As we move closer to the end of Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven? this week we will look at chapters 4 & 5, trying to understand how the idea of hell relates to other key Christian doctrines, and then a closer examination of universalism.
Three Perspectives on Hell Robert A. Peterson
Moving from the previous chapters, which gave an overview of biblical material about hell, Peterson’s chapter wants to help us understand how this doctrine actually relates to other key ideas that inform the Christian faith. Firstly, he considers the Christian understanding of the triune God. A common issue that can skew our understanding of hell is to see God the Father as Judge, Jesus as our merciful Saviour, and not really consider, or know, what the Holy Spirit has to do with it. However, it is far truer, in light of what Scripture actually says, to remember that God the Father appoints Christ as Judge as well as Saviour, and that the Holy Spirit also works to bring people to know the truth about their sin and good and evil in this world.
Secondly, he tackles a very big question in just a couple of pages: divine sovereignty and human freedom. Going to two common biblical examples, Joseph’s betrayal and abandonment by his brothers, and the betrayal of Christ leading to his crucifixion. In each of these cases the Bible is clear that the people involved did wrong and were genuinely culpable for that. However, God was working and achieved good, fruitful, and blessed outcomes nonetheless. What Peterson asserts is that while we may not feel we understand the ‘how’ of this truth, it does not negate the clarity in Scripture that it is true all the same. This becomes significant because it is in light of the true responsibility humans bear for their free choices that God is a just judge.
Lastly, Peterson examines hell in relation to an understanding of things that have already and are yet to be fulfilled with regard to teaching of the ‘last things’. Through Scripture there is definitely an emphasis on what is to come at the end of all things, with Christ’s return, yet we also see the reality of judgment working out in the present, as we deal with life in a world broken by human rebellion.
Does Everyone Go to Heaven? J. I. Packer
The book’s fifth chapter is its most lengthy as Packer specifically addresses universalism: what he sees as one of the dominant contemporary threats to the truth about hell. Christian universalism is the belief that “every human being will finally come to enjoy everlasting salvation.” Packer tries to unpack and refute some of the arguments for universalism, and concludes that it falls far short of anything scripture truly teaches. He also highlights some serious problems that the claims of universalism raise, and tries to expose some of the factors that gave rise to this view and make it attractive.
Packer lays out the problems that we find in a universalist worldview as Christians. Firstly, there is insufficient evidence from Scripture to support this position, and so to hold it we make ourselves more able to determine the best and most loving way for the world, than the God who made it. It cannot account for just how serious, and deadly, a problem sin really is. It also makes the call to evangelism somewhat optional, or certainly less urgent, and thus if the church is to entertain this idea, or let it shape an understanding of Christian mission, we risk doing a severe and dangerous disservice to the communities, and the world, God has placed us in.
Universalism raises some sensitive questions for us in 21st century Australia. Multiculturalism and pluralism are a breeding ground for these ideas, as we struggle to come to terms with the exclusive and definite claims of the uniqueness of Christ. It is a moment where our trust in the truth, authority and goodness of God’s Word and his ways can really be stretched. It’s a worthwhile thing to be aware of, and discuss, and to encourage one another to cling to the God we know as he has revealed himself through Jesus Christ, whom we see in the Scriptures. Though we must confront the hard truths of just how serious our need is to be saved from sin and death, we can rejoice to know that the only One who can provide that salvation has indeed done so, even at great cost to himself. Let us keep encouraging one another with the hope found in Christ alone, and may God strengthen us to share this hope with others around us.