Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Bible Discussion You Will Never Have
Bryan Winters

Of course, Bryan takes this business of hell too far. We all know that the Bible isn't the uncontestable "Word of God", don't we? And isn't it true that laypeople shouldn't gnaw away at difficult and subtle theological problems too deep for them? After all ,they don't have the in-depth theological education that their ministers have. And anyway, Bryan is less-than-reasonable in taking the definite teaching of the early Church literally. Isn't he?

I love picking up these books in Christian bookshops that have titles like Issues Confronting Modern Christians - tackled head on. Or Topics Most Christians Are Afraid to Face.

I pick them up eagerly expecting to read something really radical in them. But a quick look inside the chapters usually reveals yet another conservative look at homosexuality, or sex before marriage, or how modern morality is going downhill.

Unfortunately my interest quickly wanes. (I say unfortunately because perhaps if I read enough of these opinions, they might drum some sensible traditional concepts into my otherwise recalcitrant brain. However that is another subject, and we won't dwell there.)

Instead I want to introduce the topic you can never really discuss freely and openly in your house group or church. One that I have never found in one of these "radical books" mentioned above. Every time I bring this subject up, other people drop their dialogue. I encounter either anger, or at best, sympathy for me, but no further discussion. Mostly I find evasion. Evasion of any willingness to even look at it, to open it up.

So I am intrigued. In fact I enjoy the topic, and would love people to talk it through with me. But it doesn't happen. Maybe one day it will. Much of my interest is of course based around the fact that I can't find anyone to really go through it. I confess that. This tells me there must be something in it.

By now you have waited long enough for the topic to be introduced. However I had to do all the preamble. If I introduced the issue up front, you might have immediately stopped reading this. Therefore I had to state somehow, that if I mentioned the topic to begin with you could have ceased looking. And written me off.

I even wrote that line deliberately: "And written me off." Because I don't mind being written off at all. In fact I am going to get around that as well before we get to the meat.

You see, this topic is not my idea. No, indeed. In fact I only got interested in it by chance. I stumbled upon it, and would have dismissed it immediately had I not seen the impressive number of respected theologians and people through the centuries who stand behind this belief.

So doesn't bother me if you write me off.

But remember you are also dismissing the opinions of people in history such as Benjamin Franklin, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, William Barclay, Karl Barth, Thomas Paine, Robert Burns, Samuel Coleridge, Charles Dickens, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Milton, Alexander Graham Bell, Florence Nightingale, Isaac Newton, and Jacques Ellul, to name but a very, very, few. There are also oodles of worthwhile web sites devoted to it with expositions from the centuries available for reading.

Okay, enough. Here is the topic. Purposefully buried in this paragraph in case you had skimmed. It is the topic of universal salvation.

When Christians first hear this phrase, warning lights go on, as they now have with you. Let's do the definition first. Universal salvation does not claim all religions lead to God. Not on your Nelly. It claims that each and every person ever to live and die will be saved by the love of God displayed through Jesus Christ. In other words that Jesus Christ will ultimately save every single human being.

Let's get pedantic now and really turn you off. Universal salvation obviously claims that no human beings end up in hell. First thing we are going to look at it are some Bible passages by the way. Just a few. I have highlighted words such as every and all.

Isaiah 45:22-23: Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.

John 12:32: But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.

Romans 5:18: Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.

1 Corinthians 15:22: For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

1 Timothy 2:5-6: For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men - the testimony given in its proper time.

1 Timothy 4:10: [... and for this we labor and strive], that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.

Takes a long time to see those words, all and every. It might take you years, because nobody preaches about them. But the words are there. They are scattered throughout the Bible in reference to the saving grace of Jesus. Go check the Bible for yourself.

To get back to my original point however, I am merely saying here that you won't be able to discuss this issue. An in-depth look at it will be too difficult for your Pastor to handle.

Now there are some other factors to consider while we are on this topic. Ramifications is one of them. If you think that people are heading towards hell, then there are some awful particulars you have to live with.

Let us say you are thinking of telling your neighbour about the saving power of Jesus, and you arrange to see him on Saturday. But, come Saturday, turns out your son gets a place in the top football team, and you go to watch him play instead. Meanwhile your neighbour gets hit by a bus, and dies. Goes to hell forever.

You have to live with the knowledge that you could have told him, you might have got through to him, but you let that opportunity slip for a reasonably good excuse. Your neighbour is now going to spend one hundred years roasting in hell, no, one thousand years roasting in hell, no, one million � no, forever, in eternal pain and torment because of your decision that Saturday.

Furthermore, you are going to have to answer to God for not speaking to the neighbour that Saturday, on the feeble defence of watching your son play football. A game of football for your neighbour's eternity in hell.

And you think you are going to enjoy Heaven, with that trip hanging on your shoulder? Just remember, if you take Jesus' parable of Lazarus literally, while you are sitting in Heaven, you can actually see Hell, and the torment the residents are enduring there. You will see your neighbour there. You will be daily reminded of your wrong decision.

The ramifications of holding a consistent belief in condemnation to the flames are awesome. Think them through. There is no way you could live with these details. Think of someone you witnessed to in the wrong manner, and turned them off, and it really was your fault. You blundered in, and messed it up. So they die and go to hell because of your fault, your inadequacy in presenting the message.

Another debate often thrown up is the old argument, "If everybody is saved by the grace of God demonstrated through Jesus, then why become a believer? What is the point?"

This is exactly the issue Paul had to write about in Romans Chapter Six. The previous chapter, Romans Chapter Five, is the one where Paul waxes eloquent about all men being saved. Spends a lot of time towards the close of the fifth chapter talking about how one mans sin introduced death, the act of dying, for all men. Then goes on to say how God's free gift brings life to all men. Evangelical Protestants tend to split the "alls".

On one hand they agree with the "all" of dying. All means everyone there. But on the other hand they say that Paul doesn't mean all men receive life - oh no! He means just those that acknowledge Jesus in this life. The second "all" apparently doesn't mean everyone.

Well, Paul expects his readers to then ask the question above, "What is the point of becoming a believer?" and he starts Chapter Six with the very words, "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may increase?" Then he proceeds to answer that question. But again I won't include it here. Read it yourself.

If you are a new believer, you might not have encountered the threat of hell that much. It is not Religiously Correct (RC) to talk about it today. Today's Pastors go for evasion. They say, "Oh, that's God's business". Or, "I don't preach hell". They soft-pedal it. But if you push one hard enough, he will tell you, "Yes, non-believers are going to hell."

In the New Message Bible, currently selling well throughout the world, the author has this to say in his introduction to Proverbs:

Many people think that what's written in the Bible has mostly to do with getting people into heaven - getting right with God, saving their eternal souls. It does have to do with that, of course, but not mostly.

What a copout. The writer knows that it is not RC to speak about hell and damnation, so he soft pedals it, and goes on to say how the Bible is " � equally concerned with living on this earth."

He also says other RC things like, "In our Scriptures, heaven is not the primary concern, to which earth is a tag-along afterthought."

This is all church-speak in the new millennium. If that writer believes that our personal decisions here lead either to an eternity in heaven, or an eternity in hell, then he has absolutely no right underplaying it. He should be out front there, preaching and telling everyone to the best of his ability that this seventy years here is a nothing compared to eternity.

I mean, the guy says "not mostly". Is he saying that seventy years on earth is more important than a million years in hell? Give me strength.

Unfortunately he is like nearly every other church leader. He holds back on his message of damnation because it is not acceptable to preach it. In fact, he probably has reservations about it, and won't come out readily and admit them. Well, if he believes in people going to hell, then he needs to state it. The price is too great.

There are further reasons why the Pastors can't really drop the message.

Having hell there is a great method of social control, of keeping the churchgoers in fear, of keeping them nice and moral, lest awful things happen to them. It is the backdrop to so much preaching about Christian living, but just sugar-coated these days. We hear so much about keeping our spiritual lives clean, of holiness in case God deserts us. Hell doesn't get mentioned, but it is there behind the scenes, hovering vengefully.

Us Christians, we even turn it into the message of good news. The other day I saw a guy on a roundabout with a printed jerkin on. Preaching and haranguing the passing traffic. The front of his shirt read "Hell is for real". And the back something like "Turn and repent".

I sat in my car awhile watching him, reflecting how this was how our church society presents the message of Good News. Good grief. I told someone else about it. They commiserated with me, but had to stick to the fact that ultimately, the haranguer was telling the correct message.

Time for a quote. Here is a goodie, this time from a Reverent.

The single most important cause for the Western World's great defection from Christ has been the church's teaching of a literal hell. For if we examine the last three centuries of Western history, we can see very clearly how the central atheistic figures of this period were turned away from Christianity basically because of the teaching of hell. And by now we can also see far more clearly the nihilistic and catastrophic results of this atheism. For example, from people like Nietzsche and Wagner we have seen the fruits of Hitler and the entire Nazi period. And what was the teaching of Christianity that turned Protestant Nietzsche and Catholic Wagner against Christianity? A literal hell.

From people like Feuerbach, Marx, and Lenin, we have seen the fruits of people like Stalin and Mao and the misery of Communism throughout the world. And what was the "Christian" teaching which more than any other caused Feuerbach, Marx and Lenin to see Christianity as an "opiate"? The fact that Christians preoccupied with getting to heaven and avoiding hell were willing to turn their backs on the body politic and let it go to here-and-now hell -- the only real hell there is. And why did Freud debunk religion in general and Christianity in particular as "illusion"? Again, it's a matter of historical record. Freud had a Christian governess who terrified him with threats of hellfire when he was barely old enough to talk. Therefore Freud couldn't wait to fashion an interpretation of human life that would completely eliminate the need for religion and its terrifying denials of the human body. [1]

Here is one final thing to bring up in the discussion.

It is the observation that Christians don't want to believe it, or even to consider it - yet non-Christians will readily consider it. Now you will say that is because non-Christians have an agenda, and that is to avoid a confrontation with Jesus. You might also be right in many circumstances.

If there is an agenda on one side however, there may also be one on the other. Christians might not want God to forgive everyone because it will have meant their religious activities were done in vain. That there was no need for them to engage in those boring church renovation works, sing endless songs, print off church newsletters and vacuum the vestry.

I would have expected believers, who claim they want to love more, to leap at the possibility that our God of love was actually gathering in every living human being to himself. At the very least I would have expected they would investigate the option. But they won't even look, won't even examine the scriptures in the main.

Now I don't expect for a minute that this article will persuade anyone in Christendom to change their views on this topic.

The ramifications of seeing the Good News of Jesus as simply that, simply a message of life for all men, of life at some stage, of the overpowering encountering of the majestic and irresistible love of God either now or at some future time, are too broad. It challenges too much that Christians have learned. It is far easier to retreat into Churchdom, into the fold of the blessed, the saved, and attempt to hold the fort until Jesus comes again.

But please don't tell me the Bible teaches that non-Christians will go to hell. No, I've changed my mind. Tell me, face to face, with a Bible between us, and some time to discuss it. Speaking of which.

One night after I had done a lot of reading about the concept of Universal Salvation, I decided I want to discuss the topic at this evening group I go to. About eight or so people are in this group. The leader is always telling us we should feel free to bring up any topic we like. Nothing is sacred in this group. His name is Colin.

So I ask the group, especially Colin, if I can discuss this topic I have been thinking about. Without telling him the topic.

"Absolutely," says Colin, gesturing with his hands.

"It is a controversial topic," I say.

The interest of the others is quickened, and Colin is not perturbed. "No, go ahead, that is what this group is for," he reiterates. I start to feel nervous. "I mean it is quite an argumentative topic. It may cause dissension."

But their curiosity is up now. "Please go ahead," several chip in. I pause. "Okay, but I will keep it short, and we will just look at a few verses in the Bible to lay out the thing."

Colin is very relaxed, this is what he is hoping this little group will do, feel free to discuss anything. "The topic is one that is called universal salvation. Now I'm not saying it is true now, I am merely saying I have been looking at it for a while, and it is a very interesting one."

I can't swear it, but I feel a stiff silence has suddenly descended. Could be just me. I push on in the still atmosphere. "I am going to get several of you to read verses out of the Bible that tell us how everyone in the world ends up being saved by the work of Christ. Everyone. Sandy, you first, your verse is Isaiah 45.22."

I give everyone in the group one of the verses I quoted above to read. I tell people to take notice of words like "every" or "all". The silence is deafening as they finish reading their verses. I am aware of this, but force myself to bring my piece to a close.

"We've only looked at a few of these verses, but they do seem to suggest that all men will be saved don�t they? Like I mean that eventually the love of God through Jesus is so great that it will totally overcome evil. And the devil gets nobody in the end."

"Any thoughts on this," I ask.

The floodgates immediately open. From Colin. "This is a classical mistake of taking verses out of context. If you look at verses like this without reading the context they are placed in, then this is how this fallacious type of thinking can emerge."

Bryan, you silly fool, I tell myself. You should know better. Bill chimes in from the other side of the room. Bill loves controversy.

"Why, what has Bryan said that is wrong? He just read some verses out, and tried to start a discussion. Now we are getting told at the outset he is wrong without even examining the topic." 

Colin is in full flight. "I had to deal with this sort of thing at Bible college. These modern professors with all their liberal theology. The Bible is very clear on the fact that there is a heaven and a hell, and that the unsaved are going to hell unless they repent. I will not allow this group to be exposed to such heresy as is being suggested here."

Oh boy, oh boy, I lean back in my chair. Should have shut up son, should have shut up. Keep your opinions to yourself.  But Bill is at his throat like a tiger. His blood is up.

"Look, not five minutes ago, you were telling us that anything could be discussed here, and now an interesting topic comes up. Suddenly it is out of bounds. Let me ask you this. Are you saying that if a baby is born to unsaved parents, and then dies before it reaches the age of understanding, that baby will go to hell? Is that what you are saying?"

Colin pauses. He is trapped. But he commits. Courageously. "Yes."

Bill explodes. "You may be entitled to your opinion, and I will be entitled to mine. I cannot believe that a God of love would do that."

I hardly say a word for the rest of the evening. But tempers flare up and down. Eventually the host phones the Pastor for an opinion. I'm thinking, well this is Christendom yesterday and today. You want an authoritative answer, ask the clergy.

He comes back with his answer. 'Peter says it is another of those AFLs. Awaiting Further Light.'

Oh, you religiously correct animal Peter, I murmur to myself, unsure whether I admire or despise his one liner.

I try it again. I want to discuss this topic. I want it public. This time I am a guest at a large house, sitting with the hostess, and a younger man. He is leading an evangelical team. We loosen up awhile, then I broach the topic.

He leans back. The lean contains the feel that he has an intelligent person in front of him, that he should be calm here, and lead me through the mire of strange opinions I have. All that in one lean. The brain is marvellous isn't it, sensing these attitudes which may or may not be correct, but seem to fit the occasion.

"I can understand how you feel on this one Bryan." Whoa now, that�s my line. This guy has been Dale Carnegied too. Watch it. "I think none of us would be human if we didn�t ask that question of ourselves. None of us want our neighbours or friends to go to hell."

Oh, that is good. Laying out the baited lines, agreeing with me. He must pounce soon. "You know Paul never mentions the word hell once", I inform him.

"Correct. That's not where the problem is. It's Jesus who talks about hell a lot."

"True, but some commentators feel he is talking about a hell on earth that people lead themselves into."

"I concede that, but we need to look at the general breadth of understanding of the church over the centuries. The church, and theologians in general, have taken the topic seriously and believe that the Bible does point towards a distinct hell."

I'm going to get this joker. Didn�t think it would be so easy though. I expected better from him. "Surely just because the majority of theologians believe in it doesn�t mean that it shouldn�t be examined again. Plenty of theologians, and the church in general, were against women voting.' I can't resist being the funny guy here. In front of my wonderful female host. 'Of course, that judgement does give them some credibility doesn�t it?"

Polite laughter, but my opposite sees the comment as flight rather than fight. He won't let go. "Yes but you are left with an interesting question then. Why should people commit to Christ if they are going to heaven anyway?"

Gotcha. I'm starting to lose interest already in this conversation. Why doesn�t he read Romans Chapter Six where that exact question was asked two thousand years ago. "If hell is the only reason people should come to Jesus, then we are in a pretty bad state aren't we?"

He knows he has overstepped, and takes flight again himself. "It is a very difficult one for us all Bryan. Take my parents. We have talked with them on numerous occasions about the Lord, but they have not made a decision to follow him. I dearly love my parents and do not want them to go to hell."

I push him more.

"We are talking here about a God of love. More love than we could ever understand. A supreme being, bigger than this universe, composed of love. Can you imagine him taking your parents, who loved you, did some good things, did some bad things, lived ordinary lives for seventy years, and then throwing them into a fiery pit for one hundred years? No, one thousand years. No, one million years. No, forever."

"I can't claim to understand that Bryan. That is where faith comes in. I don�t know everything that lies behind the decision making of God. I just have to believe that his action for my parents will be based on love, even though it doesn�t seem like it to me."

Well, that was honest even if it did sound screwy. He engages me closer now. "You wouldn�t truly be a loving Christian if you didn�t ask these questions Bryan. Every believer would ask the same questions. But the Bible is plain about it." He is coming in for the kill. "Let's pray before we get going. Do you mind if I commit us to the Lord?"

"No, go ahead," I say, already feeling there is a manipulating prayer coming, remembering when I was younger and had discussed religion with the Mormons at the door, and they, too, asked if they could close in prayer.

"Lord, each of us has many questions about how you work, and the nature of heaven and hell. There are many things that are quite difficult for us to understand, quite difficult. I know that I do not have all the answers. We also have friends and families that we love dearly and do want to see descend into the pit. We pray that we will be fervent and faithful in witnessing to these loved ones, and we ask your forbearance with them. And also with us.

"I would like to commit my brother Bryan, with his questions, to you. I pray that you would guide him into a clear understanding about these matters, that you would enable him to see your plan for mankind. We commit ourselves to you. In Jesus name, Amen."

There is no need to extend the conversation. Why could he not analyse his own words? That if God works in Christians lives, and Christians cannot understand how God can chuck innocents into hell, perhaps God is telling them something of his nature? But he was such a nice young man. He was so genuine. 

Moving on again - I am talking with a lady now. She has been married and divorced twice. Can't seem to make it in relationships. And she knows why. When she was a young child, she was sexually abused for three years by one of the elders of her conservative church. She had no-one to talk to, nobody to open up to. The situation was out of her control. Her compensation in later life is to create controlled situations for her social and relational life.

She knows she does it, but cannot change. Her marriages fail due to her attempts to manipulate controlling situations. Counselling and in-depth therapy have revealed all this to her. But it is too deep to alter. She looks forward to the rest of her life in loneliness. Her hackles rise when she hears of acts of love being performed by Christians. There is a block against the church.

Who can blame her? Who can say to her, "Well, it doesn�t matter, you  should turn to Jesus despite these experiences"? Who could condemn her to an eternity in a fiery pit for circumstances like this? She is enduring a version of hell on earth as it is.

Now there is an older man listening to me. He is well respected nation-wide as an advisor to young leaders in the Church. I hardly know him, but am sharing my deepest feelings with him. He listens. Without comment. He is a loving man. He empathises with me. I can feel his strength. Here is a man who would always listen, who would weep with you.

Later that evening we talk again, on more general topics in a group now. One of us asks him how he feels about Moslems. He works in Islamic countries sometimes. "There is something about their religion that is disturbing - the violence. I simply cannot see how religion can lead anyone to do some of the things the Taliban do. Incredible cruelty."

My attitude changes from that morning. "Sounds a bit like the Christians during the Crusades," I venture.

"Oh, you're right, there are many things that we in the Church have to answer for. Our history is nothing to be proud of, you can be sure of that."

I press on again.

"In fact it must be pretty hard for some people to come to Christ, what with all the garbage the Church has thrown up over the centuries. All the divisions."

The word "division" reminds him of a story.

"You know, the other day I got a call from a colleague who asked me to speak at a rally with John Brownley. Thing is, John once said from a stage in front of five thousand young people that he would never be seen on the same platform as someone from the Uniting Church." He laughs at this. "Anyway, old John has changed. Joins us at the ecumenical meetings. We have Anglicans, Presbyterians, Wesleyans, Baptists and other denominations there. Even Catholics. Times have changed."

I lean back in despair. Here is a respected leader, an advisor to up-and-comers nation-wide, congratulating himself that he meets with Catholics these days. That progress is indeed being made. The vast irrelevance of denominational settings, of religion itself, overwhelms me temporarily. Is this where we are at? The world has more civil wars than ever, millions still starve, AIDS is rampant in Africa, but well, you know, I've got some Catholic friends. God must be pleased with that sort of momentum.

But he is nice. He is so nice. I can't even blame him for his conservatism. He has suffered the non-thought of church committees, of religious conferences, of tentative conversations where niceness prevails, where the boat can only be rocked a little, where fiery young man are politely listened to, knowing they will eventually come down to earth and be doormen, handing out hymnbooks on Sundays.

On my wall is a painting by Rembrandt - Jeremiah lamenting the fall of Jerusalem. It was unthinkable in his day, as the demise of the institutional church is today. Or is it?
[1] Revd Robert Short, Claretian Publications

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