The hub-bub over the weekend about Rob Bell's trailer video for his new book made me wonder if we need to learn some vocabulary. (Nevermind the fact that we should wait to read Rob's book before making a judgment of it!) I'm no scholar, but as C. S. Lewis often wrote, sometimes a fellow student can be helpful in ways a teacher cannot be. Here is my rough sketch of the terms and the issues being discussed. My hope is that you join me in a journey of rigorous study and thoughtful discussion rather than adopting a blind fervor that may lead to the unkind labeling of others.
To begin, it may be helpful to differentiate between the discussion of "who gets in" and the discussion of "what happens to those who don't." I have made two lists accordingly.
LIST A: Who Makes It "In":
The belief that everyone, regardless of faith or behavior, will be counted as God's people in the end. All roads lead to Him. All religions are just different expressions of the same Truth.
This view, in my opinion, is impossible to defend from Scripture.
2. Ultimate Reconciliationism
The belief that those who know about Jesus but chose to reject Him while they were on earth will suffer judgment and punishment, but that punishment will not be forever. It will be a refining "fire" that will ultimately lead "every knee to bow."
This view is defended only by some serious redefining of key words, phrase, verses in Scripture.
The belief that everyone is accountable for how they lived in response to the revelation that they had. For the ones that never heard the name of Jesus, there is Creation as their witness. For those that only knew the religion they grew up with, their devotion to that god may count as faith toward God.
This view is often defended from passages like Romans 1-2, the story of Cornelius in Acts 10, Paul's sermon in Acts 17 and Jesus' words about being faithful with the "little" revelation you had in order to be given the "much" revelation of Christ. C. S. Lewis appears to have leaned toward this view in a few of his writings. Even for those who won't use the label "inclusivist", this line of reasoning is enough to cause humility and make one refrain from certain judgment about a person's eternal status. Billy Graham, in his later years, is said to have softened in his view, allowing for a just and holy God to make provision for people based on the "light" they had available to them.
4. Modern Western Exclusivism
(I'm not sure what to call this view: "Traditional" implies that this is what Christians have always believed, and I'm not sure it is; "Fundamentalist" sounds pejorative.)
The belief that only those who choose to believe in Jesus in this lifetime get to be God's people for all eternity.
This view is defended by the clear teaching of Scripture that there is only one sure way of salvation: Jesus Christ. Whether or not this teaching goes beyond what Scripture says by taking a statement in the affirmative ("Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved") to also mean several statements a few degrees beyond it in the negative ("Anyone who doesn't do this in this lifetime won't be saved") is for each one to wrestle out with the texts. It is clear that Jesus is the only way. All who are saved go through Jesus. But that need not be the same as saying that we know what happens to those who don't believe in Jesus in this lifetime. (See the above section on a humility about someone else's eternal status.)
LIST B: What Happens To Those Who Don't Make It "In":
The belief that God's judgment of those who reject Him will be the destruction of their souls so that they cease to exist. (Clark Pinnock, whose views seem closest to this, explains it HERE.)
2. Condition Immortality
The belief that only God is immortal (1 Timothy 6:16). Jesus, as fully God and fully human, shares that immortality with all who are in Him (2 Tim. 1:10). Those who are not in Christ will be judged with an eternal death: a death that is final and irreversible. It is the Greek philosophers like Plato, not the ancient Jews and early Christians, who believed in the immortality of the soul. (Edward Fudge's book, "A Fire That Consumes" may be a helpful reference. For a fascinating web resource that goes verse by verse in its argument for "Conditional Immortality", claiming a "Jewish" and not "Greek" reading of the Scriptures, click HERE.)
3. Self-Destruction of the Imago Dei
The belief that those who insist on living apart from God will have it "their way" for all eternity. But the result of living apart from God will be self-destruction of the image of God in them to the point where they cease to be "human". They continue on in an existence that is sub-human, a shell of their created selves. (Timothy Keller seems to articulate this view in his book, "The Reason for God." For a short 3-minute video of Anglican New Testament scholar N. T. Wright articulating a view similar to this, click HERE.)
4. Eternal Conscious Torture
The belief that those who reject God will be tormented for all eternity. They will always feel the pain of it and scream for relief but receive none. God will punish them without end for failure to choose Him while they were alive on earth.
SOME THINGS TO CONSIDER:
1. Final Judgment is Future
The Bible is clear that judgment is coming. Christ will judge the world. That means all who have ever lived are waiting: the saints (those who died in Christ) seem to be waiting in Heaven (with Jesus but in a temporary place nonetheless) for their resurrection bodies (1 Cor. 15), while others may be in a different "domain of the dead." A close reading of Scripture shows no one in hell at the moment. (See the follow-up post I wrote on the difference between "Gehenna" and Hades".) Final Judgment is future.
2. "Eternal Judgment" is not the same as "Eternal Torture."
A judgment that is eternal is a verdict that is final and irreversible. It is a punishment for the wicked. But it is not the same as saying that it is a torture that is eternal, a punishing that will go on without end.
3. "Conditional Immortality" and "Annihilationism" is an accepted Evangelical Belief.
At the Lausanne Commission in 1992, a new statement of faith was accepted that now allows for "conditional immortality" and "annihiliationism" as accepted "Evangelical" views. John Stott is among the advocates of "conditional immortality."
4. "Eternal Conscious Torture" has been rejected by respected Evangelical scholars.
The noted New Testament scholar, F. F. Bruce, has called this view inconsistent with the Bible's picture of God. Furthermore, the Eastern Orthodox Church has never held this view of God eternally tormenting those who reject Him. Many Messianic Jewish believers seem to reject this view as well. It is my understanding that this view surfaced in the Medieval period and was spread thanks in part to the vivid-- and warped-- imagination of Dante. The Bible's words for the judgment and fate that await those who reject Christ are "death", "perish", "destruction", not "torment", "torture", etc.
5. Holding a view from LIST B does not imply holding a particular view from LIST A.
To be plain: If Rob Bell argues for "conditional immortality", as some who have read the book say he is, then that is not the same as being a "universalist."
For those with "yeah, but what about this verse" questions, I'm not your guy. I'm not that learned or studied to "answer" those questions. Again, my hope is that you join me in a thoughtful and rigorous study and put aside careless name-calling. I encourage a thorough and close reading of all the relevant verses taken in context of the whole narrative of Scripture. John Stott, F. F. Bruce, and N. T. Wright are a few trustworthy "Evangelical-friendly" scholars who may be good guides for your journey. Along the way, hold the Nicene Creed closely. It is the carefully formulated earliest Christian statement of belief that spans across Eastern and Western streams of the Church. It says these two statements relevant to this conversation:
"...for us and for our salvation He [Jesus] came down from heaven..."
"...He [Jesus] will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and His Kingdom will have no end..."
[I wrote a follow-up post of the difference between "Gehenna" and "Hades" and how that difference matters in our thinking about Hell. Click HERE to read it.]