Saturday, 26 November 2016

Hell in a Nutshell

In the first 30 years of my involvement in church, I would have heard the term 'Universalism' a handful of times.  Most of these were passing, dismissive references from the pulpit or by an established teacher.  I never heard or read a proper explanation of what the term meant.

If I had to depend on my church, nothing would have changed.  I have still never heard the concept explained in my church.  I still hear preachers refer to it dismissively from time to time and now that I know more I realise that they have very little understanding of the thing they are dismissing.

The difference is that now we have the Internet.  Literate, educated Christians are no longer dependent on their local church and the books their local bookshop is prepared to stock.  The full, fascinating and challenging diversity of the world is now at our fingertips.  We can find networks and forums of people interested in all sorts of things.  Our views can be challenged and questioned from all angles.  The "priesthood of all believers" preached by Protestants in particular has never been more real.

Which brings me to a little book called Hell in a Nutshell: The Mystery of His Will by American author Charles Watson Sr.  This is Watson's first book but I have previously "met" him online through a couple of different Universalist forums in which we are both active - he far more than me.

From what I can gather Watson is a layman and a largely self-taught apologist and polemicist.  He learnt his Christianity in a Southern Baptist church, a highly conservative denomination where Universalism never featured.  It was participating in an online forum that led to his more conventional views being challenged and he ended up adopting Christian (or Evangelical) Universalism as a result of the study this prompted.  Hell in a Nutshell is a result of this study.

It has to be said that Watson is not a confident writer.  He tends to beat about the bush, to talk around his points rather than present them clearly and concisely.  It's almost as if he fears premature dismissal.  Such fears are unnecessary because what he has to say makes perfect sense.

Two themes run through this book.  The first is an argument for Christian Universalism - and against the idea of Eternal Conscious Torment - based on the attributes of God.  God, as described in Christian faith, is gracious, merciful, loving and just.  These attributes are agreed by Calvinists, Arminians, Catholics, Orthodox and Universalists alike.  Watson's question is, are these attributes more consistent with the idea that God will condemn some people to eternal torment, or with the idea that he will eventually save everyone?

For Watson, not surprisingly, the answer is clear.  The notion that some people will be condemned to eternal torment places a definite limit on God's grace and mercy, and calls his love into question.  In Christian Universalism, on the other hand, his mercy and grace are unlimited and his love is seen clearly.

The fly in the ointment for this argument is the idea of God's justice.  The standard argument in favour of eternal condemnation is that this is a just punishment for sin and if God were to waive it he would be denying his own nature.

Watson's response to this argument is twofold.  The first is to question why God's offer of grace and mercy expires with our death.  Do we face a different God after we die to the one we learn about in this world?  Or is the offer open for all eternity, repeated over and over until we finally give in and accept it?

His second argument is about the meaning of the word "punishment".  In New Testament Greek there are two works that could be translated by this English word.  The first, timoria, means revenge or retribution.  Its purpose is to balance the ledger, to hurt someone who has hurt you.  The second kolasis, means correction or discipline.  It is administered in the interest of the person who receives it, to help them amend their ways and restore them to favour, as we would punish a child.  This second word is the one used for God's punishment and justice throughout the New Testament.

Hence the appearance of the word kolasis on the book's cover, portrayed in the flames of a crucible.  God's punishment, says Watson, is not implacable revenge but correction, setting us to rights so that we can take our place in his kingdom.  Punishment is ultimately redemptive, an expression of God's love to fallible humans.  After our punishment, and through it, we are restored.

Running alongside this argument for Christian Universalism is a wider appeal to Christians to consider and question what we are taught.  So many of us, says Watson, simply accept the positions preached from our pulpits or presented by approved authors.  Yet many of these positions don't stand up to scrutiny.  We shouldn't check our brains in at the church door.

Of course once you start doing this it is hard to stop.  In Hell in a Nutshell Charles Watson presents a view of Christian Universalism that largely leaves other areas of doctrine alone.  You can accept it without having to abandon cherished beliefs about the divinity of Christ, the necessity of the Cross, God's perfect sovereignty and so forth.  It leaves the Nicene Creed untouched.  Even the concept of biblical inerrancy need only come away with a few scratches.

Yet such boundary busting has a habit of repeating itself.  Once you have tested this boundary and found it wanting, what is to stop you testing another?  If you do, I suspect you will find many others wanting too.  This, I think, is why our church leaders are so strongly resistant to the idea of Christian Universalism.

I belong to a small group which has just finished studying Richard Rohr's Falling Upwards.  At one point he talks about how many of us, clergy and lay people alike, see the church as a security system.  It provides an institutional framework in which we feel safe and are able to avoid uncomfortable challenges to our identity.  We all need security systems as we are growing up, but if we want to become fully mature then at some point we need to step out of them and face the wider world, to allow ourselves to be challenged from a position of humble confidence in the core of who we are.

Hell in a Nutshell provides one pathway into this stepping out.  Ostensibly it is just a simple tweak to our theology, but its implications can be profound.  For instance, it forces us to confront our own vengefulness.  Can we really stand the idea that our enemies will join us in heaven?  It forces us to re-examine the default use of fear as an evangelistic tool.  Do we see value in the gospel besides its providing an escape hatch from eternal damnation?  It forces us to face our portrayal of God as a frightening vengeful deity.  Are we ready to accept a God who purposefully gives up his grandeur and allows himself to be laid in a bed of straw, under the care of a poor teenage girl?

Sooner or later we all have to face these questions.  Perhaps you are not ready to yet?  That's fine, but if you do start rest assured - it does indeed hurt, but not as much as you fear, and the reward is definitely worth it.