Musings about Universalism, Part 8: My Life, in Three Acts, with Talbott's Propositions

When you read all these online conversations about universalism, particularly in the wake of the publication of Rob Bell's Love Wins, you see people ping-ponging around between Calvinist, Arminian and Universalist soteriologies (Note: a soteriology is a theology of salvation, a theory about who is saved and who is damned).

In my opinion, as I've written about before, one of the best ways to compare and contrast these positions are the propositions of Thomas Talbott from his book The Inescapable Love of God and his essays in the edited book Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate. (These two books, along with Gregory MacDonald's (aka Robin Parry's) The Evangelical Universalist, are must-reads for anyone wanting to dig deeper into universalism as a biblical position.)

Talbott has us consider the following three propositions:

  1. God’s redemptive love extends to all human sinners equally in the sense that he sincerely wills or desires the redemption of each one of them.
  2. Because no one can finally defeat God’s redemptive love or resist it forever, God will triumph in the end and successfully accomplish the redemption of everyone whose redemption he sincerely wills or desires.
  3. Some human sinners will never be redeemed but will instead be separated from God forever.
What is interesting about each proposition is that all three have ample biblical support. But, as Talbott points out, you cannot, logically, endorse all three.

This is an interesting predicament which I think illuminates a lot of the debate about if universalism is "biblical" or not. Specifically, no soteriological position--Calvinist, Arminian, or Universalist--is an explicit teaching of the bible. Thus the continuing controversies and debates. Rather, each soteriological position is a composite view, a way of combining the biblical material into a coherent theory. But due the logical tensions inherent in the biblical witness, which shouldn't worry us unduly as the bible is more metaphor than theorem, the only way to create an internally consistent (logical) theory of salvation is to adopt two of Talbott's propositions and de-emphasize (either by rejecting it outright or fudging it) the third. And what all this means is that every soteriological position--Calvinist, Arminian, and Universalist--is equally biblical and unbiblical. Each position strongly affirms 2/3rds of the bible's soteriological material (that's their "biblical" part) while semantically fudging, ignoring, deconstructing, or outright rejecting the other 1/3rd of the biblical data (this is each position's "un-biblical" part).

According to Talbott here is how each position adopts two of of the propositions while rejecting the the third:
  1. Calvinism: Adopt Propositions #2 and #3 above. God will accomplish his plans and some will be separated from God forever. This implies a rejection of #1, that God wills to save all humanity. This conclusion is generally expressed in the doctrine of election and double predestination (i.e., God predestines some to be saved and some to be lost).
  2. Arminianism: Adopt Propositions #1 and #3. God loves all people and some people will be separated from God forever. This implies that God's desires--for example, to save everyone--can be thwarted and unfulfilled. This is usually explained by an appeal to human choice. Due to free will people can resist/reject God. Where a Calvinist sees God's grace as irresistible (if a our Sovereign God wants it He gets it), Arminians see God's grace as resistible.
  3. Universalism: Adopt Propositions #1 and #2. God loves all people and will accomplish his purposes. This implies a rejection of #3. A universalist agrees with the Calvinist that God's grace is, ultimately, irresistible. However, the univesalist rejects the doctrine of election, agreeing with the Arminian that God wills to save everyone. Consequently, the universalist has to reject the belief that hell will involve an eternal separation from God.
If you are long time reader I've walked you through Talbott's propositions before. But in light of some of the questions from my last post (Juliane's in particular) I thought I'd walk through Talbott's propositions in an autobiographical manner, pointing how how I accepted or rejected the various propositions to wind up where I am today. And as Talbott helps us see, this is really, then, just a story about how I wandered through Calvinism, Arminianism, and Universalism. A story told in three Acts.

ACT ONE:
GROWING UP ARMINIAN AND ENCOUNTERING MY FIRST CALVINIST IN A DORM


I was raised in an Arminian tradition. So I began my life accepting Proposition #1. I was raised believing that God wanted to save everyone.

Growing up I just assumed this was the only coherent thing to say about God. Of course God wanted to save everyone. Who could object to that? Well, I discovered in college there were some guys in my dorm, who described themselves as "Calvinists," who did object. I never knew people walked around which such crazy ideas in their head. Really, God doesn't want to save everyone? God is just choosing to save the elect? And God knew this from the beginning of time?

Shocked, I pressed these Calvinists. Where in the world did you come up with this stuff? They promptly flipped their bibles open to Romans 9 and read how God had predestined some to be "objects of wrath prepared for destruction" while some of us were predestined to be objects of mercy. And the kicker was the predestination part. Who is going to heaven and who is going to hell was foreordained by God from the beginning of time

Good Lord, I thought. Is that really in the bible? Yes, yes it was. I was shocked and didn't know what to say. I think I eventually said something like, "Yes, I can read those words. But they can't possibly mean what they appear to mean."

But why would I say that? I honored and loved the bible. Why not just read the bible for what it says? Well, because growing up as an Arminian I knew a lot of Scriptures that had convinced me that God really does want to save everybody. For example, I knew passages like Titus 2:11: "For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people."

So I was stuck. I couldn't get my head around the Arminian material I found in the bible as well as the Calvinistic material pointed out by my dorm mates.

This was my first real experience with Talbott's propositions. I'd stumbled upon a contradiction. Like the faith versus works debate. So I had to choose. Or fudge. And growing up Arminian you can predict what I did. I fudged the Calvinist material. I just concluded that those passages couldn't possibly mean what people think they mean. Was that unbiblical of me? I guess so. But my only other option would have been to go with the Calvinist material and start fudging on passages like Titus 2:11. Something was getting fudged.

And so it was that my Arminianism survived my first encounter with Calvinism. But my early biblical naivete was shaken. I was moving forward but I was now aware that there was material in the bible that bothered me, namely because some people, who seemed very smart and sincere, were taking those passages very, very seriously while I, on the other hand, was going to dismiss or ignore them. And I hated anyone telling me that I wasn't taking the bible seriously. But what was I to do? I started realizing that this "being biblical" deal was very complicated. I got a hint that there was no single way of "being biblical." That "biblical" people could disagree and that the bible would support a whole host of theories, doctrines, and church expressions.

ACT TWO:
WHERE MORAL LUCK KILLS MY ARMINIANISM AND I ACTUALLY START TO AGREE A BIT, TO MY GREAT SURPRISE, WITH THE CALVINISTS

So I rejected Calvinism. My encounter with the doctrine of election caused me to double-down on my Arminian endorsement of Proposition #1: God wants to save everyone. And I've never wavered from that commitment. It is the foundation of my soteriology and how I understand the phrase "God is love."

But as college progressed I started to worry more and more about Proposition #3, particularly as it related to Proposition #2. Specifically, if you are Arminian you believe that God's love can be defeated, that God's grace can be resisted. Generally, the mechanism that makes all this happen is free will. God wants to save everyone, this is God's Sovereign desire, but God also grants us freedom. And some people will use this freedom to reject or rebel against God. By contrast, some of us will use our freedom to accept God's free gift of grace. And be saved as a result.

Now all this just drives Calvinists crazy. For two reasons. First, it suggests that God's Sovereign will can be thwarted. That God doesn't get something God wants. As it says in Romans 9, if God wants to save someone God saves them and if God wants to damn someone God hardens their heart. And God can do this over our objections because God is God and we are not. As it says in Romans 9, can the clay object to the Potter?

The second reason Calvinists hate the Arminian soteriology is that the mechanism of salvation hinges upon human volition, a choice we humans make. Human choice is privileged over God's election. Consequently, is this choice a "work"? Something we do to save ourselves, to earn salvation? This is a very old debate, going back to Augustine versus Pelagius through John Calvin versus Jacobus Arminius and down to the present day.

But my particular worries about Arminianism weren't driven by these concerns. I wasn't going to adopt the doctrine of election to save a vision of God's Sovereignty. No, my worries were about free will, death, and eventually, suffering.

Again, according to classic Arminianism the reason you wind up in hell is because you made a free choice to reject God's grace. You're not in hell because God predestined you to be in hell. No, you're in hell because you never accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior. So the only one you can blame for being in hell is your own sorry self. God loves you but you rejected it.

Prior to college this theory seemed right to me. But as college progressed I started to worry about the limits of free will. I'd lay awake at night wondering, "Did I really choose to be a Christian? I was raised by Christian parents in a Christian nation. Of course I'm a Christan. But what if I was raised by kind and intelligent Muslim parents in a Muslim country?"

It's not that I denied free will as much as I began to suspect that some people begin their "race to God" with significant headstarts. Huge headstarts. I, as a Christian kid, had a great headstart. So I was going to get go to heaven. But that Muslim kid? Well, he's got his work cut out for him. Somehow he's got to overcome all that Islamic teaching he's heard since he was a baby, rebel against his loving and supportive parents and, hopefully, encounter a Christian missionary who is semi-intelligent, Christ-like in character, and isn't a theological wackjob.

In short, I've got a 100-meter sprint to God, with the wind at my back, and this Muslim kid's got an Iron Man triathlon in front of him.

And then I wondered about the timing of death. Given the triathlon ahead of him that Muslim kid is going to need some time. But what if he doesn't have any time? What if he's run over by a bus? Gets cancer? Or just takes a wrong turn and misses his one chance to meet that Christian missionary?

All these questions, and many others about how God deals with suffering and pain like in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, boiled up and over in college. And a faith crisis set in. If God loves everyone how can he allow such unfairness to happen? Particularly given the stakes involved. Eternal torment and all that.

And as I pondered all this it started to dawn on me that the flaw in the Arminian theology I held was how death was functioning as a moral stopwatch. I realized that that Muslim kid was in a race against death. Hopefully he'd make it. But given his lack of a headstart I wasn't optimistic about his chances. I mean, how likely would it be for me to convert to Islam? That's just not going to happen. And yet, given the symmetry of the situation, it's going to be just that hard for the Muslim kid to convert to Christianity. So if it's not happening with me, it's not going to happen with him. So Death is going to outrun and catch that Muslim kid. Death is going to win.

Well that sucks, I thought. I thought Death had been defeated. That death no longer had a sting. And yet, everywhere I looked, Death was stinging the hell out of everyone. The only way it seemed death could be defeated is if you had a headstart, if you got lucky. If you got lucky you didn't have to worry about the stopwatch. Your Christian parents dropped you off at the finish line with a Capri Sun in your hand on the way to soccer practice.

And so I started to wonder if the Calvinists might have been on to something with Proposition #2. Maybe if God wants something God will get it. That nothing could defeat God. Not even death. And if that was true, well, God's love would continue to pursue us even after death. And Love, being love, would never, ever give up on us.

I'd never loosened my grip on Proposition #1, that was unshakable, but slowly I was growing more and more convinced about Proposition #2. I was coming to agree with the Calvinists that God would get God's way. That God's will is Sovereign and that humans cannot thwart or defeat God's purposes. That God's grace is irresistible. And if this were true--if God wills to save everyone and God's will cannot be defeated--Proposition #3 had to be rejected. True, that meant I had to start rethinking all those texts about "eternal punishment." These are Talbott's Propositions after all. But this was nothing new. I knew, from my first encounters with Calvinism, that everyone was fudging some part of the bible.

And this wasn't just a shift that helped me with a soteriological puzzle. As I've written about before, my most pressing questions at the time (and today) were turning toward the problems of pain and horrific suffering. Will God be good to the victims of horrific pain, abuse, disease, famine, tragedy, and torture? I became convinced that God would not let their stories end in that manner. God was still in their future. Love awaits.

ACT THREE:
WHERE I ADOPT UNIVERSALISM, FOR YEARS PEOPLE THINK I'M CRAZY AND NOW, SUDDENLY, IT ALL SEEMS LIKE ITS BECOMING MAINSTREAM

And so I rejected Proposition #3. And I soon found myself among some really wonderful and exciting people. I joined a great throng of saints and Christ-followers. I began with C.S. Lewis, but soon found George MacDonald, Gregory of Nyssa, Julian of Norwich, and Origen. As I've written, finding MacDonald was huge. The real tipping point. And in recent years I've been encouraged by the work of Thomas Talbot, Robin Parry, Keith DeRose, John Hick, Marilyn McCord Adams, and Jürgen Moltmann. Along with other people who are theological resources for univeralists: like Miroslav Volf and Karl Barth. And now, it seems, we have Mr. Rob Bell as a friend.

In the early years, I was largely alone in my beliefs. Living life among Arminians who rejected Proposition #2 while I, secretly, endorsed it. Isn't it sad, they would say, that these people died without knowing Jesus? It is sad, I would say, but I don't think God can be defeated by death. I don't think God is limited by any stopwatch. As Rob Bell says, I think God's love will win in the end.

Here and there, when I could trust people, I would let them know I was a universalist. When I came to ACU I remember "coming out" to some trusted colleagues. I think they thought I was crazy. And they still make fun of me. I'm the token universalist. We'll be talking about something and they'll say, "Oh, but you don't believe that. You're a universalist." It's all in good fun. But I told them, you just wait, just wait, my generation and those following are moving in this direction.

And guess what? Look what's happening. A book like Rachel Held Evans' comes out and captures the struggles of a generation. Scot McKnight, a leading voice in evangelicalism, thinks universalism is "the most pressing question facing American, Western Christianity." Robin publishes The Evangelical Universalist. College students are discovering George MacDonald. And, now, we have Rob Bell's Love Wins:

LOVE WINS. from Rob Bell on Vimeo.


All the sudden, I don't feel so lonely anymore.

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76 thoughts on “Musings about Universalism, Part 8: My Life, in Three Acts, with Talbott's Propositions”

  1. One problem I see with classical Arminianism is that God's love runs out at an apparently arbitrary point. We die, and presumably free will has some influence on the date of this. If we're free to reject God, it's reasonable to suppose that we're also free to cross main roads with our eyes shut. The moment we expire, God's love disappears, and he dumps us forever. That doesn't seem very loving to me, and I'm uncomfortable using the word 'can't' of an omnipotent being.

    The big difficulty, I think, is our cultural need for consistent, logical explanations of everything. The people who wrote the Bible were OK with inconsistency, and sometimes they were writing off the cuff. We look for consistency where it's not to be found. They we expect to know the unknowable. We can't put God on the dissecting table and examine his internal structure, yet we have the doctrine of the Trinity; we don't have the manual for the heavenly court, yet we presume to claim that we know how God's judgment works. Sometimes there just isn't an answer.

  2. Nicely laid out explanation, and with humor! First time at your blog (I was looking for Bonhoeffer stuff, but found myself sucked into this post). Lots to reflect on here. Thanks.

  3. There may be some Bible verses that need 'fudging' (I don't know which ones that might be?); but, Titus 2:11 is not one of them. God offers; He doesn't grant or guarantee. There's a difference, no?

  4. What if you believe that in some mystical supernatural way all three are true? It is not logical, but it seems to be what the bible says.

  5. Yep, I have been at this Universalist thing for a number of years now.... most people thought I was nuts, but in the past year or so, folks are asking me genuine questions. Bell timed this one well.

  6. Correctomundo, your Doctorialness: feel not alone. Although for me, as an artist not overly committed to the constraints of theology (which, I feel, has to take baby-steps in order to avoid being burned in hot pitch), I could just abandon the logical impossibilities of the three propositions, say that they're all true, and keep painting and writing.

    I have no idea why nowhere in there did I run screaming from all the stupid, hateful things people kept saying to me in the name of Jesus. Perhaps I just knew, in my bowels, that they were misquoting. Keep it up.

    I'm reading your "Unclean" book right now and finding it illuminating. So, thanks.

  7. I think Robert and Allen are right on target in seeing logic and reason called into question here. We are so accustomed to our scientific/materialist worldview in which we always interpret inconsistency, conundrum and contradiction as indicating an *error* in logic or reason or in the "facts" we are assuming to be true. But these "problems" are actually the very thing you would expect to encounter when your intellectual tools are put to work in a situation they are inherently not capable of handling.

    Here's an illustration. Suppose you walk one mile due South, then a mile due East, then a mile due North. You trace out a path shaped like a squarish "U" and end up one mile due East of where you started, right? Well, actually, not necessarily. That will be true if you live on a flat earth, but not on a globe. Walk that path starting from the North Pole and you'll find that you actually trace out a triangle and end up where you started! You and I might find that amusing, but we can "fix" the problem by upgrading our mental tools from 2-dimensions to three. Then everything makes "sense" again. But what if you were *incapable* of thinking of 3 dimensions, had no math or language for it? Then you'd find yourself encountering these inconsistencies with no way to rationally resolve them.

    That, I think, is where we are at in these questions. Our intellectual tools are simply not capable of dealing with the extra dimension, as it were, of spiritual reality.

  8. I think it's important to not confuse "refusing to think about it" with "believe all three." You can settle with, "I just trust God in his goodness to work it out" but you can't actually hold all three simultaneously - that's where the fudging comes in since all three find Biblical support but not all three can be "correct".

  9. I agree that we can't (intellectually) hold all 3 simultaneously (though I'm reminded of the line from Through the Looking Glass; "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.") And I don't think refusing to think about it is the best option. So in practice I think we decide where we'll start and lean into uncertainty and unknowing from there. Like Dr. Beck, I find myself most invested in proposition 1 and journey from there. I do think it's worth noting though, that the three propositions are very different in what they address. #1 is a statement about God's *character*. #2 is a statement about God's *attributes*. and #3 is a statement about an outcome of history in the future. To me, having confidence in the character of God is fundamental, and I would add, is the proposition most clearly validated by the sacrificial love demonstrated by Jesus.

  10. Which Afterlife?

    In his new book "Love Wins" Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from "the greatest achievement in life," my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote "In God we all meet."

  11. I THINK what god says is all three were right for There Time.
    ALTHOUGH now as always children, we must move into the HART of the manner of love inside the railroad tracks of loving faithfulness AND A CLEAR CONSCIENCE.

    "LORD I SEE YOU BEHIND ME,(IN MY PAST)MOVING ME, SO AS WITH 14 CENT. OCCAM'S RAZOR...
    YOU ARE HERE AND GO BEFORE ME"

  12. Passages in the Bible can be taken seriously but not literally. To use the term "just an allegory" indicates lack of awareness. Do a search: The First Scandal. Then click twice.

  13. There are many other good books on universalism. Hope Beyond Hell, Absolute Assurance in Jesus Christ, Razing Hell, Restitution of All, Spiritual Terrorism. They can be found at tentmaker.org

    By the way, universalism was "mainstream" for the early few centuries. It went out of vogue under the sword of Constantine and Augustine.
    tentmaker777 on the youtube channel has a lot of info on this subject in video form

  14. I had some similar thoughts about this. Right after the Rob Bell controversy erupted, but before his book was out, I remarked (in a facebook discussion, with, among others, Robin Parry) that it was a bit weird to witness all the intrigue about whether & in just what ways Bell might be approaching the border to this supposedly dangerous territory when one has been living clearly in badlands, along with a few friends, for quite a few years.

    Incidentally, while I haven't yet read Bell's book [ordered it a while ago, but along with another book that's not out yet], from what I've read about it, it sounds to me like he should be classified as a universalist (or at least this book shd be classified as advocating universalism), and that the denials that he's a universalist, made by Boyd, Mouw, and Bell himself, are based on overly demanding accounts of what it takes to be a universalist. On the other hand, based on my reading of her REVELATIONS OF DIVINE LOVE, I would classify Julian of N as a non-universalist -- but one whose writing universalists are likely to like a lot.

  15. For Christ's sake, stop all this meaningless nonsense about who is saved and how! It is pointless and self-indulgent playing with words. Reading the comments feels like some sort of re-run of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Talk about "Jesus wept!"
    If you are truly bewildered, how about loving the Lord thy God with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength; and loving thy neighbour as thyself?
    Open your eyes and your ears: feed the hungry; comfort the sick; help the poor. Maybe even do as Christ clearly and unambiguously instructed! The rest is displacement activity. You are playing with yourselves.

  16. So far from meaningless, some find in the view, or even in just the hope that it might be right, a help in facing the here & now with charity & courage, and certainly an aid in loving God and neighbor.

    But I honestly am wondering, J: Do you usually while browsing blogs that allow comments tell those engaged in the discussion to stop their talk and go out & feed the hungry? And, more generally, if you see people engaged in some activity less important than feeding the hungry -- like, say, playing softball -- do you pull over, taking time out of your own (I'm sure) otherwise full-time feeding of the hungry to yell at them, "Hey, you over there, yes all of you: Stop playing softball for Christ's sake, open your eyes and your ears & feed the hungry" etc."? Because, look, everybody sets their priorities and may get things wrong. I don't know how you might know how much time & energy those of us in this discussion spend on such things as feeding the hungry, and how you reached the conclusion somehow that it's not enough. And, well, for some of us it may not be enough. Who knows. But what I wonder is why you pick people talking about this topic in particular to scold in such a way -- unless of course you just habitually go around scolding strangers quite generally? And to lay my suspicions on the table (since it seems we're getting into the lives of strangers a bit here): Is there something about this topic in particular that makes you uncomfortable, so that you would rather not have it discussed?

  17. though it did successfully tempt me to spend time I could have spent feeding the hungry reading your blog instead :)

  18. Of course it's entirely up to you how you spend your time.
    But there's a difference between the guys playing softball and the those beating themselves up over the nature of salvation. The players are having innocent uncomplicated fun. The latter seem to be pursuing an "angels dancing on a pin-head" discussion.
    If you're enjoying it, fine. We all have to pass the time somehow. But please, no renting of shirts and no breast beating!
    If you're having a hard time, give up the self-flagellation and focus on the less fortunate. It's more productive.
    Glad you liked the blog. And yes, I should do more - and say less!

  19. It seems quite the opposite of "self-flagellation," but, ok, it does seem that it is something about this particular topic that puts you in your scolding mood.

    I asked because this actually happened to me before. I was on a group blog and on a few occasions, a few folks left very similar comments on posts about universalism. And never on posts about anything else! -- though all sorts of topics were discussed there, many of them even more "dancing on the head of a pin"-like. Why on this but not on those? Nearest I could guess really was that (though they didn't realize it) they were very uncomfortable with this topic being discussed for some reason, and it was to silence any discussion of this topic that some part of them suddenly felt the great need for others to be feeding the hungry etc. right now rather than have a discussion about this.

  20. This is one of the best blog posts I've read in a long time. Thanks for sharing your journey with us with such eloquence, Dr. Beck. Although I never really dabbled in, or was even exposed to, Calvinism, otherwise my journey has been similar to yours.

    I'm currently going through the Gospels and noting each verse that deals with the afterlife, judgment, forgiveness, and salvation. Like you, I'm finding lots of different views even in the teachings of Jesus. In the end, we must decide which soteriological position best reflects the nature of God. To me, it's universalism.

    Keep up the great work!

  21. For my own part, no self-flagellation is going on. I just simply told a story in this post about how I changed my mind about some things over the course of my life.

    And I'd push back on you letting softball off the hook so easily. I agree, it's innocent fun. But it's also a fairly pointless thing to do. Hitting a ball with a stick and all. But getting straight about what God is like seems pretty vital, at least to religious people. For example, there are Christian people with think "saving souls" is more important than your call to feed the hungry. That's a theological issue that has real-world implications, unlike a softball game. And that conversation isn't just about the number of angels dancing on a pinhead.

    That said, do see the point you are getting at. And I'd agree that there are more important things in life. Still, theology--one's view of God--does have some impact upon the hungry. Softball does not.

  22. Re-reading my comment it does come across as a scold. And I do have issues about my own inadequacies in Christian action. Sorry!
    But it does seem to me that so much time is spent talking about matters we will never understand and far too little following fairly straightforward - if difficult - directions. Counting myself among the guilty, I know it can be a bit of a cop out.
    I happen to be a card-carrying Universalist. But which ever side one comes down on, I don't believe it makes the slightest difference to what is asked of us.
    Most theological discussions shed more light on our own fears, excuses and aspirations than the nature of God. Pondering mysteries is perhaps necessary but, after two thousand years, couldn't we try to accept that simple answers won't be coming - and move on in faith and action?
    I wish you a very joyful day!
    J.

  23. Here and Now

    My initial comment was primarily about alternate views of an afterlife. Rob Bell has never claimed to be a mystic, but is open to contemplative prayer and meditation. While not a Universalist, he does respect people of other religions.

    Even within Christianity there are differing views of afterlife between Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, etc. In any discussion between people, there will be varying personal opinions and interpretations of scriptures. Most mystics, of any faith, would agree with Jesus: "The Kingdom of Heaven is within." If you want to find Hell just read, watch or listen to the daily news or study the unkind history of humankind.

  24. My apologies for stridency and giving in to frustration. It was NOT the correct Christian response! But I honestly don't think you'll ever persuade anyone away from "saving souls" to feeding bodies - or the converse. It's a heart, not a head thing.
    Again, sorry.
    Mea culpa..

  25. No worries. Again, at the end of the day, you're absolutely right.

    And you're also right to express pessimism about convincing anyone. But I'm not really targeting staunch opponents. I'm writing for people on the fence and for people of good will who, while disagreeing, just want to make sure universalists share similar values and creedal commitments. I don't want agreement from these people, just the right hand of fellowship.

  26. Hi Dr. Beck,

    I love reading your posts. They are always thought provoking and insightful. I am Roman Catholic and very active in my parish. There has always been a part of me that has resisted and rejected the beliefs of my faith on hell. It justed never made any sense that an all loving God would let his children burn in hell for all eternity--even if it was of their own free will to be there. I have always believed that somehow, in God's way and time, He would gather us to Him. All of us, not just a select few. Who new that my beliefs had a name? I'm a closet Universalist and didn't know it :-)

    Thanks for your post and explaining how you came to be a Universalist, it was very helpful.

    Genoveva

  27. I don't mean to be debating (or continuing to debate: and my apologies if I reacted too defensively) JofIndia on this, but I do want to pick up on something J said. Actually something I agree with: "I don't believe it makes the slightest difference to what is asked of us." Yes, I tend to agree. But I do think that for many, this makes a very significant difference in how well one will be able to do what is asked of us. Many of us were taught traditional doctrines of hell, on many of which the pain & suffering inflicted on the damned is not only eternal, but is far worse than any pain suffering undergone in this life. And if you really believe that (& I think my problem was that I really did at one time: http://blog.beliefnet.com/tonyjones/2009/01/richard-dawkins-and-really-bel.html), it can mess you up in a lot of very bad ways, including taking the wind right out of your sails when it comes to trying to do what one can to alleviate suffering in this life, both because it's hard to get worked up over alleviating suffering when you truly believe that what is *by far* the greatest suffering will still be yet to come anyway, and also because it leaves one (I think, at least) with a twisted & practically uninspiring view of what God is like. I at least find it much more inspirational to realize I'm following not only a God whose own love for the suffering far surpasses my own pathetic concern, but also a God whose love ultimately will win. So I guess I'm now agreeing with Richard that "one's view of God does" --or at least can -- "have some impact upon the hungry." What I said is true of "some" certainly seems to be true of myself: more optimistic views about the eternal fate of humankind are a help in facing the here & now with charity & courage, and certainly an aid in loving God and neighbor. & this can be true even though I'm so poor at loving God & neighbor, so long as I'd be even worse at it otherwise.

  28. "I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God...So necessary to the Church is a lofty concept of God that when that concept in any measure declines, the Church with her worship and her moral standards declines along with it...Before the Christian Church goes into eclipse anywhere there must first be a corrupting of her simple basic theology. She simply gets a wrong answer to the question, "What is God like?" and goes on from there."

    A.W.Tozer - The Knowledge of the Holy

  29. Well said. Another way in which it can mess you up in very bad ways is the very unfairness of being burdened with messaging the hell-bound unreached masses. I lost my childhood and teen years completely to fear-of-hell theology. I never got to be a kid. I'm trying to make sure that doesn't happen to my own kids.

  30. Mr. Bell mentions that we have a God that we need to be rescued from. That HE will send them to hell if they don't believe in Jesus. First of all, God DOES love ALL, but has no tolerance for sin. HE purposely sent ONE worthy of bearing/removing that burden for ALL. GOD prepared hell for Satan and his angels, not HIS creation. People send themselves. I think Mr. Bell is using all this hype for publicity. It will be sure to produce some revenue for him. I have never had an objection to the 3 DVD's I have from Mr. Rob Bell. Again, this is just a toll to stir up the pot of confusion who are question why they believe what they believe.

  31. This is a fantastic piece! I really enjoyed hearing your progress into what you believe now.

    Coincidentally, just this past week I've written a blog about my long (and painful) journey to believing that hell does not equate to eternal torment. While your light years ahead in your spiritual journey, I share a lot of the same sentiments.

    Here's my blog site: www.fourfingerculture.com. My new piece is titled: "How Rob Bell Made Me Come Out of the Closet" (No, not that closet).

    Sorry if the shameless plug for my blog site is inappropriate. I'd be happy to remove it if you wish. I make it a point never to cold advertise my stuff on other people's sites but being that it somewhat resembles a lot of your history, I thought people might enjoy the read.

    Happy Monday, everyone!

  32. 'Satan and his angels' were NOT created? Also, ALL of us sin and would not accept His solution on their own. He chooses the ones to change and then they accept; the un-regenerated do not, of course. So, in truth, nobody accepts and God does 'send' some (many?) to the lake.

  33. Endorsing a particular doctrine using appeals to ignorance and mysticism threatens to make my head explode. Basically, I understand it to work like this:

    Christian: God will redeem all things ... and yet He will not!
    Sane Person: What!?
    Christian: Yes, it's impossible to understand how this can be the case, because our minds are too small. But it is true. This book says so.
    Sane Person: [small mind boggled] But ... if that statement is impossible to understand, then /what/ exactly are you saying is true?
    Christian: Obviously, the apparently contradictory claims made by the various writers of this holiest of books.
    Sane Person: Oh. Right.

  34. Yeah, I’ve got to agree that there’s no fudging needed on Titus 2:11. Besides what David already pointed out, the context should clue us in that the “all people” to whom God’s grace has appeared are the wide variety of people just exhorted by Paul (old men, older women, young women, younger men, slaves and masters; see Titus 2:1–10). That this is the case can be seen even more readily by noting how easily Paul shifts from speaking of “all people” in 2:11 to “us” in the very next verse.

    There’s lots more to say about this verse and how it fits within its tightly structured context, but a quick look at any good commentary should show that Titus 2:11 presents no fudge-problems for Calvinist soteriology.

  35. Dr. Beck, your post reminded me of this quote I came across a few years back: “In other words, synergists [= Arminians] can hope for universal salvation, but only the God of monergism [= Calvinism] can guarantee it.” —Terrance L. Tiessen, Who Can Be Saved? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 91.

  36. "People send themselves."

    I can only speak for myself here, and I don't mean to question your integrity or sincerity, Reverend, but I'm afraid that is a good example of the kind of sentence that sent me running from the god of my (erstwhile) theology in search of the God of my heart. However well-intended the speaker, I just can't hear God in those sentiments, so much as a pompous and small-minded headteacher berating the marginalised, powerless school 'trouble-maker'.

    I don't mean to suggest you are such a person, just to characterise the tone of this sentence.

    I have really valued Macdonald's incisive clarity on this: God's will is to punish sinners (as a loving parent would his erring child) and to destroy sin, not the other way round.

    Blessings

  37. No worries about self-linking. The more links the better. I encourage all readers to link to their blog when they feel they have a post that adds to the conversation. Plus, it helps us all discover new cool new blogs.

  38. I am finding your writings very thought provoking (as I always have since reading "A Theology for Heretics") and I find myself agreeing with many of your points supporting universalsim. I apologize if you have addressed it and I have missed it but how should we interpret the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that seems to teach a permanence of hell rather than it being a means of wrathful redemption?

  39. Richard - Thanks for the suggesting the three books on Universalism. You also mentioned others who have influenced your thinking. Are there other books that you would recommend as I learn more about universalism...maybe your top 5 or so? Thanks!

  40. Here's my list, in no particular order:

    1) Thomas Talbott's The Inescapable Love of God

    2) Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate, Robin A. Parry & Christopher H. Partridge (Eds.)

    3) Gregory MacDonald's The Evangelical Universalist

    4) 'All Shall Be Well': Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann, Gregory MacDonald (Ed.)

    5) George MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons (and all his novels, but that would take some time)

    Regarding universalism and the problem of evil I'd recommend Marilyn McCord Adams' Christ and Horrors or John Hick's Evil and the Love of God

    Important supplemental resources would be Rob Bell's Love Wins, C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, and Edward Fudge's The Fire that Consumes.

  41. Here's my list, in no particular order:

    1) Thomas Talbott's The Inescapable Love of God

    2) Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate, Robin A. Parry & Christopher H. Partridge (Eds.)

    3) Gregory MacDonald's The Evangelical Universalist

    4) 'All Shall Be Well': Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann, Gregory MacDonald (Ed.)

    5) George MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons (and all his novels, but that would take some time)

    Regarding universalism and the problem of evil I'd recommend Marilyn McCord Adams' Christ and Horrors or John Hick's Evil and the Love of God

    Important supplemental resources would be Rob Bell's Love Wins, C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, and Edward Fudge's The Fire that Consumes.

  42. Okay, Richard. I've been giving a lot of consideration to your universalism way of thinking, and in many important, hidden spiritual places it appeals to me greatly. I just can't figure out what you do with all the "everlastings" in the Bible. My son helped me to understand that perhaps "eternal" (and yes, I have studied the Greek definitions of that word, but only shallowly) might have more to do with quality than quantity- more about type than about chronology... but then what about all the times the word "everlasting" is used? If you try to make those all ( and even many of the "eternals" mean something other than chronology, you just can't do it with your eyes open. Nothing makes sense about those statements anymore if they mean quality rather than quantity. Please help me see how you crossed this hurdle. Obviously, you somehow have. Jan Doke, another ACU alum, and author of Broken Jar: 365 Days on the Potter's Wheel.

  43. Dear sir,
    I was overwhelmed reading your biographical story, as the questions in my life (haunting me) followed in the exact same order (to include the lie awake all nighters)
    early free willer, with parents who converted to calvinism (nearly hyper) when i was ten, sent my world smashing down around me...
    i saw the bible supporting both...wanting to "fudge" all i could to maintain that God was love...(and not have to redefine love)
    Lucky for me, i was introduced to George MacDonald at an early age. My parents having no idea his U views...:D (or they would have been banned) Through so many questions, i have clung to the thought, the hope that God is love....(never a clearer picture than in the writings of MacDonald (imno) :D

    But in the past two years, the questions have continued....
    and within the past year, i have struggled through agnosticism, into atheism. (secular humanism)

    one bugger for me...
    the problem with U,
    I am still stuck with...why? why was all this...(pain and suffering etc etc etc) necessary?
    if one could die as a baby without experiencing all the icky stuff, and go on to "be with him"....
    why do the rest of us need all the crap? (some so much more than others?)

    with love,
    holly campbell

  44. Hi Holly,
    Thanks for sharing and for your honesty.

    To be honest, I don't have an answer for you, about why God made or allows a world full of suffering. And I can't fault a person for losing faith over the issue of suffering. I understand completely. My faith walks that same razor edge every day.

    But if you missed it, my attraction to universalism was motivated by these very questions:

    http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2011/02/universalism-and-open-wound-of-life.html

  45. But I think what she's saying is that universalism fails to satisfy those questions. (Her last pointed question being: "Why would a good God subject us to this painful charade if the outcome is guaranteed?")

    As I'm sure you're aware, I tend to agree with Holly. Except that I think belief in something like God can be salvaged.

  46. Yes Matthew, thank you. I first found that to be a problem with free will...if (as most will say decidedly) a baby who dies, will "go to heaven" then why do the rest of us need free will, and the suffering that goes along with it to "go to heaven'?
    taking the question deeper i think it to can be applied to universalism...
    I believe the only option a believer is left with is that the suffering is a necessary evil...for some reason. (which still overlooks babies, or the mentally delayed etc).....(imho)

  47. > I believe the only option a believer is left with is that the suffering is a necessary evil ...

    Which amounts to saying that there's evil, but God is powerless to do anything about it. Something bigger than God makes it "necessary".

    I think this is actually a reasonable way to go if the believer is willing to face up to the damage it does to the traditional definition of "God" and the authority of the Bible, but that rarely happens. Admitting that sort of thing is scary. And a god of love is somehow less compelling than a Lord God of Power.

  48. Just a few thoughts . . .
    The traditional (or any other) definition of god does not make god God. He is what He is and we try to figure out how to describe Him so we feel good about it. Look around, if this all is because He said 'let there be....' then He is omni everything. Then 'evil' is not a problem that will hinder Him from accomplishing His purpose. And, that is true whether or not we can 'figure it out' or agree with His strategy.

    God is not a God of love! He is a God of love and justice and . . . . It's like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Take account of only a part of the ' beast' and you get the wrong answer.

    Universalism is the wrong answer. God being a God of love (etc. etc. etc.) does not require Him to 'save' everybody or to meet our definition of 'fairness.' It is God who saves; it is not the person who 'decides' for God, whether dead or alive. He may save babies or handicapped people or not. His choice; not ours. Once we let our likes and dislikes direct our thoughts, we are in danger of getting it wrong. That is what universalism has done. IMHO, of course.

  49. Hi David,
    Responding to your phrase "His choice, not ours." I might be taking it out of context, so tell me if I am. But here's my question: Can God choose to save a universalist? Related question: Universalism may be wrong, but to I have to get this right to be saved? Phrased another way: In your opinion, can a universalist be saved?

  50. Hi Richard,

    Short answer: yes, indeed.

    My understanding of Scripture is that 'no person' will ever decide to trust God. And, it is this trusting of what God has revealed (which, again, none of us will do on our own) that leads to eternity with Him.

    So, to my bumper sticker phrase: 'His choice; not ours.' This was my way of saying briefly that He picked the ones to save before any of this got started in time. (An obvious corollary is that He also picked the ones who He would not save. And, yes, I am fully aware of how offensive this must sound to a Universalist.) Whether a person considers themselves a Universalist or an Atheist or a Muslim or . . . has nothing whatsoever to do with God's having picked that person. Our opinions or preferences or experiences or lack thereof do not affect God's prior choice.

  51. Thanks. So, to clarify, God can choose to save a Muslim or an atheist? Even a Hitler?

  52. As a Jew, I am well aware of what 'Hitler' describes. From my reading of history, I see no indication that the Hitler of WW II 'fame' had been saved by the time he died. (And, of course, you know that I find no Biblical support for the after physical death 'repentance' idea of Universalism.) But, I see no reason why God could not have chosen him (in eternity past) had that have been His will. OTOH, I do not believe that a chosen person who has finally 'decided to trust God' could then murder as a 'Hitler.'

    Just in case it is not obvious, my value system definitely prefers one who speeds in their car to one who murders. But, that is not God's value system. So, a question. What is your reason for believing that God could save a person who just tells little lies in their life time more easily than one who had mercilessly killed many human beings in their life time? In other words, do you believe God graded humanity on a curve before He decided whom to save? Or, more likely, do you believe it is 'we' who decide to be saved as God sits on the sidelines rooting for all of us to just love one another?

  53. Hi David,
    To clarify a bit, I wasn't trying to bait you or judge you with the Hitler reference. What I was trying to clarify is that if God wills it (and that's a big if) God can save Hitler, or a Muslim or an atheist. So what I'm asking isn't about what God will do but what God can do. And I'm still not sure, reading your last response, where you stand on this. So let me ask a better question: Leaving aside the issue about if God will, in fact, save a Hitler or a Muslim or an atheist, God could save any and all if God wanted to. Right? That if God wants it, God can have it. Our choices, lifestyles, beliefs, and morality has nothing to do with it. Correct?

  54. Richard,
    I know you too well to think that you would 'bait' or 'judge.' I took the 'Hitler' example as an extreme to get to the root issue more quickly. No offense of any sort taken.

    Sorry, I wasn't clearer. OTOH, you seem to have precisely stated my understanding. God can save everybody who has ever lived. (OOOOOPs, does that make me a Universalist???)

    So, our difference would not seem to be with the 'can He' but with the 'will He?' My reading (a completely irrelavant piece of information) is that He has determined that saving all people is not the best way for Him to be glorified by His creation. You (and I, for that matter) think it would be better for Him to do it differently and save everyone. After all, that has to clearly be the more 'loving' thing to do. It all boils down to each of us reading our 'better' view into the Scriptures.

  55. Hi David,
    These comments are getting squeezed. If you reply let's pull out with a fresh New Comment.

    Thanks for the continued clarification. You've helped get me to the question I really wanted to ask: Where does the death of Jesus fit into your view?

    Specifically, if God can save a Muslim or an atheist then the death of Jesus (or faith in Jesus) is not necessary for salvation. Correct?

  56. If I could interject at the current comment level before you ascend to a better place in the thread:

    If, like David says, our preferences compromise our reading of scripture, then it seems like the thing to do would be to choose the more /virtuous/ interpretation or doctrine. That is, we should select the one we think is most likely to make us into the kind of people we ought to be.

    I can imagine such a defense of Universalism, but I'm having a hard time coming up with one for Calvinism.

  57. Hi Richard,
    “Specifically, if God can save a Muslim or an atheist then the death of Jesus (or faith in Jesus) is not necessary for salvation. Correct?

    First a quibble: 1) the death of Jesus and 2) faith in Jesus seem to me to be entirely different aspects to be considered.
    Another quibble: You ask me this when many libraries are required to hold the books that have attempted to address this question??? :-)

    a) God says that sin against Him requires payment.
    b) None of us have the resources to pay this debt no matter how ‘good’ or ‘loving’ a person we may be.
    c) God accepted what happened on the cross as a just payment for humanity’s sin.
    d) HOWEVER, that payment is NOT credited to any individual’s sin account at the cross.
    e) God has specified the means by which each of us can obtain ‘credit’ for our sin account.
    f) When a person trusts what God has specified as the means of receiving ‘credit,’ then, at that point, He saves them.

    Without the ‘death of Jesus’ God would not be just in justifying any sinner.

    What is confusing me right now is that I am convinced that I have not said anything here of which you were not already fully aware. What am I missing?

  58. Coming from an Arminian tradition, I guess my main question is about (f): "When a person trusts what God has specified as the means of receiving ‘credit,’ then, at that point, He saves them."

    Earlier you said, "God's choice, not ours." So I'm trying to figure out what you mean by "when a person trusts God then He saves them." Isn't trusting human choice? And doesn't the if-then formula suggest that God is waiting on a human choice? More directly: Can God save someone without their trust, faith or confession?

    In short, how does someone of your view square "God's choice, not ours" with "when a person trusts God then He saves them"? This bit of Calvinist doctrine has always puzzled those in my faith tradition.

  59. Hope this is coherent; I am rushing to an appointment....

    I said earlier “My understanding of Scripture is that 'no person' will ever decide to trust God.” So, if I then say that ‘when a person trusts . . .’ something is missing. That something is ‘regeneration.’ God sovereignly steps in and changes a person so that that person will trust Him. Without that act of the Holy Spirit, the person remains separated from God. Salvation, as I understand it, is totally up to God. Yet, from our perspective, we have to ‘decide for Jesus.’ No person has any idea that God has chosen her; but, if she decides to trust God regarding Jesus then she knows that she was chosen. And, because her sin debt has been paid for, God can be just and justify her.

  60. Thanks that helps. The reason for all the questions is that, awhile back, you said you weren't Reformed. So I was unsure what, exactly, you thought about all this. If not Reformed/Calvinist, where was David coming from? That was the question I was asking myself. But it seems to me that you have articulated in this thread, very clearly and well, the Reformed/Calvinistic stance. Of course, we all hate labels, but it seems you are coming at the bible from the Reformed/Calvinistic position. Double predestination, TULIP, etc. Is that correct? If not, how is your view of salvation different from Calvinism?

  61. Matthew,

    ". . . the thing to do would be to choose the more /virtuous/ interpretation or doctrine."

    Sounds good; but, who's definition of 'virtuous' will you use? My guess is we would each choose our own definition. Sorry, but I don't think this is an approach that will yield good fruit. I suggest a better approach would 1) try to keep our values out of the interpretation and 2) seek to find the interpretation that is consistent with the greatest possible amount of Scripture.

    "That is, we should select the one (interpretation) we think is most likely to make us into the kind of people we ought to be."

    Seems like there is a chicken and egg problem here. Let me offer that the interpretation we should select is the one that is closest to the truth and not the one that we think will yield any particular result nor the one that comes closest to meeting our personal criteria for 'bestness.'

  62. "If not, how is your view of salvation different from Calvinism?"

    I don't know.

    I didn't grow up in church. I am most grateful that I didn't have to endure the kind of horrific experiences some of your commenters relate. I don't study what men say so as to be able to compare the nuances of person A's views with those of person B's. I have read Calvin and find him a brilliant theologian. (Not that it matters in the slightest; but, I don't think I would have liked him as a person.) And, while I agree with a lot of what he teaches, I also disagree with him on major issues. So, I would not say I am a 'Calvinist.'

    I most certainly am not Reformed. Although I do agree with a number of their understandings. So, I keep reading and studying and as a result I have a view that seems consistent (to me at least) and it is what it is. My goal is to keep looking for errors in my beliefs and to keep modifying them so that they are ever more closely aligned with the truth. Oh yes, and also striving to live in a manner consistent with what I say I believe.

  63. Fair enough. But you are, it seems, simply espousing Calvinist doctrine. Can you point me to a location where you disagree with Calvinist dogma? What are the "major issues" where you disagree with Calvin? And where do you disagree with the Reformed?

    I'm still not sure I see daylight between you and Calvinist/Reformed doctrine. Can you help in distinguishing yourself from them?

  64. "Can you help in distinguishing yourself from them? "

    I'll attempt to do this; but, can you tell me why this is important to you?

    What I was trying to say is that I don't worry about nor keep lists of what I agree with and disagree with regarding Calvin or Reformed Theology. What I try to do is to make sure I understand what it is I do believe and that it nowhere is in conflict with Scripture. (Of course, I understand that I am always the one doing the interpretation of the Scripture and therein is the danger.) The alignment/disagreement with Calvinism is simply not important to me. Besides, what exactly is Calvinism? Seems to me there are at least a few answers to that question.

    That said, my major difference with those 'systems' probably lies with Israel. For example, I do not see that the church has 'replaced' Israel. Children are another place of major disagreement. My view: children are not part of a covenant family as was the case in pre-cross Israel. Today, children become part of the church , the body of Christ, if and when God saves them through faith. Infant baptism makes no sense to me nor is baptism a replacement for circumcision as they teach. Oh yes, the NT letters were written to believers and not to church groups made up of believers and unbelievers as they teach. Well, one more: The new covenant was not made with us, the church, and has not yet been fulfilled. We (the church) are however recipients of the main blessings promised in the new covenant as a result of Jesus' work on the cross. I guess this could all be summarized as I see more discontinuity vis-a-vis continuity in God's working throughout history and into the future.

    Bottom line, while I certainly respect Calvin's work and agree with much of it, I do not feel as though I espouse his doctrine. I would much rather expend effort understanding why some living person does not hold to a specific xyz belief whereas I do.

  65. (typo! paragraph 1 of Act III, next-to-last sentence, "universalists" is missing an s)

  66. > Let me offer that the interpretation we should select is the one that is closest to the truth and not the one ... that comes closest to meeting our personal criteria for 'bestness.'

    Hm. I fail to see why my personal criterion for bestness ("producing virtue") is inferior to yours ("closest to the truth").

    Ignoring that for the moment, the only reason I suggested "virtue" as a criterion was because you seemed open to the possibility that your interpretation, and Richard's, and the doctrines that you were going to derive from them, were going to be clouded and limited by your own preferences, desires, and mental acuity. (I don't mean that as a dig on you and Richard; it's a problem for people in general.)

    I thought it might be helpful to momentarily step back from the worldview you had constructed and evaluate it based on another set of criteria: "Sure, this is somewhat consistent, but is it honest? Does it appear to be good? Does it describe a God who is Compassionate? Merciful? Courageous? Does it encourage me to be those things?"

    Because frankly, it seems highly unlikely to me that any of us are going to get the metaphysical bit quite right, particularly when using a patchwork like the Bible as a primary and authoritative source. And in my experience, people are a lot better at knowing what's Good than what's Accurate, and therefore chasing what's Accurate in hopes of finding what's Good might be getting the proverbial cart before the proverbial horse.

    But now I can see that you're wanting to go about it by supposing that the Bible is primarily a set of (accurate) propositions, and then trying to build a consistent (and therefore accurate) worldview out of those propositions, and going from there. Which is fine. I just thought you might be a little more skeptical about your own ability to be right, and perhaps interested in a different approach.

  67. Matthew,

    I certainly did not mean to suggest that your criterion is inferior to mine. Sorry, if it seemed that I was. And, yes, as an extremely flawed human, my interpretations are always going to be clouded. So I am indeed skeptical about my ability to be right. Which is why I keep trying to test; but, what is the standard against which to test, seems the problem.

    Again, please don't get me wrong. You ask 'does my worldview describe a God who is XYZ? But, already 'you' are in the mix of determining your worldview. Who is to say that XYZ is actually a 'good' criterion? We can of course take a vote; but, all the voters are 'clouded' too.

    If the Bible is a patchwork as you say it is then I guess the 'is it best to me' approach is really all we have. I have concluded that the Bible is actually God revealing truth to us. Kind of messy, yes. But, it is there for us to discover. If God is 'omni' everything, then certainly He could have made it so that a 5 year old couldn't get it wrong. Obviously that is not what He has done. I've concluded that that was not just an accident. Thus, I just have to work as hard as possible to keep 'me' out of what God has said as I try to determine what it is that He has said.

    Anyway, just some thoughts.

  68. > I certainly did not mean to suggest that your criterion is inferior to mine.

    Well, I hope you think your criterion is superior, otherwise you'd be using mine. =) I just don't see /why/ you think your criterion is superior.

    > Who is to say that XYZ is actually a 'good'

    People, I suppose. Except for a few pathological cases, people agree on what a virtuous person looks like. Faith traditions seem remarkably consistent on that. The problem isn't so much recognizing virtue as it is becoming virtuous.

    > I have concluded that the Bible is actually God revealing truth to us.

    But 'You' is also in this mix, right? Seems like there's no getting away from 'you'.

    And whereas your you is willing to bet everything on the axiom that the Bible is God revealing (a very detailed and literal) truth, my you is extremely skeptical about that axiom, especially because it contains the oddly idolatrous (and therefore maybe self-defeating) phrase "the Bible is actually God".

    Instead, I prefer to start with the axiom that, whatever God is, she is more interested in people Doing Good than having Right Doctrine. Or to put it another way: God would prefer that the world be full of merciful atheists than merciless Christians. I can't prove that, of course, but I think the prophets would agree.

  69. Let me first clarify one factual point. I do NOT believe the statement, "The Bible is actually God." My original statement included a modifying phrase that makes it completely different than this one.

    I agree with you that any position any of us take is drenched in ourselves. We can't distance ourselves from our opinions. I do not think your approach is inferior to what I proposed. Really. I simply believe that given two approaches, the one which is more objective (not perfectly so, of course) is to be preferred.

    I also agree with you that right doctrine is not the route to virtue. Merciful atheists would make great friends. Merciless Christians are probably not Christians except by profession.

    Let me bore you with my story, as briefly as I can. Til age 43 I was an atheist. God was absolutely a myth. I had never been in a church and I had not seen a Bible. On December 19, 1987 I finished reading a book and in that instant I believed what God has revealed about Jesus etc. When I had sat down, I was completely convinced that God did not exist. I wasn't seeking Him, I didn't have any awareness of needing Him, I was just fine as an atheist with a great life.

    When a person has faith in that God, He saves them from themselves. It is not about arguing or scaring a person into heaven. It is about seeing the truth. And, the truth (in my opinion, of course) is that nobody is ever going to make themselves virtuous enough to please God.

  70. Well, I for one am not bored with your brief story. I think it's very interesting.

    But I don't think it gives me anything else to say about truth or virtue or the Bible. I guess we are just starting with different assumptions and are bound to reach different conclusions.

    Having said that, though, I have really enjoyed your attitude toward this disagreement. It seems that very few people have enough patience and generosity to wade through these sorts of issues with me and respond politely to my pointed questions. Thanks!

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