A Personal Plea for Orthodoxy
Sam is not this writer’s real name, but he is a real person. Many Christians have read his books, and many will likely read the one referred to here. My letter follows one in which he confirmed he is still writing this book. It’s followed by his brief response.
We don’t know each other that well, but I know we both remember our long conversation about God’s grace and the question of hell. I can live with people disagreeing with me, and I with them. But this one weighs heavily on me. So please bear with me as I try to share some more thoughts on this with you. I feel compelled to do this, by the Holy Spirit. I think it is His leading I am following. Because you say you’re moving forward with writing a book claiming that all people will go to heaven, I’m deeply concerned. We’re both writers, both profess to follow Jesus, and we’re both responsible to make sure we’re faithful to God’s Word.
I’ve been writing lately on the subject of grace and truth, and how Jesus is full of both, but we tend to choose one over the other. Some choose truth over grace, some grace over truth, but there’s a harmony to them which is paradoxical to us, yet ultimately not contradictory to God. One day we’ll understand how they reconcile, but not yet.
I’m concerned that your treatment of the doctrine of hell is an attempt to choose between grace and truth rather than embracing both. I remember you affirming that you believe so much in God’s grace, you cannot believe in hell. This has, if I understood correctly, led you to universalism, believing men cannot go to an eternal hell, because Jesus purchased the world’s redemption. Therefore, all people will end up in heaven regardless of their choices in this life. “I love people too much to send them to hell,” your logic goes. “And surely God loves them more than I do!”
If logic was my authority, I might agree. But since Scripture’s my authority, I can’t. I remember asking you if you believed heaven was eternal. You said yes, you did. Then I quoted Matthew 25:46, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” The words translated “eternal” are the same Greek word—aionos. If “eternal” means heaven lasts forever, it can only mean hell lasts forever. There’s just no way Christ would change the meaning of that word a heartbeat (six words later) after saying it the first time.
This is one of many reasons I can’t choose grace instead of the truth about hell. Clearly Jesus believed in hell and taught it was eternal. Was He wrong? I don’t think so. I have to believe in both grace and the truth of hell, because the Bible teaches both. Whether or not I like it is irrelevant. Truth is truth. I don’t get a vote. My logic and my preferences don’t trump Scripture.
As I was studying recently I saw that Jesus, full of grace, spoke more about hell than anyone else in Scripture. Twelve of the fourteen times the main New Testament word for hell is used, it’s by Jesus. He spoke of being in danger of the fire of hell (Matt. 5:22), being thrown into hell (Matt 5:29), said people should fear God, “the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). He asked the Pharisees, “How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt 23:33). He depicted hell as a place men are “in torment,” without hope of relief (Luke 16:23).
Ironically, Sam, I’m afraid the doctrine you’re planning on advocating in your book may convince people—or be used by others to convince them—they don’t need to accept Christ’s grace. If you’re right, they can—and will—accept it later. If you’re wrong, they will spend eternity in hell, as orthodox Christianity has always affirmed.
I fear that your denial of hell in the name of grace will discourage people from the grace you love, while leading them toward the hell you hate and deny. Hate hell by all means—but let that prompt you not to deny it, but to share the truth that delivers men from hell.
The person who thinks he’s not drowning won’t reach for the life-preserver. Why should he?
I think sometimes we (at least I) ask the wrong questions. If we were holy, we’d realize the strange thing isn’t why God would send people to hell. He’s infinitely holy and we’re sinners, steeped in rebellion, offensive even to finite angelic holiness, let alone infinite divine holiness. Send people to hell? No brainer. Where else would they be sent?
The really disturbing question, if we were holy, would be, “How could a holy God send sinful men to heaven?” Holy angels might reason, “God is far more holy than we, and we wouldn’t let these evil people into heaven—so how could He?” Angels might write a book entitled Why Do Good Things Happen to Bad People?
We ask the wrong questions because we don’t grasp the truths of God’s holiness and our sin. Therefore, we don’t grasp the wonders of His grace. We think of ourselves as greater than wretches, making God’s grace less amazing.
We imagine hell is out of proportion to our offenses precisely because we don’t grasp how serious our offenses are, nor how holy our God is.
God’s grace faces straight-on hell’s reality, and offers full deliverance. Denying hell takes the wind out of grace’s sails. If there’s no eternal hell, the stakes of redemption are vastly lowered. What did Jesus die to rescue us from? And if you say the answer is that Jesus rescued all men from hell despite whether they accept Him, what is the point of Jesus depicting the rich man in hell crying out for mercy which he clearly is not being granted? Surely we don’t know something Jesus didn’t, do we?
Grace is God’s work to deliver us from the full extent of our depravity, and its full punishment (eternal hell). By understating depravity and denying eternal hell we lower the cost of our redemption. We cheapen grace. By diminishing the truth that demanded the ultimate price for sin, we diminish the grace that paid that price.
I don’t know how else to ask this, Sam. What makes any of us imagine we’re qualified to revise and edit God’s truth to make it compatible with what we imagine grace to require? How quick we are to drag Almighty God before the bar of human reason!
The fact that I can’t wrap my brain around God’s grace and the truth of hell proves only one thing—I have a very small brain. I don’t mean that as an insult. Just as a recognition of the facts. My brain is small, and yours may be a bit larger, but judged by the cosmic scales of wisdom, surely we both suffer from undersized minds!
I guess my concern, Sam, is that we seem determined to tone truth down, sand off its hard edges. We’re embarrassed by God’s truth, afraid it’s making Him look bad. But we’re not God’s speech writers. He appoints us to deliver His message, not to compose it. He’s already done that—it’s called the Bible. He doesn’t need editors and PR people. He needs faithful messengers.
If Matthew 25:46 isn’t true when it says hell is eternal, what makes me think John 3:16 is true when it says God loves us and offers us eternal life?
There’s another reason why some people will be drawn to your premise—fear. Because I’m afraid to tell people they’re going to hell without Jesus, the problem is solved when someone says nobody’s going to hell without Jesus. Whew! Now I can relax. I don’t have to step outside my comfort zone and tell them that trusting Jesus in this life is the only way to go to heaven.
But my denial of truth does nothing to change it. God doesn’t give me the deciding vote. In fact, He doesn’t give me any vote at all.
I do hope you will really bring this thing to the Lord before following through on it. Scripture warns against false teaching in many places, including 2 Tim 4:1-4:
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
It grieves me to think that without realizing it, without wanting to, you could become one of these false teachers who speaks not the truth, but what people want to hear. I’m sure much of what you plan to say in your book is true. But unfortunately, that will serve only to cloak the heresy of saying people without Christ don’t go to hell.
I hope you sense I feel no anger toward you. Only a sadness that your life, which has served many people’s walk with God, is poised to take a turn that will violate Christ’s teachings and dishonor Him.
I hope you will not only pray about this, but weigh your beliefs in light of Scripture. And if you sense the Holy Spirit telling you—through His Word—that your beliefs may be wrong—even if you’re not certain—I urge you again not to put them in print.
If you wish to dialogue, I’m open. You don’t owe me an explanation—but you do owe God fidelity to His Word. And I do owe you the truth and I hope I’ve spoken it in grace.
Thanks for your thoughtful letter. I won’t attempt to respond to all you said, other than to say I’ve long reflected on the issues you’ve raised and answer them in the book.
It seems to me that our chief difference is one of authority. Whereas the Bible is your ultimate authority, Quakers hold that the Spirit which inspired the Scriptures is our ultimate authority, and that God’s Spirit continues to guide us in truth today. So while the Biblical witness informs my faith, I am not bound to accept it as the final word in all matters of faith.
This permits me to reject such practices the Bible accepted without question, such as slavery, the subjugation of women, the belief that the Earth is flat, etc.
I commend to you a book I’ve found most helpful, entitled Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism by John Spong. I’ve also been enjoying a book written by your fellow Oregonian, Marcus Borg, called The God We Never Knew. Both are excellent resources.
I hope all is well with you. I’ll be happy to send you a copy of my book when it comes out next June, if you e-mail me around then to remind me. Take care, Randy. May God’s peace and presence fill you.
Note to readers from Randy: I disagree with Sam on these points, and on his recommendation of the books by Spong and Borg. Also, not every Quaker would agree with his statements about Quaker beliefs.