Unity, openness, and the role of the spiritual quest in understanding God’s eternal purpose–from Leben 9
My work with George MacDonald through the years has resulted in many individuals seeking me out in hopes that I will be able to shed light on as well as clarify for them the subject of universal reconcil-iation as a whole.
What I have generally tried to do is point such indiv-iduals to various passages in Mac-Donald’s own writing and toward what other sources I feel might be helpful. My intent has been that they read what others have had to say on the matter, and decide for themselves what conclusions to draw.
Raised in the tradition of conservative evangelicalism, for most of my life I haven’t known what to make of universal reconciliation either. I have been a seeker along the same road as most of those who contact me. What I am comfortable saying with absolute certainty on the matter is this:
I believe that the love, goodness, forgiveness, and trustworthiness of the Father of Jesus Christ are infinite. Therefore, I trust Him completely. Though he slay me, yet will I trust him, and so may all creation likewise trust him. He is a good Father, so all he does must be good and can only be good. His essential nature is love, so everything that proceeds out of his divine will must reflect that love. It is in his heart to forgive infinitely. Jesus told us so. Therefore…we may trust him, and trusting him, may trust him for all things, for all men, for all possibilities. What is in the heart of God the Father to do will be full of love, full of goodness, and full of forgiveness. And in those foundational truths of his essential nature and character I rest. In those foundational truths of his essential nature and character are all my questions swallowed up. I am at peace…for I trust Him.
Beyond that, I care not to go. For many years I have been fascinated and intrigued in my explorations beyond the boundaries of traditional thought concerning what might be in God’s heart to accomplish. But I find no need within myself to formulate a “systematic theology,” as it were, of his reconciliatory purposes. I trust God far more than I trust in my capacity to understand the infinity of his loving purpose.
In my view the key reason why those on both sides of this issue struggle so hard to systematize their personal theologies (and err in the process) is this—they don’t trust God enough. So they feel they must put together a system of belief on the afterlife constructed out of their own incomplete intellects in which they can trust, making God limited enough so that they can take it upon themselves to explain everything about him.
Something about it, however, seems backwards to me. I would far rather trust God for biblical uncertainties, than to convince myself that I am certain of his will on every thorny issue as many seem to consider it their duty to do. Being wrong does not frighten me nearly so much as being unable to trust God to do what is right and good, though my fallible human intellect will of a certainty be unable to discern how he will accomplish that in every instance.
Yet I would not mislead by implying a greater ambivalence than is perhaps the case. I often use the word neutrality to describe my own position because it seems the most accurate term at present. But in all honesty I would call it a neutrality that is leaning considerably more in George MacDonald’s direction than toward the views of Jonathan Edwards.
My wife Judy has summed up her view succinctly as UO rather than UR— though we cannot know of a certainty what will be the final outcome, opportuni-ty will never cease. There will be universal and eternal opportunity to res-pond to God’s love. Perhaps the time will come when I will arrive at a more appropriate term than a “MacDonald leaning” neutrality and “universal and eternal opportunity,” but I am satisfied with them for now. Obviously I would not make available the result of my own research into this matter and include it in four issues of Leben, if I did not think the Scriptures pointed to principles which the Spirit of God wants to reveal to his people.
I do believe there are great truths here God desires us to lay hold of. But not so that we may formulate ironclad belief systems which we grow to worship more than the God they describe, but so that we will know who God is and that our capacity deepens to trust him.
Truth not debate
That is the purpose of this year’s Leben articles—that all who read it might better know God, not to establish evidences for a belief system.
I have no desire to argue on behalf of or against this or any doctrine. Scriptural viewpoints on contested subjects are interesting to me because I relish in the exchange of ideas. But they are not things of the first rank. I would rather expend my energies seeking more deeply to understand the character of God and obeying him, than attempting to determine rightness or wrongness about every debated issue where the Bible leaves room for varying interpretation. Doctrinal “ideas” are something like a hobby to me. They do not form the foundation for my life.
The endless jot-and-tittle debate between Christians, it seems to me, has done more to impede the coming of the kingdom of God with power than all the unbelief in the history of the world. These are high matters to be discussed with our Father in heaven, to the center of whose heart all questions and controversies and unanswerables must lead in the end.
Prayers, heart-cries, tears, with here and there a little fear and trembling, may accompany the wrestling through of these ideas. But it will grieve me if brothers and sisters use any of this to line up on opposite sides of this particular doctrinal fence and begin tossing various viewpoints and proof-texts back and forth. Jesus did not offer himself on the cross so that we could be at each other’s throats over who is or is not included in that atonement, but that the world might be saved.
On all matters doctrinal, my own points of view are still forming. As I have read and studied over the years, the matter of universal reconciliation intrigues me wonderfully. I think there is truth here that most in evangelicalism have overlooked—truth based on who God is.
I became intrigued by possibilities outside the orthodox belief system of my upbringing even before discovering George MacDonald’s writing. MacDonald furthered the process, not because in him I discovered universal reconciliation as such, but because he forced wide within me new doorways into the inexhaustibility of God’s goodness. MacDonald, in fact, persistently refused to articulate a firm position. Yet when one reads his works, one cannot help being stretched into wondrously enlarging realms in the understanding of God’s character. While not addressing the controversy of universal reconciliation head on, MacDonald constantly stretches his readers in their capacity to trust in the infinite goodness of God’s Fatherhood.
I found the idea by no means fearsome that God might have more in mind to ultimately accomplish in his creation than is commonly taught, but rather an exciting one to prayerfully consider. To my astonishment, however, I was to learn, as do most who explore this less-traveled pathway through the spiritual yellow wood, that those not inclined similarly to inquire how expansive might be the love of the God, do not find this quest into God’s heart exciting in the least, but rather heretical.
As I have made clear, for me this is no mere doctrinal matter. This issue is different. It strikes at the very core of the Christian belief system—to what extent are God’s love, goodness, and forgiveness infinite? Will God’s victory in the universe be complete…absolute…total? Or will the devil ultimately prevent God’s perfect and complete will (2 Peter 3:9) from being accomplished?
These are very significant questions. Who is the God we worship and seek to obey? Is the universe a great dualism, where the two sides of Good and Evil each lay eternal claim to the souls in their camp?
Such implications make this an important and vital inquiry. I’m not sure we can truly know who God the Father is in our hearts unless we resolve it. Nor do I think, as George MacDonald’s pastoral mentor F.D. Maurice points out, that the world has much reason to listen to the gospel until we truly apprehend the character of the God that gospel is purported to be about. Is it truly good news we proclaim to the world, while at the same time we speak of the eternal retribution of God against a huge portion of his created universe?
Though I say that I am at peace trusting in the infinite trustworthiness of the Father, I yet believe this is a matter we need to explore. And I have explored it in some depth and am the richer in my walk with the Lord for it.
Those who would not wade into such theological waters often dismiss these questions with a light and subtly pietistic air: “Ah, but brother…you’re adding to the Word of God…you must just take the inspired Word for what it says.”
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Much in the Word of God doesn’t support the orthodox position to the extent its proponents assume. It was precisely the desire to take the Word of God for what it says that first led me down this road less traveled, as is the case with many thousands like me.
Jesus said as clearly as he could (John 12:32) that his death would draw all men to him. It’s there in black and white, in nearly every translation from the King James (all) to Living (everyone).
Paul emphasized the same truth when he wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:22), “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”
There’s that troublesome word all again. What do we do with such statements—especially, coming as they do, from the lips of Jesus and Paul?
While we mustn’t add to the Word of God, it seems we are under a similar injunction not to subtract from it, and change that all to “some” in order to shrink what Jesus and Paul actually said to fit traditional orthodoxy.
For a reason which has puzzled me as long as I can remember, it seems that the multitude of evangelical Christians don’t want God to be too good. They are inexplicably threatened by the thought that God might be more loving and more forgiving than they are. This remains a baffling mystery to me. Nor is it a question most people want to be challenged with. It seems they just do not want to think about it.
But as God’s people, we must think about it.
Do we want to know who God is? Or are we content with an image of him that has been passed down to us through recent years which may not even be based on Scripture?
It is a vital query, upon which the future effectiveness of our evangelism depends. If we don’t know whether God’s love and forgiveness are really infinite, what then is the “good news” we proclaim to the world? Merely that he saves us from hell? That with his right hand of love he rescues us from his left hand of vengeance? That the loving Son protects us from the wrathful Father?
That may be “news.” I’m not sure whether it’s very good news.
The people in today’s world are more sophisticated than we give them credit for being. This doctrine which puts something like a divine schizophrenia at the heart of the Godhead sounds less than ridiculous to them. Is it any wonder the large percentage of thinking men and women aren’t listening with a great deal of attentiveness to this thing that we continue to insist is good news?
Might it not be time we realistically face how the God that we insist loves them actually appears to a large percentage of people? We have to be pragmatic about that fact. We flatter ourselves with minuscule pockets of revival, but the stark fact is for the most part, the world isn’t heeding the gospel message. I think it is largely because we are confused about who God is and what is his intrinsic character.
Controversy but not heresy
One point of misunderstanding must be cleared away at the outset—a belief in universal reconciliation is not “heresy.” Numerous Bible believing, sound thinking, men and women of God have held to the doctrine of universal reconciliation throughout the entire history of the church.
This is not to say it is not a controversial matter. Surely it is. However, universal reconciliation is not by definition a spurious nor obviously unbiblical doctrine, such as gnosticism, which sprang up in the first century and which many Christian leaders had to warn against. Respected leaders of the Church have believed in universal reconciliation. The reason they believed it may startle you: It was their conviction (on the basis of John 12:32 and 1 Cor. 15:22) that Jesus and Paul both taught it.
Though it is not recognized in most evangelical circles today, scriptural evidence exists on both sides of what, as I say, we must recognize as a matter of great controversy. Once a man or woman begins opening his or her eyes to the broader view to which many scriptures point, he or she often becomes astounded at what they suddenly begin seeing on almost every page of the Bible. I make that statement, not in an attempt to argue on behalf of the broader view, so to speak, but merely to level the scriptural playing field.
It’s not as easy a matter as saying, “I just take the Bible at literal face value.” The words themselves (the “words” given us by the translators) sometimes point in opposite directions, as Matthew 25:46 and Philippians 2:10 clearly evidence. Here sit the most obvious proof-texts for the two opposing viewpoints on the eternal destiny of sinners—the one, as translated, speaking of “eternal punishment,” the other declaring that “every knee” will ultimately bow in profession of faith.
That’s why the playing field must be leveled. The searching heart must come to this question with an open and prayerful mind. The Scriptures simply aren’t as clear on the matter as we might wish. Much prayer and the illumination of the Holy Spirit are required.
As it is not an intrinsically heretical idea, neither is universal reconciliation a new doctrine. It is as old as the church itself, and has been a respected position to maintain. As the centuries passed, however, on the one end of the theologic spectrum, to the great detriment of the fabric of the church, it gradually has come to be considered heresy. That twisting of a viable scriptural position into a doctrine people are taught to fear has rendered impotent the vital inquiry into the character of God, and thus has seriously weakened evangelicalism itself.
It is, of course, possible to compile quotations a mile long to validate any belief in any position. Men and women throughout history have believed most things it is possible to believe. Enough research can generate “a cloud of witnesses” in support of any doctrine, spiritual or otherwise.
But the following observation might be worthy of consideration. Oftentimes (certainly not every time), opinion and a pre-formed viewpoint lead the way on the part of those advocating what perhaps would be called the orthodox fundamental position—the view of an endless hell whose purpose is retributive rather than remedial, in which death represents the final and absolute closing of the door of opportunity of further redemption. Writings in support of this widely-held orthodoxy generally (I do not say all) reflect a desire to maintain this already established position. Rarely do you find accounts of “personal search” leading the way into increasingly deeper understanding of this orthodoxy. In my own experience, I have not encountered the writings of the individuals holding this perspective looking for more of God’s truth, hungering for a deeper reach of God’s love, crying out to discover a wider extent of God’s salvation.
This is a most significant point.
In general, Scripture indicates that personal hunger and a search for truth lead to wisdom and understanding, while an adherence to the traditions of men, without a heart-hunger accompanying it, can lead to spiritual stagnation.
A hundred biblical passages could be brought in to support this principle, that understanding and wisdom come as a result of an intense search for truth with one’s whole heart. The entire book of Proverbs and most of Jesus’ teachings and Paul’s epistles resound with the cry to leave no stone unturned…to search, knock, dig, seek, pray. Personal hunger offers a necessary searchlight into constantly new and deeper dimensions of faith.
“If you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand…and find the knowledge of God.” (Proverbs 2: 3-5)
How do we imagine that Jesus grew into such confidence and boldness that he walked through the grainfields on the Sabbath, breaking the law in plain view of the Pharisees? How else other than by challenging the orthodoxy of his day in just this seeking, searching, praying manner. What was he doing in the temple among the teachers and elders when he was twelve—questioning the stale and unscriptural orthodoxy of the day.
The related principle is equally supported scripturally: Steadfastly adhering to a spiritual orthodoxy (any spiritual orthodoxy), calling those who disagree heretics, and directing one’s study and energies exclusively to the bolstering of that orthodoxy with greater strength than toward the discovery of new and deeper truths…such is a potential pathway toward spiritual stagnation and eventual error. Such does not always occur, but the potential danger is always there. Stagnation is a clear scriptural principle—it usually infiltrates status-quo faith.
These two factors, on the face of them, recommend the conclusions of those who have labored in prayer and study over some matter to a greater extent than the conclusions of those whose views are set in concrete on the basis of traditions which often they have not wrestled through for themselves.
This tells nothing for certain. A searching individual may just as well wind up following a pathway toward error, to which the growth of the cults attests. The perennial “seeker” who makes little headway in life, may be just a spiritual nomad without much of a clue to what’s going on about anything. On the other side of it, many traditional doctrines and opinions are indeed true, and become widely held just because they are accurate interpretations of the Bible.
We have to make some determinations concerning the character and spiritual integrity of those whose words we read. Hannah Hurnard, for example, recounts her personal and prayerful search in detail. George MacDonald’s struggle to find truth in the midst of the prevailing traditions of his times is well documented. William Barclay spent a lifetime of Scriptural study, gradually developing the view of the afterlife that he did not make public until three years before his death.
Are Hannah Hurnard’s and George MacDonald’s “searches” prompted by hearts truly listening to God, or are these individuals desert nomads whose experience really doesn’t tell us much? In my own case, does my admitting that “I have been a seeker along the same road myself” and that “my own points of view are still forming” recommend me as reliable witness to these matters, or as a kook who has been out in the desert too long and has had too much sun? These are questions you have to determine on the basis of what you know about anyone you choose to listen to and whose perspective you choose to heed.
Opinion and tradition come more into the various arguments in support of so-called orthodoxy, while prayer enters more into the personal accounts of those seeking for truth no matter where the search might lead. And prayer, if it comes from the heart of a sincerely God-hungry individual, must yield a harvest of truth in the end. Its compass is pointed in only one direction—toward God. The compass of opinion and tradition, however, can point to any of the 360 degrees of a circle—toward truth or away from it.
As I have observed this principle at work, there is another factor that reveals itself very differently on the two sides of this doctrinal fence—open-mindedness. I witness what seems a deeper open-mindedness toward Scripture on the part of those hungry searching individuals than I have seen from those, many renowned theologians among them, whose aim is to prop up and support the orthodox traditions which have been passed down to them. Now open-mindedness is not in and of itself necessarily always a virtue. Yet it is often a requisite to clear thinking. If Peter had not been open-minded on the rooftop in Joppa, where would we all be now? If Paul had not been open-minded on the road to Damascus, where would we all be now? God had to jolt both Peter and Paul out of their comfortable, existing orthodoxies. So open-mindedness can be a vital doorway into truth when God speaks something new to his people.
The difference between this reliance on tradition, orthodoxy, and opinion on the one side, and personal, open-minded search, led by hunger and prayer, on the other tends toward the following result—that “orthodox-tradition” driven studies are more proof-text oriented, while “search-and-prayer” inquiries probe more persistently into the long-range, general, and more overarching purposes of Scripture. On top of this, I have also discovered a much weightier level of scholarship, and more thorough inquiry into the historic meanings of the original Greek texts, on the parts of those willing to look beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy. The scholarship of the studies by Andrew Jukes, Thomas Allin, and A.R. Symonds profoundly surpasses anything I have found by the contemporary “theologians” and authors who are writing on these topics.
Proof-text spirituality was precisely the pit into which the Pharisees had fallen. This, therefore, concerns me about the many studies I have read in support of our orthodox traditions.
Opinion and proof-text motivated treatises simply do not, in my experience, yield the quality of ore as do those penned by men and women who have struggled, prayed, and searched their way deeply into the mine-shafts of God’s Word, led by hunger after God’s heart rather than a desire to bolster existing theologies. It therefore becomes a matter of the most serious import in our research that we ask to whom we are listening.
My own pursuit has involved a great deal of reading on both sides of the fence. I have read today’s leading evangelical theologians on this matter, searching for truth just as avidly in their writings as I have in MacDonald and others. I have genuinely, and I hope humbly, sought to be open-minded and to examine evidence presented by theologians across the spectrum. When fundamentalist theologians engage on discussion at this point, however, I have found their analyses more often than not attempts merely to argue on behalf of the orthodox status quo with automatic knee-jerk scriptural interpretations. I do not find them upturning new scriptural soil, wide-eyed and enthusiastic to see what they might discover. Passages such as John 1:7 and John 12:32 and Philippians 2:10 are dismissed with a wave of the hand. I do not say such personal quests do not exist in fundamentalist orthodoxy, only that I have rarely found them insofar as this particular issue is concerned. The scarcity of such seems to be a result of the fact that many preachers, teachers, and would-be theologians do not set themselves to prayerfully study the scriptural possibilities concerning the afterlife, so much as they set themselves simply to expound upon what has been expounded by thousands before them.
Dr. Loyal Hurley, before his personal quest for truth began, describes such a mentality. “Like Saul of old,” he writes concerning the possibility of universal reconciliation, “I had thought that I ought to do many things against this heretical teaching—everything but to study it!” (The Outcome Of Infinite Grace, p. 1)
Who are we listening to?
Sadly as a result, through the centuries a great deal of superficiality has come to pass for sound doctrine. Anyone may “expound” on any passage of Scripture he likes. If he is a clever writer, he can easily make his expositions and proof-texts and opinions sound as if they occupy a level of stature equal to that from the pen of one who has studied and prayed the same matter through for fifty years. But the difference in weight, integrity, and erudition of such expositions is enormous.
A few years ago I perused the shelves of our own Christian bookstore to see what current teachings on the subject of hell were being published. One was written by a former sports figure, a very well known and popular author and speaker, full of attempted humor, cute witticisms, and a general tone which made light of a very serious matter. Grievously, the following kind of thing passes for sound teaching in today’s church. I quote from his “commentary” on Luke 16:19-31. Lazarus is renamed Larry:
“There was a rich kid who dressed well. Clean! Slick! Very together…He lived it up daily. In other words, he was a total party animal… Bill had it all…The best CD and DAT recorder…a forty-two inch tube TV…Of course he was great looking and was one of those unusual teenagers who didn’t have any zits…a standout jock; the star quarterback…the top track guy…The luscious lover was great in the girl department…What can I say? The guy was a stallion, Sir Studly…. The son of the gardener was named Larry. He lived by the entry to the estate in the gatekeeper’s cottage down below the rich kid’s house. Larry had a pretty tough life. He had some terrible zits and was covered with sores. We’re not just talking simple pimples here. Larry had acne vulgarus. His was a severe case…The medical plan for Larry was obviously deficient, because instead of a prescription for his face…they got a dog to lick his zits…How gross! Poor Larry. (Remember, I didn’t write this stuff. You’ll have to take this one up with God.)…
It came about that this poor, pitiful, and pathetic person died and went to heaven. I think the doctor diagnosed Larry’s cause of death as a case of infected zits. The very next day Dollar Bill was driving his ‘vette, wrapped it around a tree, was killed, and went to Hades. Looking up, the rich kid saw Larry in the penthouse.”
It is pointless to continue. And painful, to see the important things of God written about in such a careless, juvenile manner. However, this is the sad state to which much current evangelical teaching has degenerated. Many books of this caliber find their way onto the best-seller lists every month.
It isn’t merely the frivolous treatment about a holy thing that concerns me. Most worrisome is that by such lighthearted foolishness are God’s people being taught. Believe it or not, this book has received rave reviews. Its back cover and front matter proclaim endorsements and recommendations by twenty-two pastors and ministry presidents and directors, many of whose names you would instantly recognize. Christian leaders are encouraging their people to form their spiritual perspectives by listening to this kind of immature scriptural analysis.
This same author’s deep and studied advice concerning the subject of universal reconciliation was quick and easy, “Universalism is a nonbiblical way for people to cope with their fear of hell. It is an escapist philosophy. Pure denial. So don’t get sucked in.”
Has he studied the matter, prayed and wrestled with God over it, searched the Scriptures to see what the biblical writers might have to say beyond his proof-texts?
The same author goes on to comment, “It’s a kinda’ double-whammy retribution reunion, lasting forever. We’re talkin’ bad berries…Stay out of hell. You don’t want to go there. It’s the pits—literally.”
Neither this nor the other books I examined explored in any depth the scriptural evidence on all sides of what is a very difficult, complex, and important issue. The pat answers were given with little more than opinions and superficial anecdotes. The heartbreaking fact is, Christians are listening to this. It is such shallow, populist, pseudo-theology that fills the books and pulpits by which evangelicalism is forming its perspectives.
At the same time, the prayer-driven searches of people like Hannah Hurnard, and scriptural studies of depth and scholarship of men like William Barclay, and the wisdom and insight of men like Andrew Jukes, William Law, Thomas Allin, George MacDonald, and A.R. Symonds are dispensed with in a few words of “warning.”
It matters very much who we listen to. It matters how they have arrived at the point of making a given declaration, and what is the Scriptural basis for the words they speak. The individuals represented in these pages are ones whose thoughts, ideas, and writings have stood the test of time.
Several of William Law’s books are viewed as classics three centuries after his death. George MacDonald and Andrew Jukes are still read more than a century after their words were written. William Barclay and Hannah Hurnard’s books have been in the forefront of influence within Christendom for the past forty years. Their books can be found in nearly every Christian bookstore in the U.S. or Great Britain.
The mine tunnels of their writings—as I have prayerfully chipped and probed and picked away—are ones where I have discovered much to enlighten, invigorate, and challenge me, and send me ever more deeply into the Father’s heart of infinite goodness and love. Judy and I have tried to bring their example into how we approach our quest to know God’s character more fully.
Pharasaism exists everywhere
I would add but one further “warning” of my own. Neither personal search nor great scholarship, nor studying every Greek lexicon for every original meaning and nuance of every applicable word and phrase, will protect anyone from stagnant Pharisaism either. I know a number of individuals who consider themselves completely enlightened in the matter of universal reconciliation, yet sadly who are no more open-minded, forgiving, and committed to obedience to the Scriptures than those of more traditional viewpoint they so hastily condemn. I know others who are so obsessed with the study of this doctrine they can think of nothing else. It has completely taken away all sense of balance in their Christian walks. On the other hand, some of the most Christlike men and women it is our privilege to call our dear friends are lifelong believers in the orthodox view of an eternal hell. We love them and they love us, and our differences on this topic never arise. Most of them have no idea we are even interested in it, and we have no desire to raise the issue. Our love for one another completely transcends doctrinal issues. Our interest in this particular issue pales into insignificance alongside the value of those relationships. If we had a difficulty to resolve, it is to such individuals (on both sides of the fence) whose overall lives represent balance and a priority of Christlikeness to whom we would go for counsel, rather than to the acquaintances I mentioned before who are totally preoccupied with universal reconciliation above everything. Obsession nearly always leads to imbalance. And imbalance usually tends away from truth.
These are the reasons it doesn’t concern me as greatly as it does some others to be right on such and such a point, or to know whether I am right or wrong. I’m far more concerned to know who God is and to try to do what he tells me.
Everything we study must be infused with and tempered by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise we are all susceptible to error, Pharisaism, legalism, argumentation, judgment…no matter which side of any particular doctrinal fence we happen to be standing on. An obsession with the subject of universal reconciliation is sure to lead us off the center of Christlike living just as surely as a preoccupation with any doctrine. If we do not set ourselves to live the practical teachings of Jesus, then all the study in the world into these matters will only lead to lifeless intellectualism, and the worship of our own opinions, in the end.
Both of us pray that you continue to enjoy the quest, and that you will be enlightened, invigorated, and challenged…and led above all to live and obey the commands and instructions of Jesus.