Sunday, September 8, 2013

Checkmate For Hell - Part 5: Moves 9-10

This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts, meant to be read in order.  In the first post, I introduced the concept of Universalism, and introduced the concept that I would be defending my position through a series of "chess moves".  I mentioned that I believe I have checkmate in 2 moves, but because a lot of questions would be left, I would use a series of further moves to keep the king in checkmate while I systematically removed the rest of the pieces from the board.  I would highly suggest you read the previous parts of this series before reading this one:
Part 1: Moves 1-3
Part 2: Moves 4-5
Part 3: Moves 6-7
Part 4: Move 8

So let's move on to the next Chess Move:

Chess Move #9
Do you know what the most repeated command in the Bible is?  It doesn’t have to do with money or sexuality.  The most repeated command in the Bible:

Do not fear.

Do you know what the most repeated word in the New Testament is?  Love.  In the King James Version of the Bible, love is mentioned 508 times in the Old Testament and 697 in the New Testament.

I John 4:18 says:

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

For some reason, the writers of the Bible were in complete agreement on two very important concepts: fear should be avoided, and we should love instead.  I John 4:18 says that “perfect loves drives out fear” – in the King James Version, the phrase that is used is “casts out”, and it’s the same word used elsewhere in the Bible for casting out demons.  This verse also says that fear has to do with…punishment.  So how can we cast out fear if we still believe there is punishment?  And isn’t the concept of eternal conscious torment the most frightening thing our minds could possibly come up with?  Isn’t it the worst form of punishment anyone could possibly think of?  How could we realistically cast out all fear from our hearts if there is any possibility of eternal conscious torment?

Now you may say, "but I don't fear hell - I know I'm not going there.  It's just those people who are going there."  There's a problem with that.  Jesus says in Matthew 7:1-2:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Did you catch that?  If you judge, the measurement you use will be applied to you.  So I'd say that measuring out eternal conscious torment is a very, very dangerous thing to do.  No matter what the criteria you use, you're in great danger - if your criteria for getting out of hell is correct belief, how can you be certain that your beliefs about the infinite (and thus outside of the sphere of our possibility to know) God is correct?  Oooh, that's troublesome.  Ok, then we'll go with correct action.  Oh...but every single one of us makes mistakes every single day....  Do you see what the problem with measuring out the judgement of eternal conscious torment to other people is?  I believe we're not supposed to judge anyone.  Not a single person.  That's Jesus' job, and he doesn't judge (John 8:15).  So it seems to me that the safest way to live would be to believe in God's love for everyone, and to believe that this love will conquer all in the end.  That's the only way to be sure we're not judging anyone, and thus in danger of having our measurement of judgement used for ourselves.  It seems to me that if you believe in eternal conscious torment, no matter what the criteria you use for who belongs there, you'll always have that nagging doubt - that deep psychological fear of "what if?"  And that's not a perfect love that has cast out all fear, it seems to me.

Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to Love God, and the second greatest commandment was to love your neighbors, and when asked “who is my neighbor”, Jesus told a story about a Samaritan – a foreign man of another religion.  An “other”.  He implied in this story that everyone was our neighbor.

Jesus also commanded us to love our enemies.  But this is actually an impossibility, if you think about it – because when you love your enemy, he/she stops being your enemy, but instead becomes your neighbor.  How can we see people of other faiths and cultures as our neighbors and love them fully if we believe that they are ultimately destined for a place of eternal conscious torment, separated from us for eternity?  How can we love someone we fear?  How can we truly love those whom have hurt us if we believe there is no true hope for reconciliation?  How can we love those who believe differently and think differently if we’re afraid that they might change our minds, and that this might end up putting us in eternal conscious torment (because we believe that whether we end up there or not is based on correct belief)?

John says: “The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Chess Move #10
One of the objections that this teaching on a non-literal hell is often faced with goes like this: “well, Origen was declared a heretic for his Universalist beliefs, so you're going against tradition.”  By the way, I can't hear or read the word "tradition" without having the song from "Fiddler on the Roof" start running through my head.  But let's address the objection: first of all, just because someone calls someone else a heretic doesn’t mean that they were wrong – always remember that Jesus was a heretic in the eyes of the Pharisees.  But second of all, Origen was condemned at the Synod of Constantinople in 543 for apokatastasis and for his theory of salvation history as returning aeons rather than as uni-linear.  The church did not ever condemn the general concept of universalism.  According to Deak and Dalton, evidence in support of this is that Gregory of Nyssa (380 A.D.), who was a strong proponent of universalism but rejected the idea of returning aeons, was never condemned by any council.  Paul Smith lists other early universalists who were not condemned, such as Clement of Alexandria (190 A.D., head of the catechetical school there), Hilary (deacon of the Roman Church), Titus, Bishop of Bostra (364 A.D.), Gregory of Nazianzus (373 A.D., president of the second great Ecumenical Council), and Jerome (346 A.D., translator of the Latin Bible).  

So, if so many of the church's most influential leaders were universalists when some of Origen's teachings were declared heresy, it makes sense that it wasn't the general concept of universalism that was the problem - it was a certain specific version of it.  Basically, what Origen believed was that God was going to return creation to the exact state it had been in before the fall, that time was going to go through an eternal cycle of creation/fall/redemption, and that God must save all.  The heresy was not so much the universalism as some of these specifics, which came from Greek paganism.  If it truly were Universalism that was the problem with Origen's heresy, why was it that Gregory Nazianzen, who lived after Origen and was an avowed Universalist, was appointed as the President of the second council of the church in Constantinople in the fourth century?

To add support to this point, we can turn to many quotes from early church history.  Augustine himself, who could quite possibly be blamed for the modern popularity of eternal conscious torment, said:

There are very many in our day, who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments.
If one who was quite possibly the best defender against Universalism was willing to admit that there are many who do not deny Scripture and yet believe in Universalism, how can it truly be called heresy?

Tune in next time for some more chess moves:

Chess move #11: What about the wrathful God of the Old Testament?
Chess move #12: Calvinism is Totally Depraved
Conclusion: Testing the fruits.


  1. Hi Geoff,

    I would like to know where you get the concepts of Origen from... What books/chapters/verses?

    a. "what Origen believed was that God was going to return creation to the exact state it had been in before the fall" ?

    b. "that time was going to go through an eternal cycle of creation/fall/redemption." ?

    c. "and that God must save all." ?

    That (pertaining to Origen) was the first mention of anything that I have been dubious of. This is a great work. Well done!

    1. Hi Steve - thank you for reading, and thank you for the compliment! Obviously, my section on Origen is a highly summarized argument against using the "well, Origen was a heretic for universalism" defense. The main points are that:
      1) Just because a group of people declared something wrong does not make it wrong,
      2) the heresy wasn't all forms of universalism, but was a specific form of universalism, as can be deduced from the fact that other major church leaders from Origen's day were not declared heretics.

      One book I have read that talked about Origen and heresy was "Universal Salvation? The Current Debate", which contains a chapter that goes through a history of Universalism in the church. Another place I read about Origen was in "Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God", by the Linn family.

      It seems that it is somewhat hard to find information on what, specifically, was declared a heresy, however. I have read a book on heresies that made many of the other heresies quite clear to me, but it seems very hard to find information that is precise about the heresy of Origenism. This makes it almost seem as if the issue is one that people are trying to avoid discussing.

      Thanks again,

  2. Hi Geoff,

    Another work, which might help, is The Ancient History of Universalism, by Hosea Ballou. This work is free to download on Google Books. There was a distinct conflict with Origen and his bishop, Demetrius, over the concept of "athuthority". Demetrius strongly opposed Origen for teaching other bishops. Some of the most famous bishops of this time were instructed by Origen, and Demetrius was relegated to a very distant relevance, which he reacted to. Demetrius' cause was able to gain support from the church at Rome, and together they had excommunicated Origen; but again, this excommunication was completely ignored by the bulk of bishops, so the authority of Rome was now being challenged. Origen's views were not relevant to this struggle. This struggle was purely a struggle for authority. Only later did this struggle merge into a criticism of Origen's teachings.