Thoughtful believers live with a tension. On the one hand, believers, by definition, feel like they have enough evidence to make serious commitments regarding the Bible, theological positions, or a particular denomination. At the same time, thoughtful believers have a scholarly side that recognizes that they have a lot to learn and that on some points they could be wrong. It is very difficult to be true to both sides of this tension at one and the same time, yet I, for one, feel that a truth-based belief is never totally settled and that in eternity we will continue learning and growing (for those who appreciate Ellen White, the last chapter of the book Education is an instructive read on this). If that is true in eternity, why wouldn’t it be true now?
When it comes to the fate of sinners, there are three main options, universalism, annihilationism and eternal torment. The more carefully one examines these options, the more it seems clear that none of them is exegetically compelling in the sense that any honest reader would see that the biblical data is perfectly clear, no questions asked. The “slam dunk” texts offered up by each position, when examined with care, require choices and assumptions that adherents of the other two views will find far from compelling. On the other hand, all three approaches are exegetically defensible, in the sense that one can select and order texts in a way that the position could be claimed as the biblical one and garner adherents in large numbers. In such a context, the believer/scholar is free to make theological commitments, guided the by Holy Spirit (at least in one’s own perceptions). But it would be unwise to be so committed that one ignores evidence to the contrary. In the words of one of my mentors, Robert M. Johnston, “It isn’t hard to have strong opinions on any topic as long as you are willing to ignore some of the evidence.” So while I have my own theological commitments on this issue, I choose to treat those who disagree with respect and deference, sharing together in the hope that at least one of us might learn something. When minds close and neither side is learning, conversation is pointless.
When it comes to the issue before us, I am least attracted to the eternal torment position. To me, the concept of eternal torment, with or without literal flames, is repugnant and paints an awful picture of what God is like. I would never want to be the agent or eternal torment for my parents, my wife, or any of my kids or grandkids). Yet I am to believe that God has the capacity in His character to do exactly that to children of His that He knows far more deeply than we know each other. Am I more moral and gracious than God? I cannot believe that. And such a view does not seem compatible with Hosea 11:8-9, ESV: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? . . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9 I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” God’s compassion is far greater than mine. Far be it from Him to torture His own children for eternity (cf. Gen 18:25)! God, like us, must avoid the appearance of evil. At the same time, many of the Nursing students in my Christian Beliefs class this quarter have a rock-solid commitment to eternal torment, which they support by many texts. Shall I treat them as ignorant fools? Or shall I recognize that they and I are on a journey together where there is the wonderful possibility that at least one of us might learn something? What kind of conversation might leave open the possibility that any of us might learn something? For those who appreciate Ellen White, 6T 121-123 is very instructive. So is 2 Timothy 2:24-26.
I am much more attracted to universalism and very interested in an aspect of it that claims not to undermine free will. But I have not committed to that perspective for at least two reasons. First, I have difficulty getting my head around the idea of people having to deny who they have become in order to fit into a universe they never wanted. I would prefer that a God who loves me would allow me to determine my own future and accept the consequences of that choice. The idea of a free-will universalism is intriguing and I hope to study up on that option in the future. But at this point I find it hard to imagine that, given genuine freedom, everyone would end up choosing the same thing. But that’s just me. I’ll continue listening. Second, and much more important for me, is a practical issue. If we have three options and none of them is a slam dunk, which option has the least potential for damage. The eternal torment approach has driven many people away from God on the very face of it. Dangerous choice. Promoting universalism has many attractive features. But what if, in the end, it turns out to be wrong? What it cause some people to relax in their pursuit of holiness because in the end it won’t matter anyway? It would be tragic to arrive at St. Peter’s gate (or more likely the great, white throne—Rev 20:11) and discover only then that you had one chance and you blew it off because you were counting on having some fun first and then fixing it later. Perhaps this argument is more trivial than I realize, but that is where I am today.
This leaves me with the annihilation perspective, in which God desires earnestly that all be saved (2 Pet 3:9), and waits so that as many as possible might be saved. But when all are satisfied that God has done all He can to change minds, and yet many are hardened in their opposition and rebellion, God puts/allows them to sleep in a way that has no waking up. On that day He will weep and so will the saved. But for all it will be the best possible outcome under the circumstances. I do find some challenges in the annihilationist perspective, and I am working through some of them as I study Rev 20. But of the three options it seems to me the one with the least potential downside.
I don’t claim to be an expert in this particular issue, so I won’t mind if you take all of this with a grain of salt. But the crucial thing for me is not so much the outcome (we’ll know in the end anyway), but the way we go about studying the Word and sharing what we’ve learned so far. When people get too confident in their own view of things, even biblical things, they tend to stop leaning and growing and they may no longer be worth listening to.