Soon we are going to get back to the Scriptures and begin to take a look at those New Testaments passages that seem to suggest God will redeem everything and everyone. Today, however, I want respond to an email I received recently. I greatly appreciate your emails, comments, and communication. The discussion is so important and I’m so glad to hear from anyone with any thoughts or questions. Thank you.
I received the email from a guy who brought up issues related to our understanding of God, the authority of Scripture and interpretive lenses. While understanding of all that discussion, he then commented on the generally accepted interpretation of hell and eternity held by people he knows and respects, and if I can go a bit further, by the majority of people in Christendom. By and large the prevailing view throughout most of Christian history has concluded that eternal conscious torment is the destiny for unrepentant sinners, for those who have not put their faith in Christ. As a result, the email’s writer expressed a hesitancy to depart from what continues to be the majority consensus of Christian tradition.
To this I want to say two things initially.
First, I acknowledge the majority consensus of Christian tradition, and I appreciate the hesitancy it should cause for anyone considering a departure from the majority position. Second, I am glad the discussion has been helpful and has moved us to this point. I am glad we have been led to consider how our sense of reason affects our understanding of God, and to be open to the notion of interpretive lenses. I’m glad we can acknowledge that we all interpret the Scriptures the best we are able. None of us have the “real” meaning of Scripture but rather we have a meaning derived from tradition and through our own study and experience. Too often what we are taught, or maybe the way we are taught, leads us to believe we have the corner on the right interpretation of the Scripture, and that is us, and perhaps only us, who will be saved.
(Let me pause and give in to the temptation to include a related joke. Forgive me if you’ve heard this before, or if I’ve told it before. I promise it’ll be funny the second time . . . or the third.)
A man passed away and met St. Peter at the pearly gates. St. Peter quickly ushered him in and offered to give him a tour of heaven. “Here are the Catholics,” said Saint Peter as began walking and passing different groups. “Here are the Lutherans. Here are Presbyterians. Here are the Episcopalians.” They kept walking a minute and then St. Peter cautioned, “We’ve got to be quiet through this next section, because these are the Baptists and they think they’re the only ones here.”
Ha, ha, ha, ha . . . .
I suppose this joke is told about other denominations as well, and I want to write LOL (and I do hope you found it funny), but part of me wishes the Baptists were deeply concerned their reputation has led to such a joke. That the joke is told suggests what Baptists have been taught, or the way they have been taught, has led them to believe they have the corner on the right interpretation of Scripture and it is them, and only them, who will be saved. I think that ought to be concerning . . . but I guess it can still be funny too.
Baptist humor aside, I am really glad we can acknowledge and appreciate that there are other ways of looking at things, even if we continue to use our own set of lenses.
Having acknowledged, then, a willingness to consider other perspectives, appropriately we are led to a discussion of the accountability of consensus and tradition. We may be using a new set of lenses that makes us look at things in a new way; we may think our interpretation is valid, but we would be remiss not to ask the question, “What has the church always believed to be true about this issue? What is the majority consensus of Christian tradition and what is our basis and motivation for departing from it? Where is the precedent for going in a new direction? Are there examples of the church changing its belief on other issues?
These are all great questions, ones we will consider in the days to come. For the moment, let me say I agree with Robin Parry, the author of the book, The Evangelical Universalist. Dr. Parry has said we should give tradition the benefit of the doubt; that we should only move away from tradition if we feel we have to move away.
And yet, on the issue of eternity and hell, Dr. Parry feels we do. And I suppose so do I. However, even as I am glad for the discussion and appreciate you considering these things with me, I certainly would not encourage you to jump too quickly but would encourage you to consider them with careful thought and much prayer. This is a journey and there is much to examine along the way.
And certainly one thing to examine is ultimate redemption’s place within Christian history and tradition. It’s not the majority position, but it’s not a new thing either.
Let’s take a look.
Maybe we’ll find that the gospel is better news than tradition has taught us.
Maybe we’ll find it is really good news, really.
(Someday I’ll no longer feel the need to attempt to end every blog post with “really good news, really.” Thanks for indulging me for now.)