explains how Jeremiah could say that Judah will become an everlasting desolation, a thing to be hissed at forever, an object of God’s eternally burning anger, and that it will be restored after only seventy years. “Prophecy deals more often than not in absolutes. The prophets do not make carefully qualified predictions that the Israelites will be destroyed unless they repent. They make unqualified warnings of doom, accompanied by unqualified calls to repentance” (The Language and Imagery of the Bible, 112). Prophetic language is purposefully paradoxical, because the prophets are more concerned with influencing the present than they are with revealing the future. The whole point of the warning is to produce a response, a change; and if all men responded no prophecy of judgment would ever come to pass.

“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it” (Jer. 18:7-8).

For Jeremiah, all of God’s judgments aim towards a positive end. God does not judge in order to destroy the sinner, but to destroy sin and draw the sinner to repentance. Like any good father who disciplines his children, God’s ultimate purpose is not retribution, but restoration. Indeed, it is this larger paradigm of restoration, rooted in the character and purposes of God, which gives Jeremiah hope after the tragedy of 587 BC:   

“My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness… For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lam. 3:20-23, 31-33).

God’s Relentless Commitment

Jeremiah was not alone in his view of God. The conviction that God’s anger is eclipsed by his eternal love is fundamental to OT theology (e.g., Ex. 34:6-7; 2 Chr. 5:13; Ps. 30:5; 100:5; 103:9; 106:1; 107:1; 118;1-4, 29; 136:10-26). In Ezekiel 33:11 God swears under oath that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they repent and live. Indeed, according to Ezekiel God is opposed to any form of retribution that is executed with malice of soul to destroy in never-ending enmity (Ezek. 25:15). Jonah says that God abounds in steadfast love and relents from doing harm (Jonah 4:2). Micah says that he does not retain his anger forever but that he delights in showing mercy (Mic. 7:18-19). Hosea compares God to a committed husband, jealous for his wayward bride (Hos. 3:1). Writing in the late 19th century, Thomas Allin elegantly summarized this biblical tradition:

“God is not anger, though he can be angry; God is not vengeance, though he does avenge. These are attributes; love is essence. Therefore, God is unchangeably love. Therefore, in judgment he is love, in wrath he is love, in vengeance he is love — ‘love first, and last, and midst, and without end’” (Christ Triumphant, 76).

Most treatments of hell say little about how that subject relates to the larger biblical themes of God’s character and purposes. Perhaps this is because they find it difficult to harmonize the traditional concept of hell as a place of irreversible punishment with the pervasive testimony of Scripture concerning God’s steadfast love and mercy. Whatever the reason, there has been a long history of holding the doctrine of hell and the doctrine of God at arm’s length from one another, an unspoken policy of theological quarantine by which judgment is made to triumph over mercy. In their atomistic focus on the language of judgment throughout the Bible, such treatments miss the prophetic imagination and confidence in Gods love that compelled many of the biblical authors to look beyond the imposing shadow of destruction and see Gods long-range plan of restoration. The result is an impoverished theology based on a truncated reading of the biblical narrative.

But the biblical prophets do not talk about God’s judgment in abstraction. Rather, they reflect deeply on the divine character and purposes behind those judgments, and for them God’s judgments are not a counterpoint to his steadfast love but an expression of it. “The fierce anger of the Lord will not turn back until he fully accomplishes the purposes of his heart” (Jer. 30:24). It is because God is so committed to seeking and saving the lost that he burns against everything that corrupts and destroys the divine image in us. “For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness” (Isa. 26:9). When God brings destruction upon wayward nations, he does so in order that he might bring them back to life again. “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.” (Hos. 6:1). What reason do we have for thinking the judgment of hell will be any different?

Conclusion

While the strength of the case for annihilationism rests largely on the language of everlasting destruction throughout the Old Testament, we can see that such language does not exist in a vacuum. For the Old Testament prophets, the threat of everlasting destruction is always bounded by the “nevertheless” of divine love. More than a lexicon of judgment, the Old Testament’s most significant contribution to a biblical view of hell is its outrageous insistence that, no matter how far gone a group of people might be, and no matter how irreversible their destruction might seem, God’s arm is never too short that it cannot save. The end of the story can still be rewritten.

A Biblical Case For Universalism: Old Testament Perspectives on the Afterlife

“There is no more tiresome error in the history of thought than to try to sort out our ancestors on to this or that side of a distinction which was not in their minds at all. You are asking a question to which no answer exists.” - C. S. Lewis

Introduction

Fallen Angels in Hell by John Martin, 1841. 

Fallen Angels in Hell by John Martin, 1841. 

To quickly review, this was the conclusion of the last post

Once we acknowledge the diversity of the biblical witness concerning hell and final judgment, the relevant hermeneutical question shifts, from finding the unified voice of Scripture to finding the theological high points of Scripture. The strength of universalism lies in its ability to honestly account for the texts that don’t fit while focusing on the larger biblical testimony concerning God’s character and on the overall direction of the biblical narrative towards the reconciliation of all things in Christ. It is on this basis that I believe universalism does more justice to the biblical data than either traditionalism or annihilationism.

Now that the foundation has been laid, we are ready to take a closer look at what the Scriptures have to say about the fate of the wicked. In the next two posts we will focus on the Old Testament, dealing with specific texts about the afterlife in this post and with texts about God’s purposes in judgment more generally in the next. In following posts we will look at the relevant passages in the Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the book of Revelation. 

A Question To Which No Answer Exists

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind as we approach the OT is that the questions we are asking are not the same questions faced by the majority of OT writers. Christians who look for clear expressions of postmortem judgment in the OT, expressions which they find in the NT or other later sources, are bound to turn back almost completely empty handed. This is because the focus of the OT lies elsewhere. As N. T. Wright explains, 

“When Walter Zimmerli wrote his short, clear monograph, Man and his Hope in the Old Testament, the question of life beyond the grave was not only not the main issue; it hardly rated a discussion… The hope of the biblical writers, which was strong and constant, focused not upon the fate of humans after death, but on the fate of Israel and her promised land. The nation and land of the present world were far more important than what happened to an individual beyond the grave” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, 99). 

If we read the OT in its own historical context, it becomes clear that the primary hope of the Jewish people was for national restoration, not personal immortality. The promise to Abraham was not that he would go to heaven when he died, nor even that he would rise from the dead, but that he would have thousands of descendants to carry on his name in a land they could call their own. And as with heaven, so with hell: the end of Isaiah 14 shows that the ultimate expression of God’s judgment against the wicked was not to be seen in postmortem torment, but in making their land desolate and cutting off their family line (Isa. 14:22).

There is of course a long tradition of reading later ideas about hell into texts like Isaiah 66:24, but a historically sensitive reading of those texts shows that such ideas were not in the minds of their authors. In Isaiah 66, the “fire” and “worms” are feeding upon the decaying corpses of the dead outside of Jerusalem; they are not images of torment after death (cf. Jer. 17:27). As Jewish author Simcha Paull Raphael states, “From its inception, biblical Judaism… was concerned exclusively with the collective destiny of the nation and not at all with the postmortem fate of the individual Israelites per se” (Jewish Views of the Afterlife, 43). 

Given the centrality of heaven and hell in the modern evangelical worldview, the complete lack of interest in the afterlife displayed in the first two thirds of the Bible is unsettling. But this lack of interest has a cogent historical explanation. “It’s important here to remember,” notes Rob Bell, “that the Israelites, who wrote the Hebrew Scriptures, had been oppressed and enslaved by their neighbors the Egyptians, who built pyramids and ornate coffins and buried themselves in rooms filled with gold, because of their beliefs about life after death. Those beliefs appear to have been a turnoff to the Jews, who were far more interested in the ethics of and ways of living this life” (Love Wins, 66-67). A detailed understanding of the afterlife was not an issue that they needed to get absolute clarity on like it is for so many evangelicals today.

Sheol: The Land of No Return

This is not to suggest that the ancient Israelites had no thoughts about the afterlife. They did. But again, we must be careful not to read later ideas about heaven and hell into these ancient texts. In fact, not only does the OT show little interest in the fate of the wicked after death, but most of the OT assumes that death is the end, not just for the wicked, but for everyone. Rich and poor, saints and sinners — all faced the same fate in Sheol (e.g. Job 3:11ff). As Raphael summarizes, 

“One of the main attributes of Sheol, at least in the early stages of development as a postmortem concept, was its amoral character. Existence in Sheol was neither good nor bad… it is not a realm of torment or punishment; it is simply the domain of the dead” (Jewish Views of the Afterlife, 53). 

There are of course several passages, such as 1 Samuel 28:3-25 or Isaiah 14:4-21, which suggest the belief in some sort of continuing existence in Sheol, but the minimal “life” which we see reflected in such passages was a cause for neither hope nor dread in ancient Israel. As Wright says, “Only a world which had already begun to hope for something more interesting and enjoyable after death would find this vision unusual or depressing” (RSG, 90). When Isaiah 56:4 extends the hope of an “an everlasting name that will not be cut off” to the faithful eunuch who keeps the Sabbath, it means that he will be given an honorary plaque in the temple, not that he will live forever in the hereafter. The fact that the author calls these plaques “better than sons and daughters” shows that he had no conception of bodily resurrection or personal rewards in the afterlife.  

Of course, such an analysis is understandably problematic for anyone committed to finding a unified voice in the Bible’s depictions of the afterlife, which is why many evangelicals attempt to harmonize all the data into a monolithic whole. For example, annihilationist author Edward Fudge (whom I’ve chosen as a primary dialog partner in this series) claims that while the wicked had no reason to expect to leave Sheol, the righteous did have strong grounds for hope. Although Fudge says that this hope is “stated explicitly only a few times,” he declares that it nonetheless “pervades the entire Old Testament” (The Fire That Consumes, 49). In order to say this, however, Fudge has to effectively mute large portions of the OT which explicitly preclude such an expectation, such as the following: 

“As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up; he returns no more to his house, nor does his place know him anymore.” - Job 7:10

“For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” - Ecclesiastes 3:19-20

“For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” - Psalm 6:5

“For Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.” - Isaiah 38:18-20

Given the outlook of such passages, which are myriad throughout the OT, Wright shows more respect for the dignity of individual OT authors when he says that “Psalm 16 in its way, and Psalm 73 and 49 in theirs, are alone among the biblical texts in hinting at a future of which the rest of the ancient Israelite scriptures remain ignorant” (RSG, 107). In other words, there is a sense in which most of the OT expresses a form of “annihilationism” far beyond the view of any Christian annihilationist. 

Everlasting Contempt

Most of the OT, yes, but not all of it. The clearest exception is Daniel 12:1-2, which pictures a great reversal of fortunes after death, the vindication of Israel’s martyrs and the judgment of their enemies by way of bodily resurrection:

“And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” 

This passage does not reflect an annihilationist perspective in any sense. No, for true justice to be served, according to this text, not only will the persecuted saints rise from the dead to receive their eternal inheritance, but their oppressors will also rise and receive a sentence of shame and everlasting contempt. From this apocalyptic seedbed springs the whole tradition of eternal conscious torment.

Fudge argues that because the Hebrew word translated “contempt” in Daniel 12:2 is the same word translated as “loathsome” in Isaiah 66:24, Daniel must be referring to unburied corpses the same as Isaiah. In a fantastic display of puzzle-piecing hermeneutics, Fudge claims that the simplest explanation is to see Daniel 12:2, Isaiah 66:24, and Revelation 20:10-15 as describing three different phases in the same process of eschatological destruction:

“Daniel shows us a scene earlier than the second death—the general resurrection of good and evil. The destiny of the wicked will be ‘shame and everlasting contempt,’ but between Daniel’s resurrection and that final destiny there is the second death and the scene we saw in Isa 66:24” (The Fire That Consumes, 81).

Once again, by harmonizing all of the data Fudge has denied the biblical writers the basic dignity of expressing their own thoughts. The simple fact is that Isaiah 66 envisions no resurrection for the wicked, and Daniel 12, the first passage in Scripture to clearly speak of a resurrection for both the righteous and the wicked, gives no hint that the wicked are destroyed after being raised. This is the conclusion of John J. Collins, one of the most respected scholars of apocalyptic literature:

“The sinners in Isaiah 66 are not restored to life to experience their humiliation… [And] Daniel does not elaborate on the punishment of the damned and makes no mention of a fiery hell, but he does seem to go beyond Isaiah 66 in having the sinners restored to life to experience their disgrace” (Daniel, 393). 

Within Daniel’s apocalyptic framework, the purpose of the resurrection of the wicked seems to be that they should experience “shame and everlasting contempt” as their just recompense in contrast with the “everlasting life” of the saints. But both parties are raised, and the contrast is not between everlasting life and everlasting death, but between everlasting life and everlasting ignominy. 

It’s important to note, however, that while the earliest stratum of the OT expresses a form of “annihilationism” more universal than the later Christian position which bears that name, Daniel 12:2 expresses a form of eternal suffering much more limited than traditionalism. “Daniel does not envisage universal resurrection,” says Collins. “His concern is focused on the fate of the faithful, especially the ‘wise,’ and of their perfidious counterparts in the crisis of the Hellenistic age” (Daniel, 392). Nowhere in the OT do we see the eternal suffering of all the wicked. 

Seeds of Hope

So we can see the roots of both annihilationism and traditionalism in the OT, even though neither view became a fully developed eschatology there. But what about universalism? Do we see anything in the OT that supports the hope for the ultimate reconciliation of every human being? 

Yes and no. Many universalists believe there are straightforward and explicit references to universal salvation throughout the OT. I think such proof-texts are tenuous at best, just like most of the texts used by annihilationists and traditionalists. But although there doesn’t seem to be any direct support for universalism in the OT, there are two important developments toward the end of the OT era which together lay the groundwork for the universalist expressions which we find in Paul and other NT writers. While no OT writer puts these two thoughts together, they did plant the seeds that, as we will see in later posts, would eventually grow into something more.  

The first of these developments, which we see most clearly in the prayerful contemplation of several Psalms, is the increasing sense that the love of Israel’s God is so powerful than even death itself cannot overcome it. The Hebrew word for this kind of love is chesed: faithful, steadfast, relentless, never ceasing. According to Wright, it was the personal experience of this love, rather than any theory about innate immortality, “that gave rise to the suggestion that, despite the widespread denials of such a thing, YHWH’s faithfulness would after all be known not only in this life but in a life beyond the grave” (RSG, 103). Yes, the wicked will be consumed in Sheol, but the beloved saint can trust that “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (Ps. 49:14-15). 

The second development, which we see most clearly in the prophets, is the growing conviction that the saving love of Israel’s God extends beyond Israel to the entire world. The Israelites were often tempted to think of YHWH in the same way that the surrounding nations thought of their gods: tribal deities interested only in the victory of their little group. But the prophets remind Israel that YHWH is not a tribal deity; he is the creator of heaven and earth, and he didn’t choose Abraham’s family for their own sake, so that they could be saved while the rest of the world is damned, but so that they could become conduits of his saving grace to every tribe, tongue, and nation. As we see in one of Isaiah’s Servant Songs:

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” - Isaiah 49:6

Standing alone, neither of these developments require that God will continue to seek and save the lost after death. But what happens when they are combined? If the love of Israel’s God is stronger than death, and if the same love extends to every human being, then what does that say about the ultimate fate of the lost? These seeds may be small, but the good news is all about small seeds that don’t stay small. When these developments are considered in the light of the OT’s broader theology of judgment, and in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the hope of ultimate reconciliation becomes, not just a small seed, but a great tree towering above all the other plants of the garden.

A Biblical Case For Universalism: The In Christ Project

“There can be no doubt that the desire for a neat and simple argument in support of a truth may dispose even able men to offer some little violence to evidence that points in the direction of complexity. What we consider neatness and simplicity is not always a characteristic of Divine working, or Divine teaching. A passion for simplicity of statement has often blinded men to facts that indicated more complexity than might at first have been supposed.” - Edward White

Landscape with the Journey to Emmaus by Pierre Patel the Elder, 1652

Landscape with the Journey to Emmaus by Pierre Patel the Elder, 1652

What is the biblical view of hell? 

That’s the question on the table here. It’s a big question about the whole Bible, which means it’s not a question that can be answered by the quick and easy appeal to one or two verses. It’s an all-inclusive question: an historical, exegetical, and theological question. 

And it’s a difficult question to answer, for at least two reasons. 

First, as we mentioned in the introduction, there are several different words in Scripture which have regularly been translated into the one English word “hell” (Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, etc), and then there are several other images which are routinely assimilated into that traditional portrait (unquenchable fire, undying worms, outer darkness, etc). This has resulted in a great deal of confusion, as we are automatically inclined to misunderstand what those words and images would have meant in their original historical contexts.   

But the bigger reason why the question What is the biblical view of hell? is difficult to answer is because of the assumption it carries about the nature of the Bible itself. 

A False Premise

The premise behind the question is that there is such a thing worthy of being called the biblical view of hell — a single, monolithic thread that stretches from Genesis to Revelation — and our task as interpreters is to simply locate this thread and call it what it is. If any passage seems to contradict what we believe to be the unified voice of Scripture, we are then bound by our prior commitment to explain the apparent contradiction away and harmonize that passage with all the others. 

This is the major weakness of Edward William Fudge’s otherwise praiseworthy defense of annihilationism in his book The Fire That Consumes. Fudge’s instincts are often on target, but his prior commitment to a particular view of the Bible sometimes inhibits him, in principle, from following the evidence wherever it leads. This is what he does when he gets to Revelation 14:9-11 and 20:10-15:

“Although simplistic, it is almost fair to say that this whole debate rests finally on one question: should we interpret dozens of straightforward texts throughout the Bible to match the literal sense of two symbolic texts in the Apocalypse, or ought we to interpret the two apocalyptic texts symbolically to conform to the many others” (The Fire That Consumes, 84)?

Conform — that is the operative word here, and the biggest problem with Fudge’s whole case for annihilationism. Fudge begins with a general truth about what kind of book God would write (“without error in anything that it teaches”) and then deductively applies that general truth to all the available data (The Fire That Consumes, 4-5). This is not the place to launch into a full discussion of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy (for that, see this post). But suffice it so say, in agreement with Craig C. Hill, that the idea is “thoroughly circular; its conclusions are written into its premises, so there is nothing to prove and nothing to doubt... Unless one is willing at some point to think inductively, to weigh and to test, the general truth is unassailable” (In God’s Time, 17). Furthermore, 

“The Protestant Reformers were right to insist that the whole counsel of Scripture ought to be consulted, but their dictum, ‘Scripture interprets Scripture’ all too easily becomes license for harmonizing according to one’s prejudices. How often have we selected the biblical view that we prefer and then used it as the key for interpreting out of existence the views with which we disagree? Challenging or controversial texts are dodged; in the process, the theological distinctiveness and integrity of individual biblical authors are lost” (25).  

Being faithful to Scripture, if it means anything at all, must mean giving the writers of Scripture the basic dignity of expressing their own thoughts, even if those thoughts are sometimes different than those of other biblical authors. If we are bound by some prior commitment to make two authors agree with one another, then we may boast of having a “high” view of Scripture — so long as “Scripture” remains a cipher for our own system and only occasionally intersects with the intention of the biblical writers themselves — but we cannot say that we have been faithful to the sacred text of Scripture.

If, however, we approach the Bible inductively, as the work of real human beings inspired by the Spirit for a specific purpose at a specific time and place, we are then liberated to acknowledge both the unity and the diversity, both the consistency and the inconsistency, of the biblical testimony concerning hell and divine judgment.

So in response to the question, What is the biblical view of hell?, it must be said, first of all, that there is no single model for understanding the fate of the wicked in Scripture, and “the attempt to assemble one inevitably diminishes the multilayered, multidimensional witness of the Bible” (In God’s Time, 74).  

Three Strands of Data 

So does that mean the Bible has nothing clear to say about hell and final judgment? Not at all. The unified voice of Scripture concerning God’s judgment is that it is real and that it really matters how we respond to him on this side of death. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). But there are at least three different ways of envisioning postmortem judgment throughout Scripture. 

The first way, which is by far the most common, is the language of annihilation: death, destruction, perishing, being consumed, vanishing like smoke, and so on. If there was such a thing as a unified voice in the Bible’s portrayal of hell, annihilationism would surely have the strongest argument for calling itself the biblical view. 

The author of 2 Peter gives clear expression to this view when he compares the fate of the wicked to that of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19: 

“By turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly... But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed... will also be destroyed in their destruction” (2 Pet. 2:6, 12). 

But there are several passages which seem to express something like the traditional view of eternal torment, most notably Daniel 12:2, Revelation 14:9-11, and Revelation 20:10-15. I have argued for an annihilationist reading of all of these passages in the past, but I’m no longer convinced that such a reading works for all of them. Take Revelation 14 as an example: 

“If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand… he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Rev. 14:9-11).

Annihilationists are right to emphasize the symbolic form of John’s vision; indeed, I will argue for a slightly nuanced reading of this passage later on. But I find it hard to believe that anyone could read “they will have no rest, day or night” as referring to the destruction of the wicked unless the maintenance of their particular theological system required them to.     

Besides annihilationist and eternal torment texts, however, there are quite a few passages which seem to support the wider hope of ultimate reconciliation, such as Romans 5:18, Romans 11:32-36, and Philippians 2:8-11. Some of the imagery in Revelation may also point in this direction, most notably Revelation 21:24-25, which pictures the “kings of the earth” (the same guys who were previously slaughtered by the sword that came from the mouth of the rider on the white horse) bringing their tribute through the perpetually open gates of the holy city. It’s a small but significant detail which hints at a remarkable reversal of the barring of mankind from the garden of Eden. Gates are meant to keep things out, and these gates are always open.

But perhaps the clearest expression of this wider hope appears in the climactic hymn of Colossians 1: 

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created… All things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:15-20). 

Happening upon a passage like this, many readers have become accustomed to simply screening out the face-value implications of Paul’s words. But if we do not rule it out in advance, a universalist reading surely has the evidence in its favor. Just as Christ is the agent through whom “all things” were created (v. 16), so he is the agent through whom the same “all things” will be reconciled (v. 20).

We’ll explore some of these passages in more depth later, but the point at present is this: Ultimately, every attempt to find a unified voice for “what the Bible says about hell” is inevitably selective, either bending annihilationist and universalist texts into the shape of eternal torment texts or vice versa. So it won’t work to simply point to this or that text and say “Case closed! This clearly supports my view.” There are always other texts to be found, and no single view has the monopoly on biblical support.  

A Better Way

So what do we do? How do we decide between the various strands of data? Is there a better way than the “proof-text arms race”? 

I believe there is. Given the fact that these three different types of passages do not lend themselves to an easy harmonization, the pertinent question is not which type of language represents the greatest percentage of the data, or which one is the hardest to explain away, but rather which one reflects a deeper insight into God’s redemptive plan according to the overall trajectory of the biblical narrative

In order to arrive at something that might be called “the biblical view” of postmortem judgment, I believe more attention should be paid to the character of Israel’s God as it has been revealed throughout Scripture and to the outworking of this God’s redemptive-historical purpose in Christ. 

This is, after all, how we instinctively approach many difficult subjects in Scripture. Consider, for example, the plurality of the biblical witness concerning slavery. Most of the Bible simply assumes the existence of slavery, and many passages (including several NT passages) offer tacit support to it (e.g., Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1). We have recently developed the habit of ignoring these texts, but for nineteenth-century slaveholders they offered clear biblical support for their livelihood. On a much deeper level than individual proof-texts, however, we can see a God who loves to set captives free, a God who breaks in pieces the doors of bronze and cuts through the bars of iron, and we can see the biblical narrative moving on a trajectory towards a kingdom in which “there is neither slave nor free” (Gal. 3:28). It was to this deeper biblical truth that the abolitionists appealed.

And the same thing could be said about many other subjects of doctrinal and ethical importance, such as genocide, circumcision, justification, or resurrection. In all of those cases Christians regard a few central NT texts as being more decisive for Christian theology than a large number of earlier texts that point in opposite directions. In none of those cases would we say that the few texts at the end of the Bible should be made to conform with the majority of earlier texts.

Craig C. Hill develops this hermeneutical model in his phenomenal book In God’s Time: The Bible And The Future. After discussing the many weaknesses of the harmonization model, he suggests that we ought to regard biblical authority as something derived from Christ and that Christ himself is God’s primary revelation, the centerpiece and climax of the biblical metanarrative. 

“Believers today are employed at the same essential task as the New Testament authors, namely, the attempt to make sense of their world in light of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus. I call this the ‘But in Christ’ project. Like us, the writers of the NT were located at particular moments in time and in specific cultural environments. Like us, they accepted much of their situation as given; however, at certain points they realized that their world was challenged by what they had seen of God in Christ. Those are the ‘But in Christ’ moments. Yes, first-century this and first-century that about women, but in Christ ‘there is no longer male and female’ (Gal. 3:28). I would contend that it is precisely at these junctures that the New Testament is most important and most revelatory” (25).   

Applying this model to the question of hell and final judgment, it must be said that passages like Philippians 2:8-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 have not usually been allowed the place in court which they clearly deserve to have. Indeed, only a cursory glance at these and other “universalist” texts would show that they appear at the theological high points of the New Testament, revealing in breathtaking panoramic view the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan in Christ: all things will be reconciled, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. 

In other words, the “universalist” passages are to the question of hell what texts like Galatians 3:28 are to the question of slavery: just as there is neither slave nor free in Christ, so every knee will bow in the name of Jesus. In both cases we see Paul reaching beyond the nearsighted categories of this broken world and catching a fresh glimpse of what might be possible in the wake of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  

Conclusion

There is obviously a lot more that needs to be said, but the foundation has now been laid. Once we acknowledge the diversity of the biblical witness concerning hell and final judgment, the relevant hermeneutical question shifts, from finding the unified voice of Scripture to finding the theological high points of Scripture. The strength of universalism lies in its ability to honestly account for the texts that don’t fit while focusing on the larger biblical testimony concerning God’s character and on the overall direction of the biblical narrative towards the reconciliation of all things in Christ. It is on this basis that I believe universalism does more justice to the biblical data than either traditionalism or annihilationism. 

A Biblical Case For Universalism: Getting Our Bearings Straight

Introduction

A section of the 1853 painting The Great Day of His Wrath by John Martin

A section of the 1853 painting The Great Day of His Wrath by John Martin

A few weeks ago Fuller Theological Seminary hosted the annual Rethinking Hell conference. The theme of this year’s conference was “Conditional Immortality and the Challenge of Universal Salvation”. The goal was to create a space for proponents of the three major views on hell and final judgment to engage with one another in an open, intentional, and charitable forum. More specifically, the conference allowed traditionalists (who see the ultimate fate of the wicked as eternal punishment) and annihilationists (who see it as destruction) to engage with the views of universalists (who see it as restoration). 

Universalism might still be the black sheep of evangelicalism, but this conference signals a major shift in the tone of evangelical discourse. For an event like this to be held at such an influential evangelical institution as Fuller stands as a testimony to how open evangelicals are becoming to considering alternatives to the traditional view of hell. Indeed, Jeff Cook, a professor of philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado and one of the speakers at the conference, went so far as to say that “the traditional view of hell will not last as a dominant theory among scholars for much longer.” According to Cook,

“The arguments for the traditional hell fail so spectacularly and their conclusions are so repugnant that the traditional view is only carried in the popular mind by assumption and convention.

No, the conversation about hell in the 21st century among those who study will shift and the debate will focus on two morally-coherent views of hell: annihilationism and universalism.”

If Cook is right, it means annihilationists and universalists can no longer pretend the other view doesn’t exist as they prop themselves up against the much less coherent arguments of traditionalists. It’s time for annihilationists and universalists to come into direct conversation with one another.  

In light of this shift in the conversation, I want to spend the next several posts here at Fifth Act Theology looking at the biblical and theological considerations which have led me to move away from annihilationalism, a view which I held for several years, and toward universalism, a view which I previously thought had absolutely zero biblical support. 

There seems to be a wide impression that universalism is philosophically strong but exegetically weak. I want to challenge that impression. My goal in these posts is to explain how someone who takes the Scriptures seriously could come to believe that universalism does more justice to the biblical data than either traditionalism or annihilationism. 

Defining Our Terms

First, hell: When I speak of “hell” I’m referring to what the subtitle of one recent study of the subject calls “God’s final solution to the problem of sin”. I think “hell” works fine as a shorthand for that eschatological reality, provided we keep in mind (a) that that is what we are referring to, and (b) that that is not always what the biblical authors had in mind when we find the word “hell” in our English translations. 

Part of the reason this debate tends to get so easily convoluted is that there are several different words in Scripture which have regularly been translated into the one English word “hell”—Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, etc—and then there are several other phrases and concepts which are routinely assimilated into that traditional portrait. This has resulted in a great deal of confusion, as we are automatically inclined to misunderstand what those words and phrases would have meant in their original historical contexts. 

In order to understand what the Scriptures have to say on the subject, we have to cut through all of the anachronistic baggage which has crept up around the biblical phrases like moss on an old building; we must approach the text on its own terms, as it would have been heard in the time and place in which it was written. 

Second, universalism: The word “universalism” can be just as misleading as the word “hell”. When N. T. Wright wrote that “one cannot forever whistle ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ in the darkness of Hiroshima,” he was criticizing the “cheep and cheerful universalism of Western liberalism,” the kind of universalism that blindly denies our need for God to judge sin and injustice and set the world right once and for all (Surprised By Hope, 180). He was not criticizing the much more orthodox and robust universalism which believes that God will rescue and restore every lost soul through the loving fire of his judgment. 

Unfortunately, many evangelicals tend to get these two very different positions confused with one another, and so they often end up criticizing traditional universalism as if it were the same thing as religious pluralism, the idea that every single person will be saved regardless of his or her particular religious beliefs or actions. 

To be absolutely clear, I am not a pluralist. I do not believe that all roads lead to the top of the mountain, but that “narrow is the gate and hard is the way that leads to life” (Matt. 7:14); and neither do I define God’s love as his unqualified acceptance of sinful humanity, but rather as his relentless commitment to sinful humanity. Hosea’s picture of a jealous bridegroom shows us the heart behind all of God's judgments: it is like the love of a husband for his wayward bride. A God who doesn’t judge is not a God of love, but a God of indifference, which is just another word for hate. 

But because I believe that the driving motive behind God’s judgments is always redemptive love, a love that seeks the best for the beloved, I must believe that his judgments are never purely retributive, never destructive, but always creative. This is one of many considerations which has led me to reject the dominant view of hell as a place of irreversible punishment. I do not deny the realities of hell and divine judgment, but I do not believe these realities will be permanent fixtures in God’s new world.

Third, traditionalism: When I refer to everlasting punishment as the “traditional” view, I mean that it has been the dominant perspective in the West since Augustine, but I do not mean that it is thereby the most “historic” or “orthodox” view. 

All three views are well attested in the first five centuries of the church prior to Augustine, and universalism in particular has deep roots going back to some of the greatest theologians of the early church, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and the Cappadocian Fathers Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa (see, e.g., John R. Sachs, “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology,” Theological Studies 54). The Cappadocians are particularly noteworthy for their major contributions to the First Council of Constantinople and the Nicene Creed, so it especially relevant to note that they were vocal exponents of universalism.

In fact even Augustine, whose towering influence effectively secured the status of everlasting punishment as the dominant view in the West for the next fifteen hundred years, acknowledged that there were “very many” Christians in his time who did not “oppose themselves to the Holy Scripture” but who nonetheless rejected his view of hell as eternal punishment (Enchiridion, 112). Yet Augustine did not condemn these universalists or bid them “farewell” like John Piper did with Rob Bell. 

On the contrary, Steve Gregg observes that because Augustine’s view of hell was “not yet regarded as an established orthodoxy in his day, he found no occasion to anathematize those who challenged it. He clearly believed them to be mistaken, but he did not regard them as heretical—nor even as opposed to Scripture” (All You Want To Know About Hell, 124). And while Augustine’s unparalleled influence eventually made eternal torment the dominant view on hell in the Western church, universalism has remained a live option in Eastern Orthodoxy.    

Finally, annihilationism: Some annihilationists prefer to call themselves “conditionalists” because that term highlights their belief that eternal life is contingent upon God’s grace in Christ and is not something intrinsic to humanity. I agree with annihilationists on this point. God alone possesses intrinsic immortality and we are sustained only by his continuing grace. But annihilationists are often unfair in their representation of the other views, suggesting that the only alternative to annihiliationism is the Platonic belief in an innately immortal soul. That may have been true for the likes of Origen or Augustine, but it isn’t true for everyone. 

Most universalists base their hope for ultimate reconciliation in what the Bible says about the steadfast love of God, not in anything intrinsic to the human make-up. Besides, most annihilationists already believe that God will sustain the wicked in some sort of conscious existence after death for the sake of rendering the appropriate amount of punishment to each. But if God can do that for the sake of punishment, why can’t he do it for the sake of salvation? That’s a question I don’t see annihilationists answering. Indeed, it’s a question that brings us to the heart of this whole debate. 

The Big Question

Much of this debate hinges on the question of God’s character. In a historical survey of the subject, Richard Bauckham observes that “the issue of hell and universalism is closely interconnected with other difficult and debated theological issues… [most centrally] the nature of God, the meaning of and the relationship between His love and His justice” (Themelios 4.2, 47). Whatever we think about God has a profound affect on what we think about the eternal fate of the lost, and vice versa. This isn’t about abstract philosophizing or liberal humanistic reasoning; it’s about letting what the Bible says about God’s character and will stand on its own two feet and not arbitrarily quarantining it off from a subject where it is so especially relevant.

This question will remain in the background of our investigation of what the Bible has to say about hell in subsequent posts. For now, I will simply register my agreement with Steve Gregg: 

“I believe that many Christians have simply assumed that they already know what the Bible teaches about hell, and have formed their notions of the character of God to accommodate their theory. My suggestion is that this is doing things backwards” (All You Want to Know About Hell, 300-301). 

Peering Through A Mist

Renowned New Testament scholar William Barclay famously called himself a “convinced universalist”. I am not a convinced universalist, for the simple reason that I do not think the nature of the subject allows me to be. While I have come to believe that universalism represents the most faithful reading of the whole biblical narrative, I remain open to other interpretations, recognizing that “all Christian language about the future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist” (Surprised By Hope, 132). I think this is especially true of Christian language about hell. 

Whenever the biblical authors talk about hell and final judgement, they use the same stock imagery that the prophets of Israel used to speak of God’s judgment against nations within continuing history. I will argue later that this fact encourages us to read the biblical passages on hell within a universalist framework, but the relevant point to note here is that the reason the biblical authors used this stock imagery was because they were themselves squinting in a fog, peering through a mist, and thus they could only speak of the judgment to come by way of analogy to judgments past. 

Rather than simply proof-texting the relevant passages on hell, therefore, we are encouraged by those very passages to enter into the whole biblical story of God’s dealings with humanity. Only by lovingly immersing ourselves in the previous acts of that story can we begin to talk about what the final act might hold. Only then can we talk about anything being the “biblical” view of hell.

A Super Nerdy List of Old Testament References in Revelation

It’s a fact widely acknowledged that the book of Revelation contains more references to the Old Testament than any other New Testament book. Indeed, some scholars have found as many as 635 echoes and allusions in John’s apocalypse. 

As a Jew who was thoroughly versed in the ancient Scriptures, it seems that John couldn’t help but make associations with God’s previous revelations as he himself was given the climactic vision of God’s redemptive plan. Granted, sometimes those associations seem to be less of a conscious action on John’s part, and simply reflect the way his mind was furnished so entirely by Israel’s sacred texts. But sometimes his allusions do reflect a conscious parallel, calling on an OT passage in order to say “This is that!” in some way or another.

Whether conscious or unconscious, however, John’s many echoes and allusions constitute our single greatest aid in understanding the way that he, the seer, understood his own vision. If we want to see things through John’s eyes and understand his vision the way he understood it, therefore, we should pay close attention to the many references he has left for us.

I compiled the following list of OT references in Revelation by combing through G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, a fantastic resource that really should be in every Bible student’s library.

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