Eternal destiny, part 4: What about those who’ve never heard?

The second element of the question put to me was as regards the eternal state of those who have never heard the gospel, and consequently have never had the opportunity to accept or reject Christ. This is a problematic concept when we try and break it down logically, and I readily admit this. However the uncomfortable reality is that Scripture is nearly silent on the subject. I only found a couple of references that alluded to the “ignorant unbeliever” at all. In Luke 12:42 and following, Jesus says that the one who knowingly violated what he knew to be right will be punished more severely than the one who erred ignorantly. Peter in his second epistle is even stronger (2:20-21), when he says of those who once believed but have returned, not only to the world, but to actively trying to deceive other believers, that “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs. . .”

There are several passages that may be inferred to include those who have never heard, including Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, as well as John 5, Hebrews 9, and Revelation 20. There are vastly more passages which describe only the fate of those who have turned their back on the Lord—a far more active thing. But even from the few passages that do seem to include all people everywhere, we can infer that all flesh will be subject to judgment. Moving from this inference to the conclusion that those who have never heard are subject to the same punishment as those who actively oppose Jesus, requires a leap that Scripture does not make.

Scripture is quite clear that only those who have believed in the Lord receive eternal life (though I must qualify that the conventional evangelical definition of the term “believe” as “intellectual assent to orthodox propositions” is wide of the mark). Universalism is not a Biblical concept. But to say with certainty that the ignorant unbeliever will languish in eternal, conscious torment along with the one who has rejected and opposed Christ, is not a conclusion Scripture supports.

Finally, although this last point is a logical one and not a scriptural one (and therefore I offer it as a point to consider, not a doctrine), I have been struck by a number of cases over the years where the Spirit of God has clearly prepared a people group to receive the gospel, in some cases generations before any missionary arrives. Repeatedly I have read of missionaries arriving in a place to find people to whom elements of the truth of God have been revealed without any clear knowledge of the gospel, but who as soon as they heard the word of Christ have realized that this is what they were waiting for. It seems to me that we should be careful not to seal up our doctrinal boundaries so tightly as to exclude from our belief system those in whom the Spirit of God has been working without the benefit of a flesh-and-blood missionary.

None of this excuses us from our mandate to spread the gospel. As I said at the outset, our king has given us marching orders, and they are to be followed, not because of what will happen if we don’t, but because he’s our king. But as to the fate of those we don’t reach before they die, perhaps the most relevant scripture is Jesus’ counsel to Peter when he asked about John’s fate: “. . .what is that to you? You follow me.”

Eternal destiny, part 3: Eternal what?

An implicit point in many discussions of the state of a human being after death, revolve around the theory that we were created with immortal souls, which live on after corporeal death. The belief is that we will all live forever, either in bliss or torment. I did not find any conclusive evidence of this in the New Testament. In fact, the majority of the passages I found speak of resurrection from the dead, not a continued existence after death. A worldview that states that we are all “fully dead” (for want of a better term) at death, but that God will, at the end of time, raise us all either to eternal life or to judgment, is just as consistent—perhaps more so—with the scriptures I read, as is a belief in the immortality of the soul.

Furthermore, numerous passages in both the Gospel of John and the epistles, seem to set up a contrast between death or destruction on one hand, and eternal life on the other. The classic John 3:16 is a good example of this. The contrast is not between “eternally conscious punishment” and “eternal life,” but rather between “perishing” and “eternal life.” “Eternal death” (my phrase, not in the Bible) is also eternal—that is, death from which there is no resurrection or reprieve. The “second death” of Revelation may be just that.

I’m not necessarily advocating annihilationism (although I find it logically compelling). As my notes on individual passages will show, I in fact came across a variety of places in both the gospels and the epistles, some of which might be taken more to indicate an ongoing punishment, and others of which seem more to suggest a finality to the punishment—rather like the contrast between life in prison and the death sentence. Both are final, complete, and irrevocable, and nothing I found in Scripture suggests anything less.

My point is that an equally-honest case can be made, either for eternal conscious punishment, or for annihilation, depending on the Scriptural passages to which one gives more weight, and no clear-cut, conclusive pattern emerges. I may decide the preponderence of evidence points one direction, and another believer may see it pointing the other way, and neither of us is conclusively on solid Scriptural ground. I cannot agree to a doctrine which attempts to clarify a point that I believe the writers of Scripture—under divine inspiration—left vague.

Eternal destiny, part 2: Begging the Question

The clearest finding I come to from this study was something I had already suspected, but I was still surprised by the preponderance of evidence that came through. This is that the concept of hell and condemnation is used in the New Testament primarily as a warning to those who claim to believe, or who claim God’s privilege. It is not used as a warning or threat to the unbeliever. Time and again, both Jesus and the writers of the epistles speak of hell in the context of calling out the oppressors, the self-righteous religious leaders (particularly as those leaders are misleading those who might otherwise follow God), and those who try to justify themselves while ignoring the core of Jesus’ teaching. Even the term “unbeliever” in context refers far more frequently to those who have consciously rejected Jesus, than to people who just don’t know or haven’t received the Gospel.

A corollary to this point is that hell is also not used by any Biblical writer as a reason for us to evangelize. In the Great Commission, and in other places where Jesus commands us to spread his word, the reason is Jesus’ authority itself (“all power is given to me, therefore go…”), not the eventual state of the unbeliever. Jesus’ message to the unbeliever was an affirmative one—come, believe, repent, follow—not a negative one of fleeing punishment. Scripture is clear that God wants people to be saved, and we may infer that their eternal state is part of the reason, but Scripture itself does not link the two. That link, while reasonable, is a creation of human logic, not a Biblical one.

I freely acknowledge that there are many dedicated believers who first came to Christ out of a fear of condemnation. This is yet more evidence that God, in his grace, uses our flawed efforts to his glory. However, to argue as some have, that we need to use the “fear factor” to reach people who might not respond to a more affirmative presentation of the gospel, is to forget what we so readily claim at other times—that it is the Spirit of Christ who draws people to him, not the effectiveness of our words. If we believe in the Spirit’s moving in our evangelistic efforts, we do not need to go beyond what is written to be effective messengers of the gospel.

So my first and most important conclusion is this: a doctrine of hell/punishment is not necessary to obedience, and it is not central to the message of the New Testament. I submit it does not rise to the level of doctrine at all.

Eternal destiny, part 1

Note: The source New Testament study on which this series is based is now available here

I’ve already posted about my aversion to statements of faith in general, and to specific points in the commonly-accepted evangelical doctrinal statements. In the next several posts I want to take on one specific point in Evangelical doctrine that I believe is seriously misguided–the subject of eternal condemnation/hell. As the reader will soon see, I don’t come out entirely in the camp of any of the major positions I have seen, in that I maintain the whole question of one’s eternal destiny (particularly as a future-only proposition) is, in fact, asking the wrong question. But so much Evangelical thought is focused either on salvation as a means of hell-avoidance, sin as a thing that dooms us to hell (without salvation), and the fate of the “lost” (i.e., going to hell) as the reason for evangelism, that I don’t think the point can safely be ignored.

The doctrinal statement goes something like this (this version taken from the new SOF of the Evangelical Free Church of America):

We believe that God will raise the dead bodily and judge the world, assigning the unbeliever to condemnation and eternal conscious punishment and the believer to eternal blessedness and joy with the Lord in the new heaven and the new earth, to the praise of His glorious grace.

The following posts are taken from a short paper I did on this subject in January, 2007 while I was in the process of pursuing a possible job in an international missions organization. Although the work I would have been doing was in the realm of health and development, the organization (not surprisingly) wanted to be sure my beliefs were in alignment with their doctrines, which as it turned out, they were not (I didn’t get the job). Specifically, in the view of a statement that contained the above text, I was asked my position regarding the eventual state, both of the unbeliever who rejects Jesus consciously, and of those who never hear the gospel and therefore die “unsaved.”

Not having fully studied the issue before (I have for a long time felt, as I said, that it was the wrong question to be asking), I committed to do a study of the Biblical texts for myself before answering. I did a complete survey of the New Testament, specifically looking for any text that seemed, to me, to be relevant to the subject. I’ll post my annotated list of texts when I figure out how to do so, but I’ll get the content up first.

As I said, my methodology here was simply a complete survey of the New Testament. In one or two cases I also referred to the Greek roots of a couple words. When I did this I used the Nestle Greek text, and Young’s Analytical Concordance as my principal references. I deliberately did not consult with any theological references or commentaries for this paper. I chose to do this, not because I do not respect others’ study, but because I believe it is important to approach a Scriptural question first and foremost by allowing the Scripture to speak for itself. I operate under the assumption that key Scriptural concepts (and consequently doctrines) must be derivable from Scripture itself. I do not presume to be superior to church fathers or traditions—but on the other hand I feel it is crucial to remember that nothing but Scripture itself carries Scripture’s authority. In the next three posts, I’ll lay out what I found.

Why do I believe? Part 13 — Not for Heaven’s Sake


Lots of folks, when they discuss the truth (or not) of faith, or when they try to sell Christianity to outsiders, spend a great deal of energy on issues surrounding the afterlife.  The crassest version, but one many of us have encountered, is encapsulated in the question “do you know where you’d be if you die tonight?”  The core message, of course, is that we’re all going either to heaven or hell, and that being true, we should choose heaven and make whatever earthly choices and/or behavior changes required to ensure that the heavenly outcome is ours.  At its extreme, I will never forget the time I met a career Baptist missionary in Honduras, who looked me in the eye and told me in all sincerity that if he didn’t believe in the certainty of hell for the unbeliever, he wouldn’t be a Christian.  To this day, I wish I would have asked him what he’d do (or wished he could do) differently.

Unsurprisingly, atheists have picked up the theme.  I have had more than one of the benevolent stripe of atheist somewhat condescendingly aver that if I needed the comfort of a happy afterlife to give me peace of mind now, that was all right as long as I didn’t bug anybody else about it.  And of course atheists who aren’t quite so magnanimous can get pretty steamed (not entirely without justification) about Christians who are so focused on the afterlife that they seem indifferent to suffering here and now … or those who are so sure this world is going to burn soon that they care nothing for ecology or stewardship.

But for me, the afterlife is really not a factor in my choices for this life.  Though it is difficult for both my believing and unbelieving friends to grasp, if I were to become affirmatively convinced that there’s no God, no heaven and no hell, and that this life is really all I’ve got, I don’t think I’d change much at all.  My charitable giving might change a bit; there’s no point in supporting any evangelical efforts if there’s no evangel.  I probably wouldn’t bother going to church, though I might still just because there’s not much that forms community like church does (although I must admit that a lot of “worship” is hard for me to tolerate even though I do believe it).

  • I wouldn’t cheat on my wife … our relationship here and now is too good to ruin regardless of whether it’d be sin or not.
  • I wouldn’t change my social/economic outlook on justice; although the best of Christianity gives a lot of sound foundation for justice, it’d still be clear to me that the powerful have no right to abuse the weak.
  • I don’t think I’d change my choice of career; my passion for international health comes right out of my perspective on justice, and my personal sense of purpose is strengthened when I’m able to help others.
  • I probably wouldn’t have started this blog, but on the other hand I have lots of opinions and like to say them, so I very well might have started a different one.

Ultimately, I don’t think the emphasis on afterlife by Christians is particularly helpful.  Not that there’s no biblical foundation to be sure.  Jesus certainly spoke about resurrection and God rewarding the just and punishing evil.  Paul did say that if there is no resurrection “we are of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:19), but if we keep reading it appears to me that the context is a persecuted church.  People who are dying for their faith can reasonably be described as “miserable” if they’re dying for a lie.  But here in our too-comfortable 21st-century West, any misery we may suffer has nothing to do with our hope in the resurrection.

So while I would not want to pierce the comfort of a bereaved widow who finds solace in the confidence that she will see her husband again, and while I would never wish to rob the downtrodden of the hope that some day justice will be served on those who oppress them, in the final analysis my own motivation for the Christian life is found in this life, or it’s not found.  The careful reader may notice that I have not even addressed the question of what I think will happen to me when I die.  This is deliberate.  I neither fear death (ultimately) nor have I any desire to hasten it.  I’ve written elsewhere that I don’t fear hell.  But whether or not I have the hope of heaven is irrelevant to my life choices today.

Why do I believe? Part 6 – My heritage

I'm not actually Jewish, and this image is of a Jewish mezuzah, a container for a bit of scripture placed on the doorpost of a home.  But to me, the mezuzah illustrates the concept of parents passing on their faith to their children, and is therefore relevant to this topic.

I’m not Jewish, and this image is of a Jewish mezuzah, a container for a bit of scripture placed on the doorpost of a home.  But the mezuzah illustrates the concept of parents passing on their faith to their children (see Deut. 4:6-9), and is therefore relevant to this topic.

Not all my reasons for belief are evidence based.  I say this without shame and without apology.  I am at least in part a product of my own upbringing, both from the standpoint of what I was taught, and the societies in which I have passed much of my life.  So, I would suggest, are we all, and no less so if we reject our past, than if we accept it.  I would explain this in part by saying that there are a variety of forces that lead to one’s position on the Belief Matrix I’ve discussed before.  Differing bits of evidence may have vectors that impel one toward theism or atheism, or may affect the certainty level of the other axis on the matrix.  My own history pushes me in the direction of theism.

It does much more than that.  I grew up learning of Jesus in the context of a family that did not have tight denominational ties, but was strongly influenced by the Anabaptist movement, and the Mennonite Church and Church of the Brethren denominations.  While I do not fellowship with either group today, and while my positions are quite distinct from those of my parents in a number of ways, it is an incontrovertible reality that my basic Christian focus, my aversion to ecclesiastical authority, and my particular form of Sola Scriptura exegesis owe a great deal to my Mom and Dad (if you want proof of that, just spend a little time browsing my Mom’s blog).  I believe I’m my own man, but there’s no question I’m my parents’ son too (thanks Dad & Mom!).

There’s plenty of what I’ve come to believe that I did not learn from childhood.  Peruse the topical index on this blog and you’ll come across topics such as Open Theism, my questioning of the doctrine of the Trinity, or the nuances of my perspective on nonviolence, all of which came well after I left home, though I would argue they remain grounded in the same approach to biblical authority.  I’m a product of my upbringing, but I’m no clone.

Likewise, though I ground many positions (particularly ecclesiology and nonviolence) in the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and though I have literal as well as figurative ancestry among the Anabaptists, I do not follow their lead without question.  I am no more in full agreement with every article of the Schleitheim Confession of the Anabaptists, than I am with the Nicene Creed to which I’ve previously objected.  I have taken the raw material I was served, including my parents’ faith and the teachings of my church(es), combined it with my own independent reading of the Bible, seasoned it with the thoughts of many others both published and not, and come up with a faith that is mine today.  This is a faith that is in some ways distinct from all my prior influences, but to deny their influence would be downright silly.

An important caution is in order, though.  I acknowledge the influence of my upbringing on my beliefs, but I know many who seem to believe that the way to be free of such influence is to reject whatever they were taught.  Nowhere have I seen this attitude in sharper relief than among those who, decrying the legalism or “narrow-mindedness” of their parents’ faith, profess atheism (or more honestly, anti-theism).  It takes but little reflection to realize that one who rejects his upbringing out of hand is influenced by that upbringing just as surely as one who accepts it.  “X” and “Not X” are indistinguishable in one vital respect–both are equally and inextricably referential to “X.”  One can–and I believe ought to–attempt to step back and evaluate one’s heritage.  Such an exercise, if done honestly, likely will result in keeping some elements, refining others, and discarding still others.  But one cannot reasonably deny that one’s heritage has an influence.  Mine certainly has.


One parenthetical note:  it is the reality of the influence my culture and upbringing has had on my own philosophy, that as much as anything informs my reluctance to accept the exclusivist claims many Christians (and maybe others) make about faith.  The vast majority of humanity see the world as they do, in large measure due to an accident of birth.  The world’s religions are geographically distributed, and while there is certainly overlap, it’s a reality that a person born in China is likely as not to be Buddhist; one born in India, Hindu; one in Latin America, Roman Catholic; and one in the Middle East or North Africa, Muslim.  I have written before that while I am not strictly universalist, I do not believe the Bible supports the common Christian claim that anyone who hasn’t appropriated Jesus’ salvation as they define it, is damned.  I rather lean toward the principle of “Available Light” (expounded at length by Moxey and Garrett, as well as the older Quaker concept of Inner Light) … that God evaluates each person’s response to that truth which has been revealed to him/her.

The SBC: Pro-Hell, Anti-Bell — Still Wrong!

Well, it seems the firestorm ignited by Rob Bell’s Love Wins just won’t let up.  Now the Southern Baptist Convention has passed a resolution On The Reality of Hell (June, 2011), in which they reaffirm their belief in eternal conscious punishment for all “the unregenerate.”   My thanks to Rachel Held Evans for her highlighting of this resolution (of which I had not heard), and to Mason Slater for linking to Rachel’s post in the first place.  (Incidentally, follow that link to Rachel’s post…she makes an interesting argument that if the SBC is going to insist on the “Biblical foundation” of their doctrine of hell, they have to abandon their doctrine on the “Age of Accountability” which is nowhere in the Bible.  Not my subject today, but it’s a compelling argument IMO).

Anyway, since the SBC did us the favor of putting scripture references into the various clauses of their resolution, I figured this would be a good time to re-examine the New Testament survey on Hell that I did a few years back.  For those who have not already seen it, you can download a table of all the passages I found on hell and punishment, and have a look at my commentary on them.
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New Testament Survey on Hell

I’ve written against the usual doctrines of hell and eternal punishment now and again on this blog…you can see the works by choosing the Hell category from the list at right. However until we changed to WordPress I never had a good way of providing my original source material for others to evaluate or critique. This post is just to make that material available. At the following link you can download a PDF table of all the references I found in the New Testament, that I believe contribute to the question of eternal destiny, along with my assessment of who the target audience was, and what insight (if any) each reference brings to the question. Here’s the document:

Burn-them-all vs. Universalism: A false choice

A common phenomenon within theological, political, and other discussions that get us worked up, is that someone frames a question as “either-or” and then others jump onto that argument as “for” one side or the other…without anybody really stopping to consider whether the question itself was properly framed to begin with.  The recent controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” seems to me a prime example of this.  The “either-or” of the Bell saga is, of course, the dichotomy of Universal Salvation on one hand, and strict Evangelical exclusivism on the other.

The rival positions are easy to characterize and even easier to caricature.  The Universalist argument covers a spectrum somewhere between “every good and sincere person will go to heaven, because that’s what a loving God would do,” and “because God is so loving, he’ll keep on trying to lovingly win even the inhabitants of hell so that eventually hell will be empty.”  In this range of thought, hell is either nonexistent, or destined for obsolescence.  Evangelicals respond with the doctrines of Original Sin and Universal Revelation, to insist that all humans are guilty before God and deserving of eternal, conscious punishment unless they deliberately and specifically appropriate Jesus’ saving work on the cross in atonement for their sins.  In this model, hell must be substantially more populous than heaven, and disproportionately populated with non-American (or at least non-Western) humanity who had the misfortune to be born where they wouldn’t grow up with the “truth.”

The controversy, and at times the vitriol, have flowed fast and furious.  But it seems to me that the vast majority of debaters have accepted without much examination, that these two extreme alternatives are all we have from which to choose.  I believe they’re both not just wrong, but badly wrong.  Part of the problem  is that both perspectives seem to circle around the assumption that what happens when we die is the point, the central focus, of faith.  As I have already written, I am convinced that Jesus’ teaching is far more concerned with the life he’s called us to live now, than with the nature of any afterlife we may encounter.  There are, however, errors to examine in both the Universalist and Evangelical positions.

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So, do you trust the Holy Spirit, or not?

The recent debate around the blogosphere as to whether or not Rob Bell is a universalist, has got me to thinking.  There seems to be a substantial contingent within conservative Christianity, that is extremely dedicated to the notion of a hell where those who do not “believe” will suffer unending, conscious torment.  Many of these people–dear friends of mine, some of them–are not angry, vindictive people in real life; in fact some of them are downright compassionate.  So why, I wonder, do they get so upset about the suggestion that there might NOT be eternal torture awaiting those who do not believe the right things about Jesus?

The simplistic answer, of course, is that they are passionate about the literal truth of the Bible, and since the Bible speaks of a literal hell, to discount it is to disrespect the rest of Biblical truth as well.  As I’ve pointed out before, however, the scriptural case for eternal, conscious torment is far too thin to support a dogmatic claim, and in fact a legitimate case can be made in scripture for annihilation or conditional immortality (a term I only recently encountered, but which accurately characterizes a perspective I found in the gospels).  The same can be said for the other simplistic answer: “that’s what the church has always taught,” because in fact a survey of church fathers reveals a far more nuanced and diverse perspective than that on display today.

So why the obsession with hell?  Although I have absolutely no proof for this speculation, I wonder if it really comes down to salesmanship.  I have known a number of “believers” whose initial entree to Christianity was a fear of the condemnation they believed awaited them if they did not believe.  I still remember the first time a Christian (this one was a Baptist missionary in Honduras) explicitly told me “If I did not believe there was a hell, I wouldn’t be a Christian.”  Combined with the definition of faith as assenting to certain truths, and the doctrine of eternal security to keep those who have “believed” in the “saved” column, it becomes reasonable to try to convince people to “believe,” as Malcolm X said of a very different struggle, “by any means necessary.”
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