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Word Study: The Will of God

Purpose 

This article is a survey of the uses of the Greek word thelema (noun: will, desire) in the New Testament. I will particularly focus on how thelema is used concerning God’s will. The Bible uses multiple words to express God’s plan or desires, so this words study is far from exhaustive. Still, I hope that it will give the reader insight into God’s will.

Will as Want, Plan, and Assignment

For a long time, when people would ask me about how to find the “will of God” I would begin by making a distinction between the moral will of God and the sovereign will of God. God has revealed his moral will – what he wants of human beings – through Scripture. When God tells us to know or do his will, he’s talking about his moral will. 

God’s sovereign will is what he accomplishes, or will accomplish, in history. We can only know his sovereign will after the fact, except through special revelation, as, for instance, through a prophet. God doesn’t ask us to know the details of his sovereign will, though in hindsight we could see how God wove together different events or circumstances to accomplish that will. When I started my survey of God’s word, I began by categorizing the instances of the word through this grid. Was the word about his moral will, his sovereign will, or was the reference ambiguous? However, while is there is still theological and pastoral value to this categorization, it didn’t prove to be a very helpful way of looking at the meaning of the Greek word.

Based on my survey of the uses of thelema in the New Testament, I believe that it carries with it the sense of wantplan, and assignment. These three senses are interrelated, but often one sense comes to the forefront in the verse. We can see how the senses are related through the lens of the father/son relationship. Jesus tells a parable of two sons in Matthew 21:28-32. A father tells his two sons to go work in the vineyard, one says he will go, but does not, the other says he won’t, but then goes and works. Jesus asks, “Which of the two did what his father wanted [thelema]?” (Matthew 21:31)

Here, the senses of want and assignment are forefront. The father wanted his sons to work in the field and so he gave them an assignment. We know which one did what the father wanted based on who did the assignment. The sense of plan fades into the background, though we might infer that the father wanted the sons to work in the field because he had a plan to harvest the crop by such and such a date and so he gave an assignment to his sons to work.

Will as Want

The sense of will as want (or desire) is forefront when the word is used in regards to human desire. For example: 

  • Pilate surrendered Jesus to the crowd’s will (Lk 23:15). He let them do what they wanted to with him. The sense of plan also comes forward since they planned to have Jesus killed. 
  • Paul says that an unmarried man who has control over his own will (desires), can stay unmarried (1 Cor 7:37).
  • Paul says that we all start “gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts” (Eph 2:3).

What does the text say about what God wants?

Salvific Plan 

Before moving on, I need to introduce the idea of God’s salvific plan, which I think you will see comes forward clearly in the text. God wants to rescue humanity, so he has a plan, and he carries out that plan through human agents, to whom he gives assignments. Jesus stands as the most frequent human agent, and he often speaks in terms of doing the Father’s will, which we can see as carrying out the Father’s desiresplan, and assignment. Jesus wants what the Father wants, purposes what the Father purposes, and does what the Father asks.

What, then, does the Father want? 

  • “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any one of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:14)
  • “This is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but shall raise them up at the last day” (John 6:39)
  • “For the Father’s will is that everyone who looks at the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life” (John 6:40)
  • “God… wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). I am cheating a little by including this reference since the word here is the verb thelo (to will/want) not the noun thelema, a much more common word. However, the sense fits so well, and the words have the same root, that I have decided to include it.

In the passages above, the sense of want comes out most strongly. God does not want anyone to perish. He wants all who believe to have eternal life. He wants all people to be saved. But, the sense of a plan also comes through. For, we could also say, “the Father’s plan is that everyone who looks at the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.”

Plan

The Father carries out his salvific plan through Jesus. In the Garden, Jesus prays “if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42, see also Luke 22:42). This aligns with Jesus’s stated mission, to do the will of Him who sent him (John 4:34, 5:30, 6:38). In these passages, the sense of assignment also comes through, but they fit within a larger plan. In Gethsemane, Jesus sets aside his desire (will) to carry out the assignment (will) given, following the Father’s plan (will).

Here’s how Paul carries out this idea: 

  • “Jesus Christ… gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God” (Galatians 1:4)
  • God “predestined us for adoption to sonship, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:5)
  • God “made known to us the mystery of his will” (Ephesians 1:9)
  • “In [Jesus] we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11)

We need to parse out the three usages in Ephesians. What is the “mystery of His will”? The broader context of Ephesians has to do with the incorporation of the Gentiles into Christ. “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6). I propose that God’s will, either as a plan or as want in Ephesians, is centered on the union of Jew and Gentile in Christ, which is itself part of a broader cosmic plan to “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).

Finally, let’s look at Hebrews 10:5-10. The writer argues that when Christ came into the world he said “Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will [desire, plan, assignment], my God” (10:7, 9). Instead of offering sacrifices, per the law, he offered his own body, following God’s will. “By that will [desire/plan], we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). 

To summarize the points thus far: God wants all people to be saved, a plan which involves the incorporation of the Gentiles. This plan requires Jesus to carry out the assignment, primarily his sacrifice (Heb 10:10), through which he can reconcile all people to God (Ephesians 2:16). 

Assignment

The above passages have focused on either God accomplishing his own will (wants, plan) or Jesus accomplishing the Father’s will (wants, plan, assignment), but many passages talk about humans doing or knowing God’s will. In these passages, will as want and assignment come to the fore. 

  • Paul is an apostle by the will of God (1 Cor 1:1, 2 Cor 1:1, Eph 1:1, 2 Tim 1:1). The strongest sense here is assignment, though that could be an assignment under God’s plan to reconcile the Gentiles to God through Christ. In Acts, Ananias says to Paul, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth” (Acts 22:14). He links this to his role as a witness (22:15)
  • In Acts, Paul says that David is a man after God’s own heart because he does everything God wants him to do (Acts 13:22). David does what God wants. Like the father/son parable we started with, God’s wants, at least in part, are expressed as assignments (i.e., the law, or direct instruction)
  • Jesus encourages his followers to be those who do the will of his Father (Matthew 7:21, 12:50, Mark 3:35, Luke 12:47, John 7:17) and those words are often tied directly to following some moral command: “whoever hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” (Matthew 7:24)
  • The blind man who Jesus heals defends Jesus by saying that God “listens to the godly person who does his will” (John 9:31)
  • Paul frequently links knowing and doing God’s will to ethical instructions: 
    • The Jews know God’s will because they have been instructed in the law (Romans 2:18)
    • Testing and approving God’s will is linked to moral instruction for life in the community (Romans 12:2ff)
    • Knowing God’s will parallels with living with wisdom (Ephesians 5:15, 17)
    • Servants obey their masters, for in doing so they are doing the will of God (Ephesians 6:6-7)
    • Being filled with the knowledge of God’s will enables us to please the Lord, bearing fruit in every good work (Colossians 1:9-10)
    • Standing firm in the will of God links with being mature and fully assured (Colossians 4:12)
    • It is God’s will that we will be sanctified by avoiding sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3)
    • God’s will is for us to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
  • The two instances in Hebrews where we are called to do God’s will link with persevering in suffering (Hebrews 10:37) and being equipped with everything good (Hebrews 13:21)
  • In 1 Peter we do God’s will by doing good to silence foolish slander (2:15) and resisting the urge to live for evil desires (4:2). Peter also says that “those who suffering according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful creator” (4:19). This doesn’t appear to be a moral injunction to suffer. But, in the example of Christ, suffering may be part of the Christian’s assignment.
  • 1 John says that “those who do the will of God live forever” (2:17) and this appears to be linked to keeping his commands (2:3). John also says that “if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. One of those prayers is that God would give life to a brother or sister who sins (5:14, 16).

In all these cases, God’s will, in terms of what he wants, ties closely together with his will, in terms of what he assigns for us to do. Again, this makes complete sense when understood through the father/son parable with which we began. In some ways, there is a circular relationship between knowing what God wants in a general sense, and knowing his particular commands. What God wants leads directly to his commands, but we also learn about the character of God – about what he loves – through his commands. The law should instruct us both in what God requires of us and the nature of the God who makes such requirements. What is absent is the idea that God wants us to know detailed particulars of what he is going to do, or what we should eat for breakfast, or what our major should be in college.

If we want to link these assignments to God’s plan then it would be permissible to do so in a general sense. God plans to bring salvation to the end of the earth, bringing together one people reconciled to God. Our assignments (living wisely, being sanctified, doing good) all fit into that plan. We must recognize though, that outside of references to Jesus and Paul, that is mostly a theological step, not necessarily a linguistic one.

Summary

My argument is that God’s will is best understood in terms of what God wantsplans, and assigns. God wants to rescue humanity. To do so, he carries out his plan by sending Jesus. Jesus carries out this assignment through his obedient life and perfect death. We can also do God’s will by understanding what he wants us to do: our assignments. Those assignments can be understood through Scripture, in light of God’s broader mission to bring all things to unity in Christ.

Appendix: Other uses

My overview has not listed every use of thelema in the New Testament so, to be thorough, I will list the remainder here.

  • Matthew 6:10: In the Lord’s prayer we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In this case, will is best understood in terms of what God wants. God’s desires are already fully realized in heaven, but we want to see those desires also fully realized on earth. Those fully realized desires are expressed in terms of the kingdom of God.
  • John 1:13: John says that Jesus makes those who receive him children of God, children not born of the will of the flesh or the will of the husband, “but born of God.” The structure of the verse suggests that being born of God means being born by God’s will. God’s desire is the sense most likely in view here as it parallels John 6:38-40.
  • There are three instances where God’s plan, in a non-moral, non-assignment sense, appear to be in view:
    • Acts 22:14 “When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, ‘The Lord’s will be done.'”
    • Romans 1:10 “I pray that… by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come.”
    • Romans 15:32 “so that I may come to you with all joy, by God’s will.”
    • All of these involve some uncertain future: What will happen to Paul in Jerusalem? Will Paul be able to visit Rome? The people don’t know what will happen, but trust that God will carry out his plan.
  • 1 Corinthians 16:12 “Apollos… was quite unwilling to go”. This is a case where human desire is in view.
  • 2 Corinthians 8:5 “They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.” Paul is extolling the Thessalonians for giving so generously to those in need in Jerusalem. The will here appears to be what God wants since it lines up with God’s desire for generosity.
  • 2 Timothy 2:26 “…escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” This is a rare case where will is not used about God or humans, but the devil. “To do his will” seems to mean “to do what he wants,” or maybe “to do his assignment.”
  • 2 Peter 1:21 “prophecy never had its origin in human will.” I take this to mean that true prophecy doesn’t occur just because a prophet wants it to occur. God, through the Spirit, initiates the prophetic word, according to his desire, plan, and assignment (see Jeremiah 1:4-5)
  • Revelation 4:11 “for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” Again, I think what God wants is in view. He created and sustains all things because doing so aligns with what God loves and values

Inheritance in Ephesians 1:18 (a word study)

When I see the word inheritance in passages like Ephesians 1:18 which says “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people” I tend to read it as “I pray that you will know the hope of heaven.” 

First, why does Paul use the word inheritance here? Second, is my understanding of inheritance as heaven correct? 

Old Testament Use

Old Testament authors use inheritance in its ordinary sense of possessions passed from one generation to another (Gen 21:10, 31:14, Prov 13:22). 

The biblical authors use it most frequently to describe the promised land as a whole (Ex 23:13, Lev 20:24, Num 16:14, Deut 4:21, 1 Kings 8:36) or as a specific allotment given to a particular tribe (Num 26:53-55). The Levites are the exception, who do not receive land, but tithes from the people (Num 18:21-24) or the Lord himself (Deut 10:9, Ez 44:24). 

The biblical authors also describe Israel as the Lord’s inheritance (Ex 34:9, Deut 4:20, 9:26-29, 1 Kings 8:51-53). The land is the people’s inheritance from God and the people are the Lord’s inheritance. Thus, the language of inheritance most often correlates to God’s close covenant relationship with His people.

In a minority of cases, the authors expand the language of inheritance beyond God’s relationship with Israel. God also gives the other nations land as an inheritance (Deut 32:8). The nations, not just Israel, are the inheritance of the Lord’s anointed (Psalm 2:8). Finally, the nations, not just Israel, are the Lord’s inheritance (Psalm 82:8). These passages do not neutralize God’s special relationship with his people, or the people with their land, but show how God is the Lord over all the nations.

Lastly, we can discern a likely reference to a post-resurrection reward for Daniel in 12:13: “As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.” Daniel will rest (die). At the end of days (return of the Son of Man), he will rise (resurrection) to receive an “allotted inheritance.” The original readers still would have thought of inheritance in connection to physical land. I find it likely that the New Testament authors drew on this verse for their uses.

New Testament Uses

The New Testament authors also use the word inheritance to talk about physical land or other possessions passed on from one generation to another (Mt 21:38, Mk 12:7, Lk 12:13, Lk 20:14, Gal 4:30, Heb 12:6). In some cases, they use it to specifically refer to the Promised Land (Ac 7:5, 13:19, Gal 3:18, Heb 11:8).

New Testament authors also use inheritance to describe some future reward that God has prepared for his people. Matthew 25:34 is especially instructive: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.'” The inheritance, which is given at the coming of the Son of Man (note the Daniel reference) is “the kingdom prepared.” Hebrews 9:15 also makes note of a “promised eternal inheritance.” Peter says that God has “given us new birth… into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade” and “this inheritance is kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). This is a present/future reality that we are (re)born into, and yet must be kept waiting for us in heaven “until the coming of the salvation” (1 Peter 1:5). Paul encourages hard work knowing that we “will receive an inheritance” (Col 3:24) from God. 

New Testament authors also describe inheritance as something we share with the people of God. Paul tells the elders that God’s grace can “give [them] an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:34). Paul says in Ephesians that the “Holy Spirit … is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession” (Eph 1:14). In the OT God’s possession, his people, are also described as God’s inheritance. Later Paul prays that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people” (Eph 1:18). These speak both of the future hope of inheritance and the present reality of sharing it with God’s people. 

Two more verses are more ambiguous about when we will share in the inheritance. Paul says that “no immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” (Eph 5:5) Again, he says that God has qualified us to “share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:12). In both verses, entrance into/qualification for the kingdom could be seen as a present or future reality. The other thing these passages have in common is the “kingdom” language, which links it to Matthew 25:34. Many authors have shown that the kingdom of God is a present and a future reality. 

Inheritance in Ephesians 1:18

Why does Paul use the word “inheritance” here? 

For his Jewish readers, Paul’s use of the word “inheritance” would have reminded them of God’s promises to Israel. The prophets presented a message of hope, namely, that Israel would once again return to their land, their inheritance. That doesn’t mean that Paul imagined a reconstituted national Israel over against the Roman rulers. Instead, the inheritance is transformed into a future, no less physical reality, which all believers in Jesus would receive at the resurrection. Further, this inheritance is not just a spot of land on the earth, but the whole cosmos (Eph 1:8 in fulfillment of Psalm 2:8.) 

Paul’s Gentile readers, on the other hand, would have been reminded that they were now incorporated into the people of God (Eph 2:19). They are now part of God’s possession (his inheritance) through faith in Jesus and therefore have an equal share in the blessings. 

Is my view of inheritance as heaven correct? 

That depends on my conception of heaven. If it is the spiritual place my soul goes to when I die then I’m probably mistaken. If however, I mean the “new hearth” which God will create and which resurrected believers will eternally inhabit, the future kingdom of God, then I think I have in mind what Paul did. Our inheritance is primarily a future physical reality, a promise in which the people of God will share. 

Who Created Hell?

Introduction

In a previous blog series, I outlined four views of hell, but there’s a fifth (and what I believe to be a distinct) view that is currently quite popular, especially amongst those who want to retain a view of hell as a place of eternal torment but are uncomfortable with the idea of God actively punishing people for eternity. This view was first popularized, as far as I am aware, by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, but has gained renewed interest through Joshua Ryan Butler’s thought-provoking book The Skeletons in God’s Closet. Because of the influence of these two books I want to spend some time critically analyzing Butler’s claims. In this post, I will review arguments for and against his claim that “God is not the architect of hell, the creator of its soul-destroying power; we are” (24).

I. Butler’s Thesis

Joshua Ryan Butler seeks to exonerate God from the horrors of hell, firstly, by arguing that God is not responsible for hell in the first place, but that we are. Consider the following representative quotes:

  • “[Hell] is not part of God’s creation.” (10)
  • “Sin death and hell… are presented not as good things created by God, but rather invasive intruders into God’s good world.” (10)
  • “[The world] must be reconciled from the divisive and destructive powers that have caused the problem in the first place. It must be rescued from hell.” (14).
  • “God is not the one who unleashes hell’s destruction; we are.” (16)
  • “Hell is not a place God creates to torture people, but a power God excludes to protect the flourishing of the new creation.” (16-17)
  • “The power of hell has roots in you, and when God arrives to establish his kingdom, you are in danger of being cast outside the kingdom with it.” (21)
  • “We are the ones, not God, who unleash the destructive power of hell in the world.” (23)
  • “Fire is used as a metaphor in the biblical story for the damaging nature of our sin.” (23)
  • “God is not the architect of hell, the creator of its soul-destroying power; we are.” (24)
  • “We have brought the horror of hell to planet Earth.” (28)
  • “The fires in the Valley of Hinnom are lit by human hands.” (39). The Valley of Hinnom is the central image behind the Greek word Gehenna which is translated in the New Testament as hell.
  • “For Jesus to say the King is coming to kick sin out of Jerusalem and into the Valley of Hinnom, is to say in an important respect that the rebellion will be handed over to the destructive mess it has itself made.” (39)

II. In Support of Butler’s Thesis

How does Butler support this argument?

First, he observes that hell is nowhere to be found in the creation story. Whereas we tend to think of the biblical story in terms of my story about where I will go when I die – heaven or hell – the biblical story begins and ends not with heaven and hell, but with heaven and earth. God’s story is about reconciling heaven and earth from “destructive powers” which he identifies as sin, death, and hell. Hell fits into this story, then, not as a good aspect of God’s creation, but as an “anti-creation” power from which we must be reconciled. Like sin and death, hell has its origins not in God, but in human evil.

Second, Butler consistently refers to hell, not in terms of a place, but as a power. He draws on James 3:6 which states: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” As the tongue unleashes the power of hell in the world, so it is through human rebellion, that the wildfire of hell wreaks its destructive damage in the good world that God has made.

Third, Butler observes that the fires of the Valley of Hinnom were set ablaze by human hands. The word gehenna, which is translated in the New Testament as hell, comes from the Hebrew referring to the Valley of Hinnom. This valley was used by the ancient Israelites to commit idolatry and child sacrifice. In other words, the horrors of the Valley of Hinnom were made through human rebellion. The fires of the valley were lit by people, not God. Therefore, Jesus, by warning people that they are in danger of the fires of Gehenna, is warning them of self-destructive powers.

III. Critiques of Butler’s Thesis

Before explaining my primary critiques of Butler’s argument, I want to express some appreciation for it.

First, I agree with Butler that the Bible’s plotline is about the reconciliation of heaven and earth, not first about where we will go when we die. That’s an important question, but not the first one that the Bible seeks to answer.

Second, I appreciate how Butler lays out the self-destructive nature of human rebellion. I agree that, in some sense, we unleash “the power of hell” into our world in a way that harms ourselves and others.

Third, I appreciate that Butler points out the background of the word gehenna. Understanding this connection gives us a more faithful window into the nature of sin and judgment that fits within the broader storyline of the Bible, as opposed to images of hell that are conjured from pop culture.

That said, I have a few critiques of Butler’s thesis.

First, there are passages in the Bible that seem to contradict his argument that God did not create hell. For instance, in Matthew 25:41, the King says “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Who prepared the “eternal fire”? In the context of this passage hell is a place prepared for “punishment” (Mt 25:46). This place probably coincides with the “lake of fire” (Rev 20:10, 14-15) where the devil is thrown. I agree that we could say that hell was not part of God’s original good design and is, therefore, like death, an aberration in creation. However, the Bible seems to say that hell is a place that God created in response to human sin and rebellion.

What about the Valley of Hinnom? Butler is right to say that the valley was a place of human evil, but (and because of that human evil) it becomes a place of judgment. Those who experience judgment in that place experience more than their self-destructive power. Consider the logic of Jeremiah 19. God condemns Israel for what she did in the Valley of Hinnom (19:1-5) and then issues this verdict: “So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.” (19:6). It’s a Valley of Slaughter because of God’s active judgment: “I will make them fall by the sword” (14:8). “I will devastate this city” (19:8). “I will smash this nation and this city” (19:11). Gehenna is not just a symbol of self-destructive power, but of God’s active judgment against idolatry and injustice.

My second critique is that Butler over-emphasizes the “hell as power” imagery over and against the “hell as place” imagery and therefore misrepresents the nature of hell. For Butler, hell is a power that God contains in a place. In other words, we only understand it as a place (where evil is contained) once we have understood it as power (evil expressed). This fits Butler’s narrative, but not the way that the Bible describes hell. Hell (gehenna) is clearly described as a place in every instance that it is used, except in two ambiguous cases. The body can be thrown into hell (Matthew 5:29, 30, 18:9, Mark 9:43, 45, 47). Body and soul can be destroyed in hell (Matthew 10:28, Luke 12:5). The Pharisees are in danger of being condemned to hell (Matthew 23:33).

What about the other cases? As we noted above, James 3:6 says that the tongue is set on fire by hell. Matthew 23:15 says that the Pharisees make their converts into twice the children of hell as they are. In both instances, I would propose that hell is being used as a metaphorical stand-in for the spiritual powers of evil (see John 8:44), which makes sense since hell is the place prepared for the devil and his angels. Thus, the destructive powers of hell can indeed invade earth through human rebellion, but we only understand this power secondarily after first understanding it as a place.

My third critique is that by lumping together sin, death, and hell, he confuses the biblical distinctions between the three. As Butler builds his argument we’ll see that this lack of distinction is central. For Butler, hell is essentially sin extended on forever. Sin is the unbeliever’s choice of “freedom” over submission to God. God gives humans over to that freedom. The natural result of that choice is what the Bible calls hell. God need not be active in punishing the wicked. They lock themselves in hell, which is to say that they are locked into the pattern and consequences of their own sin.

This story exonerates God from what many see as the disproportionate punishment of God locking people in a place of eternal torments, but the question remains as to whether it fits the biblical text. I don’t think it does.

Often when Butler talks about the destructive power of hell, he is really talking about the destructive power of sin. While sin, death, and hell, can be understood as “powers,” at least metaphorically, lumping them together just adds confusion when we come to the topic of judgment. Sin is what unleashes destruction in God’s good world and sin is what God is in the business of defeating, through Jesus’s death and resurrection. Death enters the picture as the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). Death loses its power over those who are united to Jesus in his death and resurrection. Hell, by contrast, is described as a place of final judgment where God deals with the powers of sin and the devil once and for all. Hell is not just sin extended, but God’s active judgment against it.

IV. Butler’s thesis compared to other views

To conclude, I’d like to compare Butler’s view of hell to other views of hell: Traditionalism, Conditional Immortality, and Christian Universalism. Each of these views can be summed up through the metaphor of fire:

The traditionalist view of hell (eternal conscious torment, ECT) teaches that the fires of hell are an expression of God’s punitive justice that torment the wicked for eternity.

Conditional immortality (CI, annihilationism, terminal punishment) teaches that the fires of hell are an expression of God’s punitive justice that consumes the wicked so that they are destroyed. Immortality (eternal life) is conditional. It is only given to those who believe in Jesus (John 3:16).

Christian Universalism (Ultimate Reconciliation, UR) teaches that the fires of hell are an expression of God’s restorative justice to refine and purify the wicked so that they finally come to a place of repentance and faith and are therefore reconciled to God through Jesus.

In these three views, the fires of hell are an expression of God’s justice; to torment, consume, or refine. Butler’s view, while appearing in many ways like the traditional view, parts company from the other three by describing the fires of hell as an expression of self-destructive human sin. This isn’t an argument against Butler’s position exactly (my view of hell differs from the traditional view of hell) but it’s worth noting the differences so that we can clearly evaluate the nature of his position.

What do you think of Butler’s position? If you’ve read The Skeletons in God’s Closet, what were your takeaways?

Hell: A Tentative Conclusion

In the previous series, I surveyed four views on hell. In this post, I will share what I believe to be the “best fit” with the evidence at hand. 

I find the terminal punishment (conditionalist) perspective outlined by John Stackhouse to be the most coherent argument that fits best with the Scriptural evidence. Here’s why, after more than a decade of teaching eternal conscious torment, I changed my mind: 

First, conditionalism makes the most sense of how the Bible uses the words “death” and “destruction.” The paradigms set in the Old Testament (the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood), the imagery of the prophets and psalms (death and destruction), the warnings of Jesus (fear him who can destroy body and soul in hell), the teachings of Paul (the wages of sin is death), and the conclusion of Revelation (death is no more) fit together well under the conditionalist interpretation.

The traditional interpretation redefines “death” as “not dead, but being kept alive forever in torment” and “destruction” as “ruin” in a way that works against biblical imagery of fire that consumes what it burns. Prooftexts (see #3 below) understandably lead traditionalists to this conclusion, but I don’t think it naturally flows from the story the Bible tells or the bulk of the evidence.

Universalists present a hopeful story that they believe correlates to the metanarrative of Scripture, but this story forces them to “smooth over” too many texts which talk about the finality of the final judgment (whether eternal torment or annihilation). Furthermore, universalism requires post-mortem salvation, which has to arise out of pure conjecture. I want to believe in universalism, but I do not have the evidence to warrant that hope.

Second, conditionalism makes the most sense of God’s revealed justice. This view honors the punitive nature of God’s judgment (unlike many formulations of universalism). Hell is a punishment for those who reject God. And yet, hell is not arbitrary, but the natural result (death) for those who walk away from the Source of life. This view honors the principles of proportionate justice that God reveals in Scripture.

Augustine’s perspective (which Burk presents) that finite sin warrants eternal torment because it is against an infinite God is logical but isn’t taught in Scripture. At the end of the day, proponents of eternal torment infer it in order to make sense of the texts which they believe require them to accept that position.

To his credit, Parry’s presentation of the universalist position acknowledges that hell has a punitive component to it, but most universalists I have encountered emphasize restorative justice at the expense of punitive justice. I can’t reconcile such an image of God’s justice with the language of the Bible (especially Jesus’s language).

Third, conditionalists offer plausible interpretations for the texts which, at first glance, appear to point to eternal torment. For example, I invite you to read an article I wrote on conditional immortality in the book of Matthew. In it, I provide an annihilationist perspective on the parable of the sheep and the goats. I have more work to do on Revelation 14:9-11 and 20:10, but I have read conditionalist interpretations on both passages that honor the text and the Old Testament background.

Traditionalists rely heavily on these proof texts and use them to read their position back into texts which would otherwise promote conditionalism (see Burk on Isaiah 66:24). These texts also lead to philosophical conjectures regarding the proportionality of hell. Indeed, two specific texts kept me in the traditionalist camp for the past decade. Once the traditionalist interpretations of these texts were undermined through further study, the other pieces locked into place. I do not find universalist interpretations of these texts to be convincing at all.

Further Study

The points above are expanded in numerous resources, including Stackhouse’s chapter in the Four Views, the book Rethinking HellThe Fire that Consumes by pioneering conditionalist Edward Fudge, and, if you don’t want a book, the website Rethinking Hell, which has a comprehensive description of the perspective, and an extensive list of Scripture references.

As I indicated in the title of this post, it is a “tentative conclusion.” I am not dogmatic about my position. But, I have come to a settled conclusion that it fits the evidence well. I am fully aware that I am adopting a minority position (though no less than John Stott advocated for conditional immortality) which I do not take lightly. Still, I believe that this view is the one best supported by Scripture.

Hell and Purgatory

This post is part 4 of the series Four Views of Hell which summarizes the Counterpoints book of the same name. My goal is to faithfully represent each of the four views as described by their authors, keeping my view out as much as possible. In my previous post, I covered the Christian Universalism view.

Jerry Walls provided the chapter on purgatory. 

What is the purpose of purgatory? 

Purgatory has often been understood in its relationship to hell because the two often share images of suffering and punishment. But it might be better understood in its relationship to heaven, as a temporary stage “for those who die in a state of grace and will eventually make it into heaven” (146).

Purgatory is an attempt to answer the question “how is it that persons who died in a state of grace, but are less than fully perfect, are made fit for heaven” (146)? The question arises from passages like Rev. 21:27 which says that nothing unclean will enter heaven and Heb. 12:14 which describes holiness (for which we are to strive) that is required to see the Lord. 

Many Protestants might argue that such a purification happens the moment we die, but the doctrine of purgatory provides a fuller account.

Purgatory isn’t a place of probation that determines one’s final state. All who are in purgatory will eventually make it into heaven. 

It’s also not, at least in the traditional definition, a second chance for those who reject Christ in this life. That choice is final. 

Instead, it’s a place where those who have not been sanctified in this life, will have the grace to receive sanctification before entering heaven. In a death bed conversation, for instance, that conversion is accepted (the person is justified) but the process of sanctification still needs to happen, and will happen, in purgatory. 

Purgatory, by creating a third possibility between heaven and hell, 

purgatory expands the hope for the number of people who will be finally saved (more on this later).

Two Reasons for Purgatory: Satisfaction and Sanctification

Purgatory can be understood as accomplishing two goals (1) sanctification and/or (2) satisfaction. Sanctification refers to the process of being made holy by purifying (purging) the person of impurities. Satisfaction refers to undergoing punishments to satisfy the justice of God. Roman Catholics at the time of Luther and beyond focused on satisfaction.

Protestants reject purgatory because the satisfaction model, which plays an integral part in Roman Catholic theology, goes against Protestant teaching that Jesus has fully satisfied the justice of God through his death on the cross. However, it is possible to reject that satisfaction model and keep the sanctification model.

But is It in the Bible?

While not addressed directly by Scripture “the doctrine of purgatory can be rightly considered biblical in the broader sense that it is a natural implication of things that are clearly taught in Scripture” (152). Furthermore, some specific passages seem to suggest purgatory.

For instance, 1 Cor 3:11-15 describes the Day (of judgment) as a day when our works will be revealed for what they truly were. Some on that day will be saved but will suffer loss as those “escaping through the flames.” Through this process, they will be sanctified by the truth (John17:17). “Watching the fire burn would bring home the truth to us, and as we accepted and came to terms with it, our sanctification would go forward” (154). So, there is a process within the final judgment that involves coming to terms with the truth, which leads us to sanctification. 

Purgatory and the Process of Sanctification

C.S. Lewis observed that our problem is not just the guilt incurred from following our sinful habits and tendencies, but those habits and tendencies themselves. Therefore, salvation is not just about receiving forgiveness and being cleansed of guilt (justification). More than that, we need to be completely healed of our sinfulness to truly see God. Sanctification requires human cooperation, takes time, and involves suffering. 

Human Cooperation over Time

God has given humans the freedom to accept or reject him, to cooperate with his will, or to thwart it. Human freedom is so valuable to God because of the good things it makes possible (love, joy, etc.). “If God can give us the goods of love, goodness, and joy unilaterally at the moment of death without our free cooperation, it is hard to see why freedom is necessary in this life to achieve these goods, particularly given all the evil that results from the misuse of our freedom” (158).

The sanctification in this life, which springs from our free cooperation with God, takes time. It is the result of “innumerable choices.” If sanctification is a process that requires our free cooperation in this life, perhaps it will continue to be so after we die.

Suffering and Transformation

Is suffering essential to purgatory and, if so, does it imply an element of satisfaction, which Protestants reject? Pain is essential to the moral transformation required for us to enter heaven, but that pain isn’t for the purpose of punishment, but because it is the result of transformation. “[T]he pain is due essentially to the radical transformation we must undergo in order to become persons who could truly welcome a God of perfect holiness to take up residence in every part of our lives” (163). 

Like in the renovation of a house, where the contractors need to perform some demolition before they add on, so it is with our hearts. Walls of sin and selfishness need to be demolished – a painful process – before we attain the holiness required for heaven.  

“Our self-centered attitudes badly skew our perspective on reality and put us out of joint with it. Our disordered loves close our hearts to Love himself” (165). That “disjointedness” causes discomfort and, until we are transformed, it will continue to cause us pain. We will not be able to enjoy heaven until we are transformed, and that transformation involves a level of pain.

But isn’t this still salvation by works?

Our salvation, justification and sanctification, gifts of grace, and both are required to enter into heaven. “We should be under no illusion that our entrance into heaven is fully assured by justification or having the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. Sanctification is not an optional matter… [but] a necessary condition for all of us who want to experience joy in the presence of God” (166).

As noted above human cooperation is a necessary component of sanctification. However, that doesn’t mean that sanctification is any less a gift of God. “Sanctification is a gift for which God is ultimately responsible, but this does not preclude human cooperation” (166).

The plausibility of purgatory rests on a few questions. First, are we able to disentangle the satisfaction view of purgatory from the sanctification view? Second, how seriously do we take sanctification? Third, do we believe that sanctification requires human participation? Purgatory “will be a theologically viable option for Protestants to the degree that they have a holistic view of salvation by faith that emphasizes that sanctification is a work of grace just as much as justification is” (168).

Expanding purgatory hope even further?

Early in this essay, we said that purgatory was not a “second chance.” In its traditional sense, it is not. However, this view is worth questioning. “Why is repentance at the very last moment of death always accepted, but repentance a moment after death too late? Indeed, what is objectionable about the idea of a ‘second chance,’ especially since many people have countless chances in this life?” (170)

Perhaps the gap spoken of in Luke 16:26 is unbridgable only to the extent that the rich man refuses to repent. If so, even someone in hell could be forgiven and sanctified.

A view consistent with God’s character of love and justice is that God only damns to eternal hell those who have decisively chosen evil. But for such a choice to be a true choice God gives them “optimal grace,” which is “the measure of grace that is best suited to elicit a positive-free response to God” (171). Optimal grace will be different from person to person. Since it is unlikely that everyone receives optimal grace in this life, it is plausible that they might receive such grace in Purgatory, leading to post-mortem repentance.

Purgatory, then, makes sense of how we who are less than fully sanctified could enter into heaven in a way that honors human cooperation in sanctification. And, it’s worth asking whether this “expanded hope” could extend even to those in hell, providing them a path to repentance and salvation. 

Hell and Christian Universalism

This post is part 3 of the series Four Views of Hell which summarizes the Counterpoints book of the same name. My goal is to faithfully represent each of the four views as described by their authors, keeping my view out as much as possible. In my previous post, I covered the Terminal Punishment view.

Robin Parry provided the chapter which describes the perspective that all people will one day be reconciled to God. 

Introduction

Christian universalists do not teach that people can be saved apart from Christ, but that, in the end, all will be saved through him. “Christian universalism is the view that in the end, God will reconcile all people to himself through Christ” (101). Christian universalists believe in an eschatological punishment, “but ‘in the end’ there will be deliverance” (101).

Reading the Bible through the gospel story

Debates on hell “often get bogged down in proof texting” (102). All sides can point to proof texts which seem to prove their position. Traditionalists point to Matthew 25:45, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Revelation 14:11, and Revelation 20:1-15. Annihilationists point to Matthew 7:13, 10:28, John 3:16, Romans 6:23, and Hebrews 10:39. Universalists point to Romans 5:18, 11:32, 1 Corinthians 15:22, Philippians 2:11, and Colossians 1:30. Therefore, all sides must interpret some texts against their “obvious” meaning.

Instead of proof texting, we need to read the Bible in the context of its bigger picture. This “bigger picture” is the theological framework knowns as the “rule of faith.” The rule of faith is the “gospel narrative of the triune God manifest in Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and return” (103).

In the Context of Christ-Centered Biblical Narrative

Our exploration of the “gospel narrative” begins in Colossians 1:16-20. Here we see the creation-to-new-creation plot by which we can make sense of hell. The text says that “all things” were created through Christ and that God will reconcile the same all things through Christ. Non-universalists must interpret reconciliation in this passage in a way that is at odds with how Paul uses the word. “Being defeated and condemned is not being reconciled” (104).

Creation

God created all things. “[T]he doctrine of creation is not simply about origins… but about purpose and destiny” (105). We find humanity’s destiny and purpose in Christ. God made us to be conformed to the image of Jesus. Will God bring creation to its intended destiny?

Fall

All people sin. “Sin corrodes humanity at every level and makes it impossible for us to reach our destination” (105). We all deserve to be punished. We don’t deserve God’s grace. But, the questions remain: “Will God allow sin to thwart his purposes to beautify the cosmos?” and “Does Christ undo all the damage caused by sin, or does he only undo some of it?” (106)

Redemption

In the incarnation, Jesus came to represent all humans in his humanity. 

He died to atone for the sins of all people. 1 John 2:2 says that Christ is the atoning sacrifice for the whole world. 1 Cor. 5:14 says that Christ died for all. God wants all people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:3-6). Jesus suffered death to taste death for everyone (Heb. 2:9). We know that God wants to redeem all people. “Will God’s desired to save all people be satisfied or eternally frustrated?” (108)

Christian eschatology is rooted in the resurrection, the inauguration of new creation. Since Jesus represents all humanity, his resurrection, like his death, is effective for all humanity.

Already/not-yet of new creation

We live in the already/not-yet of new creation. Already, all people are justified through the death of Christ. “However, it is only as we respond in obedient trust to the gospel and are united to Christ by the Spirit that we participate subjectively in this justification” (109). Even here, our experience is partial. We still await the resurrection.

Current in-group/out-group designations are temporary. God can make those who are dead in their sin (the out-group) alive in Christ (the in-group). For instance, in Romans 9-11 Paul sees Israel as currently cut off from Messiah. Nevertheless, he looks forward to a time when “all Israel will be saved.” So, “Paul sees a current division between the in-group and the out-group within Israel itself, but it’s a division that will be overcome in the new age” (110).

The church functions as a “prophetic foretaste” and “an anticipation of the grander fulfillment” (111) when all people from all nations will come together in Christ.

Consummation

In this story, universal salvation, as we see in places like Ephesians 1:9-10 (“to bring to unity all things in heaven and on earth under Christ”) seems like a fitting end. Any non-universalist ending is a “tragic partial failure for God” (112).

Hell: “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here”?

Divine judgment serves various ends in the Bible, including retribution. But retributive justice isn’t the whole story. “Biblical justice is about putting wrong things right” (113) and retribution cannot, by itself, undo harms. Punishment can also be used as a deterrent, warning, or correction (restorative justice). These different goals aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. God can judgment both because punishment is deserved and to bring ultimate restoration.

This is consistent with the normative pattern we find in the way God relates to his people, the pattern of judgment followed by restoration. The book of Jeremiah is an example. “This pattern – judgment and salvation, exile and restoration, death and resurrection – is God’s way with Israel” (114).

Does this only apply to Israel? No. We also see cases where the prophets apply this to the nations, including Elam (Jeremiah 49:37, 39), Sodom (Ezekiel 16:53), and Egypt (Isaiah 19:22).

The pattern of punishment/restoration can be applied to final judgment so that hell is “more than retributive; that it is also restorative” (115). This view fits within the broader story of Scripture and aligns with God’s goodness, love, and justice. 

Can One Come to Christ After Death

This version of Christian universalism only works if some can be saved after they have died. The possibility is “highly consistent with the doctrine of divine holy love and the doctrine of God’s eschatological victory over sin” (117).

But, does the Bible teach a view of hell that necessarily excludes post-mortem salvation and universalism?

Mark 9:42-50

First, we observe that this text draws its background imagery from Jeremiah (Gehenna/hell equals the Valley of Ben Hinnom, known as a place of idolatry) and Isaiah (the worm that does not die comes from Isaiah 66:24). We should let Jeremiah and Isaiah set the backdrop instead of going to Jewish texts that occur after the destruction of Jesus which describe Gehenna as a place of everlasting punishment. 

Second, “that the fire will not be quenched and the worms will not die need not mean no more than that the dire and the worms will be unceasingly and unstoppably active until they have finished their work” (119). 

Third, the phrase “everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49) is suggestive of purification consistent with the universalist view that could occur in the fires of Gehenna.

Matthew 25:31-46

The word here translated as “eternal” (aionios) refers to the “age to come.” So, eternal punishment is “punishment belonging to the age to come” and eternal life is “life belonging to the age to come.” We aren’t told how long that age will last, but we are given a hint in Jude 7 where Sodom and Gomorrah suffer “eternal (aionios) life.” In that case, the fire lasted for a single day. By contrast, we know that “eternal life” lasts forever, not based on this passage, but because it is grounded in participation in Jesus’s incorruptible resurrected life.

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10

The phrase “eternal destruction” can be rendered as “ruin/punishment belonging to the age to come.” As in Matthew 25:31-46, we need not assume that this punishment will last forever.

Revelation 14:9-11 and 20:10-15

We must consider these texts within their literary context. In both cases, the judgment texts are followed by universalist post-scripts. Revelation 14:9-11 is followed by Revelation 15:3-4 which states that “all nations will come and worship before you.” “The nations” in Revelation are always depicted as the bad guys who are the objects of God’s judgment, but who here come and worship before the throne. 

Likewise, Revelation 20:10-15 is followed by 21:24-45. Of the New Jerusalem, it states: “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.” Like the nations, the “kings of the earth” are Christ’s enemies defeated in the last battle. Yet here, they are entering the New Jerusalem. These passages suggest post-damnation salvation.

Conclusion

In the end, God will accomplish his purposes. He will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). Christian universalists argue that final destruction or eternal torment of the damned cannot constitute such a victory, but only in the final reconciliation of all of creation.

Hell as Terminal Punishment

This post is part 2 of the series Four Views of Hell which summarizes the Counterpoints book of the same name. My goal is to faithfully represent each of the four views as described by their authors, keeping my view out as much as possible. In my previous post, I covered the Eternal Conscious Torment view.

John G. Stackhouse Jr. provided the chapter in defense of the view of hell as a place of terminal punishment.

What does Terminal Punishment Teach? 

Terminal punishment – also referred to as annihilationism or conditional immortality – is an “understanding of hell as a place of limited punishment: ‘punishment’ because sins can be atoned for only by commensurate suffering and death, and ‘limited’ because the sins of any one human being, and the collective sins of all of unredeemed humanity, can and will be eventually atoned for and thus will be eliminated some time in the future” (66). Because they have deliberately rejected God, the source of life and goodness, they vanish from existence once their debt has been paid.

What is Hell?

The Bible describes hell as a destination, as fire, and as a dump.

Destination: Hell is not a destination arbitrarily assigned to the wicked, but the inevitable outcome of rejecting God. It is “simply the natural result of a moral agent choosing to separate from God” (63) and choosing a way that eventually leads to destruction.

Fire: Fire plays two roles in the Bible, both related to purification. It can either test and purify a thing by destroying anything in it that lacks value, as in dross removed from precious metal. Or, it can purify the situation of the thing, if it has no lasting value, as in the destruction of chaff, weeds, or trees that fail to produce good fruit. “Hell as fire points to God’s fixed determination to judge all things, to make plain their true character, and to purge God’s cosmos of all that is not completely good” (64).

Dump: The New Testament word for hell is Gehenna which denotes a valley outside of Jerusalem with a terrible past. While scholars recognize that during Jesus’s time it was probably not a literal dump, the generic description still fits: “hell is the place to which evil is removed and in which it is destroyed” (63). This view of hell highlights God’s commitment “to remove evil once and for all from his good creation” (64).

Working through the Text

Stackhouse uses the bulk of his chapter to work through Scripture, addressing many of the same texts that Burk highlighted in his chapter on eternal conscious torment. In doing so, he endeavors to show that terminal punishment “is the view of hell most fully warranted by Scripture” (62).

Eternal actions or eternal results?

While the Bible links the language of hell with the word “eternal” (Greek: aionion), we must ask what the word means in this context. Drawing on the Old Testament, Stackhouse shows that “eternal” (Hebrew: olam) can, but does not always, mean “having continual existence.” He points, for instance, to the rites and rituals performed by the priests in the temple. These are “lasting” (olam) ordinances that have been made obsolete in Christ.

Turning to the New Testament, Stackhouse shows that “eternal” does not always mean “existing forever.” “The crucial distinction here is between, on the one hand, an event or an action that occurs for only a segment of time, and on the other, the result of that event or action that is indeed ‘without end.’ Thus the event or action itself can properly be called ‘eternal’ because of its everlasting implication” (67).

Consider, for instance, Hebrews 6:1-2 which talks about “eternal judgment.” It is not as though “God could never descend from the heavenly bench” (68) and must always remain there giving his verdict. Instead, most Christians believe in a Final Judgment that takes a limited amount of time, but that has an everlasting consequence. Perhaps even more clear is Hebrews 9:11-12 which speaks of “eternal redemption.” Again, God does not go on redeeming forever. He performs a single act of redemption (“once for all” in Hebrews 10:1-14) that has an eternal result. The same logic applies to “eternal destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 and “eternal sin” in Mark 3:28-29.

This line of reasoning – that the eternality of an action can refer to the result of that action – also explains Matthew 25:46 which contrasts “eternal life” with “eternal destruction.” Here “eternal punishment” “can easily be seen… to be suffering and death that has… eternal implication without eternal conscious experience” (78).

What is the meaning of destruction and death? 

Stackhouse next turns to the meanings of “death” and “destroy” in the Bible: “the Bible is replete with passages – literally dozens and dozens – that speak of the destiny of the lost as termination, end, disappearance, eradication, annihilation, and extinction” (69). Even when the word could be translated as “ruin,” it still carries the idea of destruction. In the case of the ruined wineskins (Matthew 9:17), the wineskins do not wick out of existence, but their essence has been destroyed.

This is how the Bible consistently portrays the end of the wicked. To offer a few examples: Psalm 37:9 and 22 say the evil will be destroyed. Obadiah 16 says that they will “be as if they had never been.” Jesus says that trees that bear bad fruit (false prophets) will be thrown into the fire (Matthew 7:19), a fate parallel to those who go through the wide gate that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13).

Sodom and Gomorrah set the paradigm for final judgment. These cities are completely and literally destroyed. Peter draws on this story to describe the end of the wicked: “if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6). Other New Testament texts draw their meaning from Old Testament imagery, such as the unquenchable fire, the undying worm, and the smoke that ascends forever. These draw on Old Testament images of literal death and destruction. These images help explain apocalyptic passages like Revelation 14:10-11. This passage borrows imagery from Isaiah 34:8-11 which describes the smoke arising forever following God’s judgment on Edom, a judgment with eternal results but that did not go on forever.

We “must be careful not to interpret phrases that sound plainly like termination (passages that speak of ‘destruction’ and ‘death’) to somehow mean not destroyed and not dead, but instead ‘kept painfully alive forever'” (75). Some may argue that only our bodies are destroyed but our souls, being immortal, go on existing forever. But the Bible does not teach that our souls are intrinsically immortal. This property only applies to God (1 Tim 1:17). “Eternal life is a gift of God’s to believers (John 3:16, 1 Cor. 15:50-54). Our ancestors were kept from eating the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22-23), and we Christians look forward to the eternal city lined with abundant trees of life (Rev. 22:2)” (76). 

The case for finite suffering for sins

Suffering and death are required to atone for sins. Stated another way, death is the just reward for rebellion against God. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). “The logic of justice is basic and inescapable: Someone has to pay, and pay fully, the debt – or fill the hole, or clean the dirt, or fix the break. Atonement is required to make straight the crooked and to level the uneven” (77). Either Jesus pays the debt for us through His death, or we pay through our death.

Since our sins are finite, our debt must also be finite, and therefore our suffering will be finite. Furthermore, if the debts must go on being paid forever, as in the traditional view, then in the end things remain broken and unresolved. “God’s cosmos cannot remain entirely and forever good if remnants of Satan or Death or wicked humans persist” (78).

Traditionalists will argue that since we sin against a God of infinite value, we must pay an infinite debt and suffer an infinite amount of time. But this can only be drawn out through analogy as a creative construct, not taught directly in Scripture. One could easily argue the other point, “that finite creatures can wreak only a finite amount of damage in and on the universe, and so a finite amount of suffering must suffice to atone for it” (79) which corresponds to God’s prior revelation of proportionate justice. Furthermore, Scripture specifically tells us that “the wages of sin is death” and “death means, if nothing else, termination. The one thing death does not mean is ‘not dying'” (79).

Conclusion: Hell and the Goodness of God

God’s goodness consists of two poles that must be held together. On one side we see his holiness and on the other his benevolence. His holiness is “his relentless action to make everything right” (61). His benevolence speaks of his kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice.

Terminal punishment takes both his holiness and his benevolence seriously. It frames hell in the biblical language of just punishment for the unrepentant sinner. But, it “exonerates our good God from the appalling image of a perpetual tormenter” (81). Contra Burk, “There is no joy here in the suffering of the wicked, but only sad justice” (81).

Hell as Eternal Conscious Torment

This post is part 1 of the series Four Views of Hell that summarizes the Counterpoints book of the same name. My goal is to faithfully represent each of the four views as described by their authors, keeping my view out as much as possible.

Denny Burk provided the chapter in defense of the traditional view that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment.

The Argument for Eternal Conscious Torment

Many people find the traditional view of hell objectionable. John Stott summarizes a common position when he says, “I find the concept of [of eternal conscious torment] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.” Stott is not an outlier. How should we reconcile eternal conscious torment with a just God? 

Philosophical defense

On the one hand, regardless of this difficulty, Scripture demands that Christians accept the traditional view of hell. However, we can and should find a solution to this apparent difficulty. After all, our conception of hell says a lot about our idea of God, and the traditional view of hell provides us with the highest view of God.

Imagine that you see a stranger pulling the legs off of a grasshopper. You will be disturbed but would not likely intervene. Now imagine that he is pulling the legs off a puppy. Now you will be appalled and might step in and get the authorities involved. Finally, imagine that he is about to rip a baby apart. Now you will act immediately, risking your skin to save the baby. In every case, the sin is the same – ripping the legs off a living being – but the object of that sin (grasshopper, puppy, baby) changes the appropriate response.

If we imagine that God is like a grasshopper then we will think God is overreacting to our sin. But, if we recognize that God is infinitely more valuable than even that precious baby, we begin to see the logic of hell as eternal conscious torment. “The seriousness of the sin – and thus the punishment due to sin – is not measured merely by the sin itself but by the value and the worth of the one sinned against” (19).

Since God is of infinite value, God can be just by demanding a punishment of infinite duration.

We can see, then, that “our emotional reflex against the traditional doctrine of hell reveals what we really believe about God” (20). We find the traditional view unjust because we have too light a view of sin, which reveals too low a view of God. If we had a proper view of God, we would rejoice in hell as a tool to give God the glory he deserves: “This view of God’s judgment is not a cause for embarrassment for Christians, but will ultimately be a source of joy and praise for the saints as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God (Rev. 18:20, 19:3)” (20). 

Scriptural defense

As stated before, Scripture demands the traditional view of hell. This view is expounded in ten foundational texts that deal specifically with hell: Isaiah 66:22-24, Daniel 12:2-3, Matthew 18:6-9, 25:31-46, Mark 9:42-48, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, June 7, 13, Revelation 14:9-11, 20:10-14-15. Each of these texts shows how Scripture defines hell with the following characteristics: (1) final separation, (2) unending experience, (3) just retribution.

Final separation

Final separation occurs at the last judgment and consists in the irrevocable separation of the wicked from the righteous and from the presence of God’s mercy” (21). That this separation is irrevocable rules out the possibility of post-judgment redemption of the damned. Note the two-fold separation. First, God separates the righteous from the wicked. Then, the wicked are separated from God’s mercy.

The separation of the righteous from the wicked can be found in Isaiah 66:22-24 where the righteous enjoy the new heaven and the new earth while the wicked are portrayed as “dead bodies” being continually eaten away by undying worms and unquenchable fire. It can also be seen in Daniel 12:2-3 where the dead are raised to either eternal life or eternal contempt. Or, it can be seen in Matthew 25:46 where the righteous go to eternal life and the wicked to eternal punishment.

The separation of the wicked from God’s mercy also appears in the ten passages listed above. In Matthew 25:41 the Son of Man says “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Paul says the wicked “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” They are not only shut out in a generic sense but specifically from the “glory of his might.” They are shut out of the mercy of his resurrection power. 

This separation is irrevocable, a point made clear by the language of these texts which describe the punishment as eternal. Hell is an “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), and an “eternal destruction” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The wicked “suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7). They will be thrown into hell “where the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43). 

Unending experience

Unending experience indicates that the punishment of hell will be consciously experienced forever and will not abate with annihilation or eventual salvation of the damned” (21).

The damned will receive bodies at the resurrection (Daniel 12:2-3) that are fitted for hell, just as the righteous receive bodies that are fitted for eternal life. We can infer this from passages such as Isaiah 66:24 where the corpses are eaten by worms that don’t die and by a fire that does not go out. “Under normal circumstances, fire and worm would consume a corpse until there was nothing left… this scene seems to assume that God’s enemies have been given a body fit for unending punishment” (23).

Other passages speak more directly to the idea that hell is consciously experienced forever. When the Son of Man separates the righteous from the wicked, the righteous go to eternal life while the wicked go to eternal punishment. The parallelism here suggests that if the state of the righteous is of eternal consciousness, so must be the state of the wicked. John says in Revelation 14:9-11 says that those who receive the mark of the beast will be “tormented,” that “the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever,” and that “there will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast.”

The word “destruction” in 1 Thessalonians 1:9 presents a challenge since “eternal destruction” seems to indicate annihilation but the Greek word for destruction here doesn’t mean “cease to exist” but has the sense of “ruin or loss.” The wicked, therefore, experience eternal ruin, apart from the presence of God.

Just retribution

Just retribution indicates that the terrors of the damned are a recompense for evil, not a means of redemption or renewal. It is a punitive judgment intended to magnify the justice of God” (21). This perspective precludes the hope that the fires of hell will purify the wicked. It also precludes more recent conceptions of hell (not covered in this book) which view it primarily as a way that God ultimately “gives people what they want.”

As has already been noted, hell is described as “‘eternal punishment” against the wicked in Matthew 25:46. In Mark 9:45 and 47, the wicked are “thrown into hell” as punishment for causing a little one to stumble. In 1 Thessalonians 1:8-9, Paul says that God will “punish those who do not know God or obey the gospel of Jesus our Lord” and that they will be “punished with everlasting destruction.” Jude 7 compares the final judgment of the wicked with the punitive destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. That punishment serves as an example “of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. Revelation 14:10 says that those who are tormented eternally “will drink the wine of God’s fury.”

Conclusion

The doctrine of hell should teach us whom we should properly fear: “God is not only the treasure of heaven. He is the terror of hell. What makes hell terrifying is not just the presence of the devil but the presence of God’s wrath and indignation forever” (42). But the terror of hell does not just give us a proper sense of fear, but should also cause us to glorify God for His mercy and justice. In the end, “God is glorified in both mercy and justice, and the existence of hell serves to demonstrate eternally the glory of God’s justice and judgment on sin” (42).

Michael Emerson, Thaddeus Williams, and Racial Disparities

Exploring the Cause(s) of racial disparities

I love it when my books start having a conversation with each other. Both Divided by Faith and Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth ask the question: Why do we see so much racial inequality in America? Or, rather, how do we go about answering this question? Emerson (Divided by Faith) and Williams (Confronting Injustice) come at the questions with different goals and perspectives. The way they answer these questions — and the way those answers bounce off one another — have a lot to teach us about the need for having multiple mental categories by which to view complex problems, and the danger of having only a single category. 

Review of Divided by Faith

You may want to review two key ideas from Divided by Faith: The “racialized society“, and the “religio-cultural toolset.” The racialized society is “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.” The racialized society describes the problem of race in America. Despite success in abolishing slavery and ending Jim Crow segregation Americans are still profoundly divided by race and that division leads to unequal outcomes. 

Christians, like others, see the racial division and inequality and attempt, using resources at hand, to solve the problem. Those “resources at hand” are what Emerson calls a “religio-cultural toolset,” or the way our religious and cultural categories help us interpret the world. Emerson argues that the evangelical toolset is comprised of three fundamental beliefs. 

First, we are fundamentally responsible for our own actions. We are accountable before God for our individual sins (individualism). Second, that sin works itself out in our relationships and leads to division and animosity (relationalism). Third, structural attempts to solve society’s problems are misplaced and should not be trusted because they ignore the root of the problem (antistructuralism). 

This toolset helps evangelicals see racism in terms of bigotry and individual acts of discrimination but prevents them from seeing broader structures or systems (in the justice system, education, housing, policing, etc.) which might account for inequality based on race.

Evangelicals try to solve for X in the equation:

Equally Created + Equal Opportunity + X = Unequal Outcome

Since structures are excluded from possible answers to X then evangelicals default to answers that go back to individualism (life choices, possibly arising from culture) and relationalism (isolated instances of discrimination or family breakdown). Emerson believes that a limited religio-cultural toolset prevents evangelicals from providing meaningful solutions to the division and inequality found in our racialized society

Social Justice A and Social Justice B

Now let’s turn to Thaddeus Williams in his new and well-praised book Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth. In it, Williams distinguishes between “social justice A” and “social justice B” (both stand in contrast to a lack of concern with social justice.) Williams holds in tension the two ideas present in his title. He wants to confront injustice (racism, bigotry, oppression, systemic evil) while holding firmly to the truth. His emphasis is on this latter part and, in doing so, he spends much of his time critiquing social justice B. 

Both the A model and the B model of social justice care about justice and use a similar vocabulary. Distinguishing between A and B is what the book is about, so I won’t do a full delineation here. Instead, I’m going to focus on just one chapter to show how the two differ in trying to answer the same question presented by Emerson in Divided by Faith. Why do we see racial inequality? 

Unequal Outcomes and Systemic Injustice

Williams begins his chapter “The Disparity Question” by pointing out that Social Justice A and B have different definitions of systemic injustice. According to theory A “systemic injustice is any system that either requires or encourages those within the system to break the moral laws God revealed for his creatures’ flourishing.” Biblical examples include laws established by Darius and Pharoah and the Imperial Cult in the New Testament. While I think this definition is too narrow[1] it offers a good starting point and highlights the contrast with theory B. 

Social Justice B offers a different picture. Williams: “From a Social Justice B perspective, the way you spot systemic injustice is by looking for unequal outcomes. An unequal outcome becomes damning evidence that sexism, racism, or some other evil ‘ism’ is at the foundation of the system.” In other words, unequal outcomes are sufficient and definitive evidence to show that a system or institution is systemically unjust.

Why, then, do we see inequality? Williams quotes Ibram X. Kendi, an exemplar of Social Justice B in answering: “racial disparities must be the result of racial discrimination.” And again, “When I see racial disparities, I see racism.”[2] According to Social Justice B, inequality comes from discrimination which is baked into the system.

To illustrate how this plays out, let’s consider the New Jersey Turnpike where “black drivers received nearly twice as many speeding tickets as white drivers.” According to theory B, this disparity proves racial discrimination in policing. However, when a follow-up study was performed, a different story came to light. The study found that “in the southern segment of the turnpike, where the speed limit is 65 m.p.h., 2.7 percent of black drivers were speeders, compared with 1.4 percent of white drivers. Among drivers going faster than 90 m.p.h., the disparity was even greater.” In other words, black drivers were twice as likely to be speeding. But the story doesn’t stop there: “Demographic research has shown that the black population is younger than the white population, and younger drivers are more likely to speed.” In other words, the disparity, in this case, doesn’t appear to arise either from racial profiling, or from race, but from age.

Williams does not deny the existence of racial profiling or real discrimination (“Sinful discrimination indeed causes real disparities”) but says that we are too hasty to say that all disparities come from discrimination or systemic injustice. There may be other culprits.

It might be better, in my opinion, to view the presence of racial inequalities as an invitation to explore the ways either structures or discrimination or the effects of history, might contribute to those outcomes.  

 The Magic Wand of Equality

Williams invites us to perform a thought experiment. Imagine a world with zero discrimination. In that world, someone has a magic wand that he can wave to also eliminate all inequality. Everyone wakes up with one million dollars. It would not be long before unequal outcomes crept back in. Why? Different people make different choices with what to do with their money. Some would splurge and some would invest. Using this thought experiment Williams seeks to show that, while personal choice is not the only factor in different outcomes, it is a factor that is often ignored by those in the Social Justice B camp.[3][4]

Williams draws out two main concerns for the Social Justice B narrative that unequal outcomes must be the result of systemic discrimination. First, he argues, taking discrimination as a one-size-fits-all explanation is too simplistic. Such a simplistic explanation will cause us to see discrimination where it doesn’t exist and may prevent us from clearly identifying the real injustices around us. 

Second, if we fail to distinguish between inequalities that come from discrimination and those that arise out of personal choice, then we risk repeating failures of modern history. The magic wand of equality takes the form of oppressive government intervention which subverts the role of personal decision making. If personal choices lead to different outcomes and “different outcomes are a priori evidence of injustice, then freedom itself is unjust.” 

Sociologist George Yancey shares this concern in his critique of Kendi’s How to Fight Racism points out that “since Kendi argues that any differences between racial groups are due to racism, then to have the wrong idea about, say capitalism, is to not fully allow the mandates of antiracism if capitalism can be shown to contribute to differences between racial groups.” To be antiracist, we must also be anticapitalist. Since capitalism leads to different outcomes, supporters of capitalism are racist. 

Again, Williams doesn’t say that personal choice is all that matters, nor does he say that some cases of inequality can’t rightly be blamed on systemic injustice and discrimination. Instead, he’s concerned that if we believe it’s the only possible reason, then we will be blind to real injustice and offer dangerous “solutions” in the form of oppressive government intervention in the name of fighting injustice. 

The Danger of being Jobs Friends

I agree with much of Williams’ arguments in this chapter, but I have a few critiques. First, he tends to downplay the role of past discrimination as it concerns unequal outcomes. Let’s say that past systemic injustice led to unequal outcomes among people of different racial groups (as it most certainly did) and that while the current system is, at least on paper, totally free, it leads to the perpetuation of that inequality (up for debate)[5]. Such a system may not be unjust by Williams’ definition (it doesn’t require or encourage anyone to break God’s law) but it perpetuates the result of the past discrimination, one that was based on race. By what lens should a Christian view this moral dilemma? Williams does not explore that question.

My second concern does not go to Williams’ argument, but to the way aspects of his logic play out in real-world minds. If Emerson is right about the limited cultural toolset and the general difficulty evangelicals have in seeing structural issues or solutions, then an overemphasis on choice could lead to the following wrong conclusions: Poor outcomes come from poor choices. African Americans have worse outcomes. Therefore, African Americans make poor choices. Therefore (and this would never be stated out loud) there must be something inherently wrong within African Americans that leads to poor choices and poor outcomes. I’m not saying this last step necessarily follows from the premises, or is logical, but the step isn’t hard for many to take. It doesn’t take too long to get from “it’s all about personal choice” to real instances of feelings of supremacy and attitudes of bigotry. 

We might call this the problem of being Job’s friends. When Job suffered disaster after disaster his friends had only one lens by which to interpret these events. Job must have sinned. He must deserve what he had coming to him. They could not see any other explanation and that earned them God’s rebuke. 

The Danger of Having a Single Lens

Emerson and Williams have different concerns, but both point to the real dangers of viewing the world through a single lens. Emerson argues that white evangelicals fail to see real structural issues that contribute to a racialized society because of an overly individualistic religio-cultural toolset. Williams argues that Social Justice B advocates fail to recognize the complexity of inequality because they see discrimination as the only cause. Both failures of vision lead to either ineffective or dangerous solutions.

Complex problems require us to view the world through a multitude of perspectives. Inequality is a complex problem and we’re not well served by looking for single answers (personal choice, discrimination, historical impact). Neither extremes offer meaningful solutions because they fail to recognize the complex world in which we live.[6][7]

Both also, I believe, miss out on the nature and consequences of the gospel. Social Justice B, in transferring all guilt to the (other) tribe or the system, can fail to recognize the truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” By contrast, an overly individualistic reading of the gospel leads us to miss out on the calling to seek justice in the broader society. It could fail to recognize that God is not only concerned about saving souls but redeeming the entire cosmos. 

Footnotes:

[1] I believe Williams’s definition of systemic injustice is too narrow because he focuses only on whether or not it actively encourages someone to break God’s law. I think a system could be unjust by establishing a system wherein one group is discriminated against through the morally neutral behaviors of the people in the society. Consider drug sentencing laws. The war on drugs set up sentencing guidelines that were far harsher for drugs common in African American communities than those in White communities which led to racial disparities within the criminal justice system. In such a system, it’s hard to see how a judge or a prosecutor would be actively disobeying God (at least in any obvious way) by following the guidelines imposed by the law. Yet, one could argue that the sentencing disparities, and their impact, led to injustice against African Americans. 

[2] Either Williams or Kendi or both seem to be missing a categorical distinction between discrimination and structural injustice. Per Emerson’s categories, discrimination falls under the category of “relationalism.” That is, discrimination is performed by one individual against another. In structured/systemic injustice, injustice can be maintained without active discrimination (see footnote 1). I’m guessing that Kendi believes that the systems are discriminatory, or as I saw later, that discrimination is baked into the system. In that case, then, it might be helpful to distinguish between the two types of discrimination at play: relational and structural. 

[3] Not only is the idea that personal choices affect outcomes intuitive it is also biblical. Williams cites several Proverbs to make his point.

[4] Williams’ “magic equality wand,” thought experiment show distinctions between individuals, but the question in this chapter is over racial disparities in groups. 

Consider this Twitter exchange: 

4/21/21 Anthony B. Bradley (@drantbradley) “White racism is not the cause of *everything* that’s wrong in poor black communities across America. Progressives ignore this fact, infantilize blackness, & won’t invite moral responsibility and conservatives know this but tend to weaponize it for their own self-righteousness.” 

4/22/21 Bradley Mason (@AlsoACarpenter) “But this confuses the issue. Everyone knows that bad behavior causes problems in EVERY community. The question that White Supremacy is brought in to help answer is, why is the DISPARITY between racial communities? Conservatives want to point to individual behaviors, but that doesn’t explain inter-group outcome disparity, only individual outcome disparity. Liberals at least recognize that individual and systemic racism is the broad explanation for vast society-wide racial disparity.”

Mason Bradly makes a good point and, to my knowledge, Anthony Bradley did not respond. However, what if there are personal behaviors that are more or less common in one group than another? (Williams earlier cites the Success Sequence). Could that be weighed as a possible explanation for disparities between groups? 

[5] This sentence represents a hypothetical not a statement of my personal belief. On the one hand, there’s strong historical evidence that greater freedom leads to greater equality. The most equal societies tend to be those with democratic systems. However, it is not hard to imagine how a capitalist society, given the existence of historical injustice, would perpetuate certain forms of inequality, especially without safeguards. Those groups with capital (power) could secure the best schools, places to live, and wealth-building institutions while those without such power would be shut out. A person with more power would have more choice and could use that choice to increase the wealth gap. If power is already distributed based on race then racial inequality could be perpetuated through the free and moral choices of the individual actors. Social Justice B solutions to this dilemma, however, seem dangerous to me (see Williams and Yancey) but it’s worth noting the existence of such a dilemma.

[6] Walter Wink’s quote (from a completely different context) also fits well here: “It is a virtue to disbelieve in something that does not exist. But it is dangerous and arrogant to disbelieve in something simply because it exists outside our current, limited categories.”

[7] This narrative-first thinking is perfectly illustrated by the left and right’s responses to the Derek Chauvin conviction and the tragic death of Ma’Khia Bryant as David French demonstrates in this piece.

Are Christians inherently conspiracy theory-minded?

In July of 2020, a church in my area opened its service with a video associated with QAnon. That video, which I watched along with the sermon, contained an amalgamation of conspiracy theories around the coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, and mail-in-voting. He followed his video with a political rant, with some Scripture sprinkled in.  

The spread of conspiracy theories, particularly around the election, race, and the coronavirus, among Christians online and within churches has caused me and others to ask some soul-searching questions. I will explore three in this post:  

First, are Christians inherently conspiracy theorists? Second, are Christians prone to conspiracy thinking? Third, what tools do Christians have to combat false conspiracy theories? 

Are Christians inherently conspiracy theorists?

I’ve struggled with exactly how to set the parameters to this question. How does it differ from my section question – are Christians prone to conspiracy thinking? What I’m trying to get at here is whether there is something inherent within Christianity that makes followers of Jesus conspiratorial. In my second question, I will focus specifically on our cultural moment.

Why would Christians be inherently conspiracy-minded? The argument goes as follows: Christians believe in God, miracles, and the unseen world. That is, they believe things without evidence. Conspiracy theories thrive with a lack of evidence, just thin threads weaved together into a compelling story that brings meaning to people’s lives. Therefore, Christians (and other religious adherents) must be inherently conspiracy-minded.

I have two responses to this argument. First, the Christian faith is not a “blind leap into the dark.” God does not ask people to follow him without evidence. That evidence includes philosophical arguments, historical arguments (evidence for the historical resurrection), evidence for the reliability of the bible, evidence from church history, the nature of the created world, and personal experience. Different people find different arguments persuasive, but there’s no doubt reason plays a role in Christian belief. 

Second, the argument relies on a bad (or insufficient) definition of a conspiracy theory. It assumes that a conspiracy theory is simply a story that is hard to believe. While that may be a part of a conspiracy theory, there’s more to the story. For this post, I will borrow Anna Merlan’s: “a belief that a small group of people are working in secret against the common good, to create harm, to effect some negative change in society, to seize power for themselves, or to hide some deadly or consequential secret” (Republic of Lies, 14).

While one can find examples of “small groups of people working against the common good” (Pharoah killing the Hebrew babies, officials conspiring against Daniel, Haman’s conspiracy against the Jews in Esther) these stories are not central to the theology of the Bible. Instead, they illustrate how to be faithful in the face of hostility.  

In that light then, I don’t see anything within the Christian faith that makes Christians inherently conspiracy theorists. That conclusion appears to match the empirical data surrounding conspiracy theories, which vary widely in content and span cultural, political, and religious boundaries. I was surprised while reading Merlan by the broad range of American conspiracies and how many of them were shared by people of different faith.

Are Christians prone to believe conspiracy theories?

I can think of several reasons why Christians might nevertheless be vulnerable to conspiracy theories. The reasons are cultural, theological, and hermeneutical (our approach to reading Scripture). 

First, let’s consider the cultural reasons. Merlan (quoted above) points out that conspiracy theories thrive in communities that feel disenfranchised or marginalized. They grow in communities that do not trust primary sources of knowledge or expertise. They spread most during periods of social upheaval. All of those describe well the state of the conservative Christian community right now. 

While it’s a stretch to say that conservative Christians are marginalized in America, they are steadily losing cultural power – and that at an accelerated pace. Christians feel pushed out of and vilified by pop culture, academia, and even the NCAA tournament. The shift from viewing Christians as the “moral majority” to the villains is part of a broader social upheaval. Amid this upheaval, Christians see many of American’s cultural institutions as enemies, unlikely to represent Christian belief in a positive light. “MSM” frequently gets maligned. Christians see fact-checkers as mere tools of the broader establishment. No one can be trusted to tell the truth. This cultural mood predisposes many Christians to latch onto conspiracy theories that attack their cultural enemies. 

Second, let’s consider a theological reason. Christians believe in an evil power, the devil, who influences the powers and authorities from “behind the curtain.” Most Christian conspiracy theories that I come across explicitly state that some human power has allied with (or been deceived by) Satan. [Edit: I’m not suggesting that Christians should abandon belief in Satan, not that such a belief necessarily makes us gullible when it comes to conspiracy theories. However, appeals to demonic forces are sometimes used rhetorically by those peddling conspiracy theories to gain traction in Christian communities.]

Third, some Christians read the books of Revelation and Daniel as codes that need to be deciphered through current events. Christians who read biblical apocalyptic literature in this way are always on the lookout for signs of the antichrist, the mark of the beast, or a one-world government that coincides with, or will bring about the great tribulation. I’m not referring here to mere premillennialism, but to the belief that Revelation was written to a future generation in a way that only that future generation would be able to understand. Those who read Revelation in this way almost always believe that they are a part of that future generation.

All of these factors predispose some Christians to believe certain kinds of conspiracy theories, especially those that are coded with spiritual language and malign their cultural enemies. 

What tools do Christians have to combat false conspiracy theories?

I would like to propose the following non-exhaustive list of ways that Christians can be more discerning when it comes to conspiracy theories. 

First, Christians should look to multiple, quality sources for their information. Not all sources have equal credibility. Look for unbiased sources, those that are not purely based on opinion or rhetoric, present the facts within context, and point to the source material. If you feel inflamed after watching a 5-second video clip, seek out the full speech to gather the context. Take the advice of Proverbs 17:18 “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right until someone comes forward and cross-examines.” Cross-examine your favorite media outlet before reaching a conclusion. 

Second, Christians should approach conspiracy theories with a base level of skepticism. We need to do this to combat our own biases which predispose us to believe them. Our biases cause us to agree with the premise (“politicians are evil and untrustworthy”) that warm us to their conclusion (“they created the coronavirus to bring about massive social control”). The premise may be true but we need to force the conspiracy theory to present the evidence that leads to the conclusion. Then we need to cross-examine the evidence. 

Third, I would suggest that Christians re-examine the way they interpret apocalyptic literature. My basic premise is uncontroversial: The primary meaning of Scripture can be found in what the author intended it to mean. And, that author was writing to a specific audience who he thought could understand what he wrote. John wrote Revelation to churches in the first century. If we want to know what Revelation means, we should first ask what John meant to communicate to those churches. Here’s my more-controversial conclusion: If we need a current event – inaccessible to those readers – to be added to unlock or decode the text, we should be highly skeptical of our interpretation. 

I can think of another reason why we should be cautious about reading Revelation this way: Centuries of Christians have believed they could decode its meaning. So far, they’ve all been wrong. One of these days someone might get it right, but I believe that will more likely be a “blind squirrel finds a nut” scenario than unique intellect or prophetic revelation. Jesus himself says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).

Finally, if conspiracy theories thrive in an environment of upheaval and fear then Christian communities can foster environments of security and hope. I’m not talking about winning a culture war, though fighting for religious freedom is one way to love all our neighbors. Instead, I’m suggesting that Christians draw on our rich tradition of finding hope and security in hostile and chaotic environments. Doing so will allow us to look up in worship to God and out in service to others and free us from inward gazing conspiratorial thinking. 

[Postscript, 3/28] Scripture, when properly applied, contains important resources to help free people from false conspiracy theories. God has given us wisdom for discerning the truth (see the Proverbs). He calls us to love that truth and to expose falsehoods that distort reality and slander our neighbors. And, he gives us meaning and hope.

Here’s another nugget from Merlan’s compendium of American conspiracy theories: “The UFO mystery… expresses our secret longings for a wisdom that might come down from the stars in a new, improved, easy-to-use packaging, to reveal the secrets of life and tell us, at long last, who we are.”

Christians do not need a UFO mystery, or any other conspiracy theory, to bring meaning to our lives. God has given us everything we need in Christ.