Review: Posthumous salvation

24 June 2021

Do you believe in hell? If so, what kind? The fire and brimstone of Dante’s Inferno? Hell on earth in the form of war and genocide? Or what?

Of all the topics up for reconsideration by evangelical Christians, this one has risen to the top of the list in the last couple of decades—and not before time. ‘Rethinking Hell’ conferences have taken place on several continents, and a swathe of books have tackled the subject. This is one of them. It is:

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope and the New Jerusalem by Bradley Jersak (Wipf & Stock, 2009).

The author is a scholar in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. He examines the biblical data against its cultural background in astonishing detail, concluding that there are solid grounds for hope that, in the end, everyone will respond to the love of God. The book’s title, of course, comes from the closing chapters of the Bible where, even after the ‘final judgment’, the city of God, the New Jerusalem, stands with its gates wide open, and the invitation to all who are thirsty to come and drink is still being issued.

Jersak has a good grasp of church history, from which he explains the changing views of hell that have marked different periods within it. On the way, he tackles in depth the meaning of the various Hebrew and Greek terms that English versions translate as ‘hell’. He does so within the framework of the three major positions, which he labels infernalism (eternal conscious torment), annihilationism (the wicked will eventually cease to exist) and universalism (all will be saved). He himself refuses to be pressed into any of these moulds, but expresses hope that the third one will be how it pans out.

Don’t attempt this book if you fancy a light read. Such is its degree of detail that it is, in the best sense, heavy. But could dealing in depth with a topic of such seriousness be anything else?

Here are some quotations, with page numbers.

As a sensitive little boy raised in the evangelical church, I was a horrified but Bible-convinced infernalist.  (p2)

Many or even most Christians across the church spectrum are still convinced that to be a good, Bible-believing Christian, they must accept a hell of eternal, conscious torment.  (p4)

The stubborn fact is that Scripture is richly polyphonic on the topic of hell and judgment—as if by design. Thus, if we become dogmatic about any one position, we reduce ourselves to reading selectively or doing interpretive violence to those verses that don’t fit our chosen view.  (p6)

Rather than painting themselves into universalist or infernalist corners, a great many of the Church Fathers and early Christians found refuge in the humility of hope. They maintained the possibility (not the presumption) of some version of judgment and hell and the twin possibility (not presumption) that at the end of the day, no one need suffer it forever.  (p8)

Rather than acknowledge the variety of terms, images, and concepts that the Bible uses for divine judgment, the KJV translators opted to combine them all under the single term ‘hell’.  (p15)

Each of the terms most commonly translated as ‘hell’ in our English translations—Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus—all share one thing in common: a potential terminus. That is, the biblical writers declare a definite end to each.  (p17)

The words that we’ve translated as ‘eternal punishment’ and ‘torment’ require close attention, because they are words used unblushingly by the Jesus of the Gospels.  (p28)

Our understanding—or misunderstanding—of the Gehenna tradition(s) shapes our view of hell and judgment… two distinct Gehenna traditions developed within Judaism.  (p34)

Building on N.T. Wright’s work, we can now see that Jesus’ ‘Little Apocalypse’ (Mark 13) functioned as an immediate prophetic warning concerning Jerusalem rather than an eschatological prophecy in the traditional sense. Jesus was not describing the culmination of the universe.  (p58)

Unfortunately, Christian tradition, theology, and translation followed the apocryphal reading of Gehenna rather than the biblical tradition of Jeremiah and Jesus.  (p64)

We ought to note the irony and incongruence of the Church utilizing the very place where God became violently offended by the literal burning of children as our primary metaphor for a final and eternal burning of God’s wayward people in literal flames.  (p65)

Wherever the judged are finally assigned, the spectrum of possibilities warrants pause to those who presume to know its precise nature. It’s not that we have too little revelation on the matter. Rather, the Bible includes too many possibilities to allow for simplistic dogmatism… Our habit is to dismiss the plain teaching of certain texts as not meaning what they say, because they don’t fit the scheme upon which we have already settled.  (p68)

The Eastern Orthodox Church has long regarded hell subjectively, as an existential experience. But rather than a question of inclusion and exclusion, they conceive of heaven and/or hell as two experiences of the same fire. To their way of thinking, God is the fire that we experience as either a blessing or a torment.  (p77)

When referring to ‘the lake of burning sulfur,’ the book of Revelation is not speaking of a traditional post-death hell. John was warning believers that Jerusalem is facing the end of the world as they know it. Armageddon is coming (the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70) for both Jerusalem and her attackers. Their judgment will be to share in the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, as prophesied in the OT.  (p95)

I do not like what I read in the Bible about divine judgment—especially from the mouth of Jesus. Frankly, I worry about those who do. But I am unwilling to discard biblical orthodoxy in favor of some fluffy, self-made spirituality that comforts me with lies.  (p96)

The above texts [John 12:31-32; Romans 5:18-19; Romans 11:32, 36; 1 Corinthians 15:25-28; Philippians 2:9-11; Ephesians 1:9-10; Colossians 1:15-19; 1 John 2:2; 1 Timothy 4:9-10] insist that Christ’s saving, forgiving, reconciling work predates any response on our part. A faith-response is not treated as a way to become saved but rather as a response of hopeful gratitude to Christ’s saving work.  (p109)

Each group says to the other, my verse outweighs yours. Your truth is conditioned by mine.  (p112)

A good number of early Christians saw no contradiction in hoping that non-Christians could also be saved posthumously, if necessary.  (p119)

God deals with sin through correction, not punishment. That’s Clement, that’s Hebrews, that’s Hosea. The chastisements of God are disciplinary: not because divine justice demands satisfaction (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo), payback, or wrath (Calvin, penal satisfaction), but because God is raising beloved children who tend to learn the hard way.  (p122)

Origen…became known for his teaching on apokatastasis from Acts 3:20–21: ‘And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: whom heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things (apokatastaseos panton).’ Apokatastasis is a theological extrapolation of the final phrase in verse twenty-one. It is the doctrine of ultimate redemption that believes a time will come when all things (the whole cosmos) will be saved by grace.  (p123)

We have a lineage of biblical prophets, Jesus, his apostles, and early church patristics who held forth the real expectation of a fiery judgment of purification—corrective, cleansing, and healing in nature—often identified as the glory and love of God himself.  (p126)

Both the Eastern Orthodox and the Anglican Communion pray for the dead and have theologies of an intermediate state. Yet they resist the term ‘purgatory’, because they do not subscribe to Rome’s old definition. Beyond that, Rome has changed its doctrine of purgatory substantially from the time of Augustine to Benedict XVI.  (p135)

‘He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus’ (Phil 1:6). What? Unless we die first? Or even thereafter?  (p141)

Since the fourth century, via the Reformers and the Revivalists, the Western Church and its Evangelical wing have inherited Augustine’s infernalism as the only biblical view of judgment and hell, typically writing off the early universalist Fathers as heretical and their modern proponents as liberal. But the infernalist doctrine that cured like concrete over the centuries has begun to crumble.  (p142)

The issue at this point becomes free will. We need, even with tongue in cheek, to preserve the possibility that in our humanity one can behold the love of Christ in all its fullness and still reject it. I say tongue in cheek, because it seems to me that absolutely everything in us that says ‘no’ to perfect love and eternal salvation is not based in freedom but in bondage. When every deception and every wound and every worldly, fleshly, and demonic chain has been removed, I hope and expect that the truly free will shall always answer the call with a resounding ‘Yes!’  (p146)

Those who oppose preterism read John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21–22 as belonging exclusively to the next age, following Christ’s glorious return—that is, until I express my joy that the gates of the city are always open and that the Bride is still inviting the thirsty ones in. At this point, anti-preterists often cut and paste the text out of the next age into our evangelistic present.  (p160)

Don’t think of the world versus heaven in terms of now versus then (consecutive ages) or as here versus there (dual dimensions). Rather, Babylon (the world system) and New Jerusalem (the heavenly system) are two coexistent realities constantly competing for our allegiance.  (p163)

The excluded…are at first seen in the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8) and then later outside the city (22:15). Have the damned been relocated? Or more likely, are the two images synonymous?… Remember Gehenna’s location (Isaiah 66:24): Gehenna is the loathsome place of fire and destruction in the valley just outside the city where the dead bodies of the cursed are burned. The lake of fire (condemnation) is adjacent to the city walls.  (p170)

So much of the activity we read about in Revelation 21–22 involves processes (invitation, cleansing, healing, entry) to which traditional theology has barred the door at death that it is tempting to either ignore or transplant these processes. If we don’t treat them as already realized eschatology, the Bible forces us to consider the possibility that the lost who perish still have hope of eternal life after the Day of the Lord.  (p180)

Many of the more radical Moravians were universalists!  (loc 3871)

If my faith depends on fear of punishment, what will happen to my faith when perfect love (Jesus) comes to cast it out? (1 John 4:18) If God thinks that fear of punishment is something to be ‘cast out’ like a demon, then our Gospel and our preaching better not rest on that foundation!  (loc 3897)


Left Behind? Yes, please! – Who’s taken and who stays?

19 January 2018

I was about ten years old. I’d gone to bed at the usual time and I think I must have slumbered a little. But now I was wide awake and my ears were straining for the usual sounds of my parents downstairs—the murmur of conversation, the radio, footsteps on the kitchen lino.

The silence was absolute and a terrible fear gripped me: maybe Jesus had returned while I slept and had raptured Mum and Dad. I was clear, even at that stage of my childhood, that I still hadn’t made a personal commitment to Christ and that therefore, were he to come again, I’d be left behind to suffer the horrors of the Great Tribulation.

Saying_GoodbyeThe relief that overwhelmed me when I heard a cough downstairs is indescribable. Phew! They hadn’t been taken after all, and I hadn’t been left behind! Oh, wow! And yes, I really must think seriously about taking the step of becoming a Christian!

This scenario reflected our Brethren affiliation. My parents, raised as Methodists, had ‘got saved’ and joined the Brethren during my father’s army service in World War II. So I was drip-fed Darby, dispensationalism and the Scofield Reference Bible from being a toddler. There’s security in a system, and for years we remained comfortable in its embrace, ignorant of any other way of understanding the Scriptures and the purpose of God. Meanwhile, at the age of twelve I made my commitment to Christ—and thereafter slept more securely.

I ditched Darby, dispensationalism and the Scofield Bible while at university. That was around 1960, the period when the Puritan writers were being rediscovered in a big way, and I found their solid theology and amillennial eschatology both heart-warming and intellectually convincing. While I never embraced fully-fledged Calvinism, there was certainly no way I could ever return to the old system because everything I read in the Bible seem to contradict it—like the ‘left behind’ idea.

That some will be left behind at Christ’s return is not, of course, in question. Jesus himself made that clear in Matthew 24: ‘Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left (v40-41). The question is, if one’s a baddy and the other’s a goody, which is taken and which is left? To some it seems obvious that the goody is the one snatched away to better things, while the baddy is left behind to feel the heat. After all, if, when Jesus returns, the righteous will be ‘caught up…to meet the Lord in the air’,[1] these are clearly the ones being ‘taken’, which leaves the wicked as those left behind. Obvious.

But it isn’t obvious at all! In fact every indication is to the contrary: that the wicked are the ones taken and that it’s the righteous who are left behind.

Take again the Matthew 24 passage quoted above: ‘one will be taken and the other left’. The verses before it draw a parallel between the coming of the Lord and the arrival of the flood in Noah’s day: ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man’ (v37). So what happened in Noah’s day? His wicked contemporaries were living life as normal ‘until the flood came and took them all away’ (v39). That leaves righteous Noah and his family as the ones left behind to enjoy the safety of the Ark and a new life in the post-diluvian order. And Jesus continues, ‘That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left (v39-41). The meaning is unmistakable: the wicked are taken, the righteous are left behind; baddies go, goodies stay.

So how do we square that with the ‘rapture’ passage in 1 Thessalonians? Very easily. Let’s look at it—and please note carefully the two italicised words ‘coming’ and ‘meet’, which are the key to its message, as we shall see:

‘We who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven…and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever’ (v15-17).

New Testament scholars are agreed that Paul is here using a metaphor that all his readers were familiar with: the regular procedure observed when a king or emperor paid an official visit to a town in his kingdom.

There was a set pattern to it. First, in the months before the visit the citizens would repair the approach-road. They would fill in the potholes and level off the bumps so that the monarch could drive into town in dignity, without being thrown around in his chariot. This is what John the Baptist meant—with a moral application—when he urged people to ‘prepare the way for the Lord’.[2]

Then, when the big day arrived, the town’s leading citizens, excited and in their finery, would pass through the city gates and walk a short distance out of town to meet the king on the road and formally welcome him. That done, they would turn around, join his retinue and accompany him back into town where all could cheer and admire him. In the everyday Greek of the period there were standard terms for parts of this procedure. The king’s official visit, for instance, was called his parousia, and the action of the city dignitaries in going out to accompany him back into town was called the apantesis.[3]

Both were familiar terms in Paul’s day, and he inserts them into his description of the Lord’s coming, where they govern its meaning. They are the words italicised in the quotation above. The ‘coming of the Lord’ (v15) is his parousia and our going out ‘to meet the Lord in the air’ (v17) is the apantesis.

The whole point of this metaphor is that the king is coming to town—Jesus is returning to the earth. The emphasis is on his coming, not on our going. Our going—being ‘caught up’ or ‘raptured’—is just our brief sortie out of town. We are caught up to meet him on the aerial road and there to welcome him, but not to then go off with him to heaven or wherever. No, this is an apantesis. He doesn’t turn around; we do. We turn around and accompany him back to the earth, an earth instantly cleansed, while we are ‘out of town’, by the fire of divine judgment and remodelled into the ‘new earth’ fit to welcome the King and be the eternal abode of his righteous people.[4] There, only righteousness will dwell, because everything and everyone that defiles will have been removed—‘taken’—leaving the glorious new environment to be enjoyed for ever by those who are ‘left’ in the presence of the King: ‘God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.’[5]

This pattern—the wicked taken and the righteous left—finds an echo in the parables of Jesus. Take the one about the wheat and the weeds. At harvest-time the weeds are first removed from the field, leaving behind the wheat to be gathered into the master’s barn. Jesus himself goes on to spell out what that means:

‘The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.’[6]

The baddies are taken; the goodies are left to shine. It’s the same with the parable of the dragnet. The fishermen separate the bad items from the good fish, leaving the latter to be put to good use: ‘This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’[7]

To me, all this combines to settle the issue. To be taken is what we definitely don’t want, because that’s the way that the bad fish, the weeds, the baddies, the wicked go. No, we want to be left behind in the cleansed and renewed society that will forever be one of fellowship between the Lord and his redeemed people.

Oh dear. Now somebody’s going to have to write a whole new series of novels…

Footnotes

  1. 1 Thessalonians 4:17
  2. Luke 3:4-5, quoting Isaiah.
  3. ‘When a dignitary paid an official visit (parousia) to a city in Hellenistic times, the action of the leading citizens in going out to meet him and escort him back on the final stage of his journey was called the apantesis.’ (F.F. Bruce, Word Biblical Commentary, vol 45, p102)
  4. See Romans 8:19-23; 2 Peter 3:10-13
  5. Revelation 21:3
  6. Matthew 13:38-43
  7. Matthew 13:49-50

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