A Conversation About the Afterlife, Part 4

The recent book by Rob Bell, Love Wins, has reopened the controversial topic about the ultimate spiritual destiny of mankind – will every person, no matter what, be reconciled ultimately back to God through his bountiful love in Christ’s sacrificial death and live eternally in His presence, or will Judgment Day separate some men and women to eternal separation from God, that is to Hell, while others, through the reconciling work of Christ on the Cross, spend eternity with God?

The month of May will be devoted to exploring this question.  We thought that there is no better place to discuss this heated topic then at your local seminary.  We have asked D. Scott Reichard, a local proponent of “ultimate reconciliation,” and Dr. Aaron Bird, an adjunct Professor at Urbana Seminary and specialist on the doctrine of Hell – who will be teaching a summer course at Urbana Seminary called “Evil, Hell & Universalism” – to discuss the matter for us on our blog.


By Aaron Bird

A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.  A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.  Say it again.  A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.  In the same way my basketball coach encouraged me to persistently practice my “shooting follow-through”  – to mature from a two-handed shot to a proper one-handed shot – so, too, in order to understand the original meaning of the biblical text it behooves us to continually consider the hermeneutical catchphrase, “A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.”

The UR blog post opened with a flurry of scriptural citations/quotes.  Twenty-three of them, with zero contexts.  My dog has cited a verse before, Proverbs 26:11, when she “returned to her vomit,” but citing verses without context illustrates precisely the Proverbs 26 context: foolishness.  There’s irony in the prooftext verses to boot.  Many of them could disprove UR; unless, of course, there is no context, then we can make them say whatever we want just as the Catholic Church predicted Protestants would do when they foretold, “You will turn the Scriptures this way and that, like a wax nose.”  Simply citing verses is like my two-handed shot; it will get shot-blocked every time.

The blog post then asks us to reconsider salvation in terms of the Law, that Paul was chosen because he was a Law expert, and that the gospel is a Lawful gospel.  I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul himself spent his days combating this toxic notion, and that the author of Hebrews considers this “to be walking backwards towards Sinai.”  Indeed, the author of Hebrews said there’s something better: Sola gratiaSola fideSola Christus.  So what if person X can keep the Law a bit better than person Y, keeping the Law is like trying to touch the moon and neither person X nor Y can touch the moon with her own jumping abilities.  And even if Scott was only trying to say Jesus fulfills the Law, which I would concur Jesus does, it proves nothing about UR.

UR’s control belief is divine love.  I’m all for divine love too.  A persistent problem with it acting as a control belief for UR, however, is that on its account love ironically… loses.  If God imposes His will in a coercive manner to break our freedom and, consequently, all meaning of a genuine relationship, then love loses.  Given free will is part and parcel of divine love, the Christian philosopher, John Sanders, rightly states, “[They] claim God can bring about the reconciliation of all free creatures, but they never plausibly demonstrate how this can be if the creatures remain forever free.”

C.S. Lewis does applaud UR’s heart for humanity when he writes, “I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully: ‘All will be saved.’”  The key word for Lewis is “truthfully” and, as such, he continues, “Without their will, or with it?  If I say, ‘Without their will,’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary?  If I say, ‘With their will,’ my reason replies, ‘How if they will not give in?’”

This is not an argument between Sovereignty and free will, either, in the sense that I’ve been reading on the blog posts.  Human beings never chose to have free will; rather, God in his vast sovereignty freely chose to grant sentient beings free will.  God has sovereignly reserved the right to reconcile the world as such.  God unilaterally begins the process and, while some things are divinely caused, such as how salvation can occur, others are not, such as our self-surrender.  Just because we see God determining some things in Scripture does not mean we deduce this to a universal principle that He determines all salvific things; similarly, just because we see people making free libertarian choices for salvation, it does not mean there is no external influence.  God can influence, but influencing is not coercing/strong-arming.

Skipping with my daughter in the park, holding my wife under a beach sunset, playing chess with the homeless in Hollywood, and doing cartwheels on the eternal streets of gold with my dad are not worth having without free will.  The UR camp has asserted the orthodox view is insulting to God and, yet, when UR strips humanity of free will, the God of love loses.

With libertarian free will, there can be external influence on a person and this person can genuinely choose heaven or hell.  God sovereignly (and astonishingly) grants this person the power of contrary choice.  Free will neither saves nor condemns, however; it is God alone who forgives and saves, while free will means throwing our hands up in surrender.  In light of this, the theologian Donald Bloesch puts it more astutely, “All people have been redeemed objectively and de jure, but only the believer is redeemed in toto and de facto.”

Lewis is rightly relentless, then, with this view: “In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of . . . defeat.  What you call defeat, I call miracle: for to make things which are not Itself and thus to become . . . capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity.”

And do not say there is nothing God cannot do (or “God can do anything”) unless you are ready to admit God can catch the flu virus, suffer from HIV, and commit suicide.  There are some things God cannot do.  One of those things is guaranteeing a world where libertarian freedom exists and evil/hell does not.

This choosing of hell relates to the blog posts about “In Adam’s fall, we fell all” questions.  I agree with the aforementioned Bloesch who contends that Adam’s fall does not chiefly mean his sin and guilt were transferred to the rest of humanity.  Rather, what is transferred is the same ability to choose evil which is now “an inborn state” in human beings.  Our free will is part of the wiring of what it means to be a human being and it automatically entails a hereditary distance from “the other,” including Deity.  We can use this neutral hereditary distance to either choose a relationship with the Trinity or choose the diabolical self.

This inborn diabolical self scenario leads to my final responsive point.  Scott quipped, “Everyone loves to have their Hell be just full of Hitler and his friends.”  Number one: I’m not sure Hitler had friends; and, two, hell is not about Hitler, Genghis Khan, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or Bin Laden.  Hell is about you and me.  It is about me.  Now it makes a lot of sense.

by Aaron Bird, Adjunct Professor at Urbana Theological Seminary