Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What’s Wrong with the Universalist Story? (Universalism vs. Annihilationism)

Universalist arguments, books, and talks, are filled with discussions about “plot lines”, “the story”, and above all “metanarrative”.[1] It would not be fair to say that Universalists completely ignore exegesis, but in a chapter where one would normally expect exegesis, Universalist author Robin Parry admits that he does not emphasize exegesis of individual texts:

“The reader needs to understand that what I am doing in this chapter is not a straightforward exegesis of hell texts.”[2]

If I was trying to make a case for Universalism, I probably would not emphasize the details of individual verses and passages.  Exegesis does not support Universalism.  But, to be fair, we should examine the Bible at many levels when seeking to understand God’s Word, including:

1. Word studies and grammatical details.
2.  Analysis of each sentence/verse.
3.  Studying verses in their immediate context by reading and considering verses which come before and after them.
4.  Observing the themes and structure of each book of the Bible.
5.  Looking at the Bible as a whole in terms of systematic theology, and yes, the grand biblical story, sometimes called the “metanarrative”.

These different levels are not isolated.  They all interact with each other. This interaction is sometimes called the “hermeneutical circle” because we understand the whole better by understanding the parts, and we understand the parts better by understanding the whole. Perhaps it would better be called “an upward hermeneutical spiral”, because if done correctly we are not merely going in circles, but constantly growing in our understanding of God and His truth.

Since Universalists tend to focus on “the whole” (the big story, the metanarrative), and then use this to explain (or, in my opinion, explain away) “the parts” (individual texts), I want to focus on the Universalist story in this series of blog posts.  By the “Universalist story”, I mean the way that Universalists understand the metanarrative and major theological themes of the Bible. If they understand the story correctly, and if they apply this understanding correctly, then they have a strong case.  I’m convinced they don’t have a strong case, at least not when compared to annihilationism (also called Conditional Immortality).

So, what’s wrong with the Universalist story?  A lot!  Too much to fit in one blog post of reasonable length.  So, I’ll begin with one problem and then, Lord willing, discuss other problems in future posts.  The first problem I want to explore is that the Universalist story has the wrong ultimate goal.

The Wrong Ultimate Goal

One of the most repeated and most passionate arguments I’ve heard from Universalists basically says that Universalism must be the end of the story because it is the only ending where God truly wins. Before I explain what’s wrong with this argument, let me acknowledge a few things that are right about it:

1.  The Bible’s story does involve a cosmic, worldwide, history-long, conflict between God and forces of evil.
2.  God loves all people, and wants all people to love Him.
3.  There is no doubt that God will win this conflict.  The two sides are not even.  God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and super incredibly smart, wise, and intelligent.  He is also entirely good. Thus, there is no doubt that God will ultimately win.

In addition to the three points above, the Universalist will argue that since God loves all people, if any person is not saved in the end, it means that God has not won.  This is where the Universalist has gone wrong. God Himself defines His goal (what counts as “victory”) in the very first chapter of the Bible, and then in the last book of the Bible we see that He has magnificently achieved His goal, although it came at a high cost.

In the very first chapter of the Bible we read of God’s goal for humanity:

Genesis 1:26 Then God said, "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."
 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
 28 God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

There are two major parts to God’s goal.  First, He wants people to be like Him, made in His image. Second, He wants these people who are like Him to fill up the whole earth.  In other words, God’s goal is to create an entire world filled with people who are as loving, faithful, truthful, kind, pure, courageous, selfless, and good as Jesus!  What a magnificent goal!  What a wonderful plan![3]

Does God achieve His goal?  He sure does!

Revelation 7:9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb."

Notice that achieving this goal does not require that every person be saved, only that many people from all around the world be saved.

Now, at this point, the Universalist may argue that it would be even better if every single person was saved.  They might also point out that God wants every single person to be saved.  And I agree with them that God does want every person to be saved.  So how do I explain this?

All who study the Bible (Calvinists and Arminians; Traditionalists, Universalists, and Annihilationists) can agree that in some limited ways God does not always get what He wants. Does God want anything evil to happen?  At one level, the answer is “No, of course not”.  Yet, evil things do happen.  Why is this? Here I will offer my best attempt at a brief explanation, recognizing that other sincere Christians have offered different explanations.

There are some things God wants more than other things. All of us can relate to this.  I want my daughter to be home with us because I love having her around.  But, more than that, I want my daughter to have as full, meaningful, and God-glorifying life as possible, and for now that means supporting her being away at college most of the time. It’s a price I’m willing to pay.

I’ve already defined basically what I believe the Bible tells us God wants most:  a world full of people who are like Jesus. Now I need to add a few details.

Being like Jesus means we must be able to love with the type of agape-love which Jesus has.  I’m convinced that this type of love requires free will.[4] God also wants people who will rule the earth with Him, yet remain in joyful submission to Him. He gave us a strong desire to rule which fits this destiny.  But creating people with free will and such strong desires, while necessary for God’s glorious goal, also meant that people might turn against Him. In fact, God knew this would happen. Achieving His ultimate goal would come at a very high cost.

The highest cost God pays is sending Jesus to bear our sins and die on a cross.  That cost is so high, we simply stand in awe and bow in worship at such great love.

Yet, there is another very significant cost.  Many people reject God’s offer of salvation.  Without overriding their free will (and thus removing their ability to express agape-love), God cannot prevent this.  God truly wants everyone to be saved.  But He is willing to see many perish, although it pains Him deeply, in order to gain His eternal Bride.  His Bride consists of a world full of people who have accepted His salvation and who have been remade into the image of Jesus.

Now, for those who believe in eternal conscious torment, it is very hard to explain how having many billions of people in perpetual torment is a fair price to pay for a world full of other billions who are in joy.  But for those of us who have seen that the Bible teaches Conditional Immortality (which includes annihilationism) this problem melts away.

Perhaps if we only considered the first thousand years of eternal life with God, someone may question if the joy of the saved would outweigh the temporary suffering followed by eternal destruction of so many who are lost.  But when we consider the first trillion, and the next trillion, and the next . . ., well I have no doubt that God knows what He’s doing. It will be worth it, for Him and for us.  And remember, God is not being unjust to those who reject Him. The punishment they receive is right and just. Also, in a very real way, not granting eternal life to sinful rebels is the most loving thing God can do for them, since they would be eternally miserable.

I’m aware that there’s a lot more to discuss.  For this opening post on this topic, I want to close by comparing God’s story with many of the most loved manmade stories.  Many of the most enduring tales and stories that move us and stick with us have two elements interwoven together. They are simultaneously love stories and war stories.  They involve a hero seeking to win the love of a beautiful bride, but having to face terrible opposition, suffer, and make great sacrifices, to rescue his bride and win her love. These stories end with a glorious wedding. I’m convinced that these stories speak to our hearts so deeply because they are echoes of the biblical story.  The true story.  Our story. God’s story.

[1] Robin Parry (under the penname Gregory MacDonald), The Evangelical Universalist, 2nd Ed. (Cascade Books, 2012).
Parry’s book (which is perhaps the best attempt at an evangelical defense of universalism) is full of this type of language.  Here are a some of the many examples:  “the whole biblical story” (xix), “the gospel story” (xx), “a grand theological narrative with a universalist ending” (7), “this grand theological story” (7), “biblical metanarrative” (7), “the biblical metanarrative” (36), “theological grids, or stories” (39), “a broad theological grid” (40), “this metanarrative” (53), and so on throughout his book.
[2] Robin Parry, 133.
[3] I wrote more about this, and how it’s related to the Great Commission, in a previous blog post:  The Great Commission and Genesis Chapter 1.
[4] I explain the biblical basis for love requiring free will in another post, Does Love Require Free Will?

Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .

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