Ultimately here I will point to universalism, the belief that in the end God’s love and light reconcile all things through Messiah. Many are not willing to take that radical of a step into believing in the effectiveness of God’s love. There are many alternatives besides universalism to a theology of an angry God.
Imagine trying to love an idea of God who — in spite of his being hidden in the darkness of this unjust world, in spite of the absence of evidence that God-believers are more loving or good than others, in spite of the problem of tragic things happening to those undeserving of such misfortune — demands that you come to believe in his existence and also certain doctrines about Jesus Christ, all on a strict deadline prior to the moment of death. If you don’t love him and arrive at those doctrinal beliefs, in the most commonly believed version, he will keep you alive in a furnace of agony for billions of years without end.
That is not a God worthy of love. By any standards other than religion, we would call a ruler who uses his power like this a tyrant.
Many of us eventually realize that this version of God does not match the one we sense in our deepest intuitions. I believe that our desires are a clue to who we are, to who made us, to our unknown origins in eternity past. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, if we find in ourselves a desire for a satisfaction nothing in this world can fulfill, then the simplest explanation is that we were made for another world. Our longings are clues.
What we long for is not a tyrant, but rather we look for virtues from God that give meaning to the darkness. Grace. Love. Mercy. Redemption. Repair. Desire fulfilled.
What are the alternatives to the angry God view? We should begin with logical options to mitigate the damage of tyrant theology:
- We could postpone the deadline (not the moment of death).
- We could downgrade the punishment (not torture with fire).
- We could change the motive for punishment (not vengeance, but rehabilitation).
- We could shorten the duration of the punishment (not forever).
- We could lighten the requirements (not doctrinal acceptance).
- We could increase the size of the group who will be rescued (many, most, maybe all).
Postponing the Salvation Deadline
Most reading this were born in the Christian West. For you it has been relatively easy to pick Christian faith as an option in life. Perhaps this is why so many think the “Jesus choice” is relatively easy, something anyone should be able to see in this lifetime.
Think beyond your surroundings. Imagine all the people before Jesus. Imagine people from remote parts of the world. Imagine people for whom the usual options are Buddhism or Islam. Rethink the possibilities and perhaps you will see, not every person has an equal chance of coming to the Jesus conclusion.
The problem goes away if it turns out we have time after death to see God’s light. The strictness of the deathbed deadline is deplorable dogma.
Many cannot imagine a post-death (post-mortem) opportunity to still believe in God and Jesus. A typical scenario people imagine is that when someone dies they will appear before God — picture the just-deceased soul standing in front of the majestic throne — and hear the judgment from God directly.
But what if it isn’t like that. What if hell (or the place we go at death if we are not already redeemed) is a grey world, devoid of much joy or light, a place given over to self-worship and ignorance? What if it is some kind of underworld?
But suppose that even there, in some way we cannot know right now, the light of God still penetrates? What if God keeps revealing himself to those in hell?
Downgrading the Punishment
Another option in lessening the cruelty of the allegedly loving God of Christianity is downgrading the punishment. Maybe the problem is just the idea of torture with fire. Perhaps the torture could be reduced or done away with altogether. Jesus referred not only the burning in Gehenna, but also darkness. Fire and darkness are images that don’t seem to be compatible. Maybe fire is a metaphor and darkness is closer to the truth. Maybe hell is a place away from the light and joy of being.
Some appealing theories describe hell as a place where we suffer our own vices and insanities. Society in hell is like this world minus beauty, truth, and goodness. We are sentenced to the worst version of ourselves.
I note simply at this point: a God who eternally exiles us to Vice-Land is still a tyrant, dishing out infinite punishment for finite guilt.
Revising Our View of Punishment’s Motive
An important realization in believing in justice from God is that punishment from a benevolent, all-powerful Ruler should be about rehabilitation, redemption, not exacting vengeance. Whatever we decide about the duration of the punishment people receive at God’s hand, and no matter what form the punishment takes, we do better to think of it as a refining fire that transforms and not an angry conflagration that exacts revenge.
Shortening Hell’s Duration
Another way we could reconcile traditions about hell with the image of a Loving God is to recognize that hell cannot go on forever. One common alternative is Annihilationism, also known as Conditional Immortality.
Annihilationism is the belief that either immediately or after a period of time God ends the existence of those who will not be redeemed. We will simply cease to exist. Proponents of this view also use the term Conditional Immortality. By this they mean that we are not automatically eternal beings. Immortality is granted to those who are saved, who receive God’s love and are granted everlasting life as a gift. The rest will cease to be.
The quintessential book defining this view is by Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes. I highly recommend it to people who might not be ready to explore some even more radical options (the two categories below). People who feel compelled to believe in a strict punishment, even a deadline that comes when we die, will appreciate the compelling case for annihilation in Fudge’s book. Your loved ones who did not believe in Jesus will not be tortured. They simply missed out on eternal life and will cease to exist.
But maybe this is only one step along the way. Maybe God’s positive, saving love does more.
Lightening Salvation’s Requirements
Here is how a lot of people think about it. God would let you into his paradise if you were perfect. But God knows we are broken and imperfect, so he shows us grace. And one big aspect of this grace God shows us is accepting something less than perfection.
What does God replace perfection with? Instead of being perfect saints with angelic levels of virtue, we can be believers in a short list of doctrines and God will accept this in place of said perfection.
People often say Jesus paid the price and God gives salvation free. But the typical gospel is not free. It is about achieving a certain level of doctrinal clarity. And you must do it before you die.
The typical view has been called “Justification Theory” (by my favorite Paul scholar, Douglas Campbell). We could also call it “exclusivism.” This gospel excludes the majority of human beings from God’s people. Their only hope to get in is accepting ideas like:
- I am guilty before God of falling short of his glory and perfection.
- God is One and his Son is Jesus, but Jesus shares God’s unique divine nature.
- Jesus died to pay for my sins (an idea which is explained according to various atonement theories).
- My good works are empty and incapable of winning God’s acceptance.
- God accepts our belief in the above statements (and some people would add in a few more) in lieu of perfection (as long as we do it before we die).
This list of beliefs we must achieve is rather impossible for most people who have ever lived. A young person in Saudi Arabia has approximately zero chance of passing God’s test (the supposed test of beliefs listed above). People born before Christ had no real chance. People in remote areas or places where the dominant religion is so different from Christianity would be more likely encounter aliens from the far reaches of the galaxy than this gospel believed in by so many Christians.
So that’s where “lightening salvation’s requirements” could be taken further. Logically speaking, it is possible to say that God might lighten them further. More even than accepting a set of beliefs in place of perfection, maybe God has some other standard. This leads to the idea of “inclusivism.” It is also known as Wider Hope.
Inclusivism (or Wider Hope) is an idea which could take many forms. It essentially says “you don’t have to get the doctrines all correct to be saved.” Maybe the criteria are different for people in dissimilar situations. Maybe a person in a land of Buddhists isn’t expected to believe in monotheism or Jesus.
What exactly could the standard be in place of adhering to a list of doctrines? I guess the possibilities are many. Maybe those who love others, imperfectly, but truly. Maybe a certain level of humility, recognizing and submitting to God and Messiah. I guess in some way the criteria could be people who have responded to his invisible revelations in their lives. The point is not to fixate on the minimum requirements, but to be confident that God will include people broadly in his love with an ocean full of lovingkindness.
My view of the matter goes beyond inclusivism, to the ultimate inclusion, which is universalism. But if you would like to know more you could read Neal Punt, A Theology of Inclusivism. Or No Other Name, by John Sanders and Clark Pinnock.
Augmenting the Size of the Saved: Universalism
Many of the options already mentioned augment the size of the saved. If there is still hope in hell of being redeemed, then countless individuals still have a chance. If God’s way is inclusive, offering a wider hope, the possibility of more people being saved is real.
But I have to ask if these options are enough. Is it really possible that the light of God could fail to become all in all? Could there be a future in which God is unable to help some beings see his goodness? Is the Infinite limited in ability to persuade, to win over, to bring us to our knees in loving amazement?
We want the same thing God wants. The desire of the righteous ends only in good and will be granted. God himself yearns for our well-being and completion as creatures. He suffers with us in our brokenness. He took on our condition, the divine Messiah, and he lived it. He has shown us how involved he is, how much this matters to him. The condition we find ourselves in, going back conceptually to the first Adam, is undone by the Last Adam (Rom 5:12-19; 1 Cor 15:21-22). As in Adam all die, so in Messiah all are made alive. All.
God has a plan for the “fullness of time” to “unite all things” in Jesus, in Messiah, in Yeshua the divine Messiah (Eph 1:10). He will unite all things, not some things. He will “reconcile all things to himself” (Col 1:20). In case “all things” is not clear enough, Paul adds “whether on earth or in heaven.”
People will say, “God let’s stubborn people continue to spurn him and he lets them live in the world they choose.” But would you treat your children this way? Wouldn’t you keep trying to get your child to see what is good and persuade them to choose it? What person who finally understands who and what God really is would reject untarnished happiness?
What if God prefers a world where everyone is saved? What if he has the patience, power, and persuasiveness to bring this about? This view, my view, is called universalism.
I think he does. Beyond death, beyond hell, it is Messiah’s faithfulness that saves us, not our ability to have faith. Romans 5:1 actually says, “Since we have been saved by faithfulness [that is, the faithfulness of Jesus], we have peace with God.” Hell is real. It does not last forever. It is not torture. It is part of the pain many must go through to be remade, to become unbroken, to rise like the Phoenix and take part in the lands of desire that have always been the intended destination.
Those who are saved, whether in this present life, or from hell in the life beyond, will know who God is, who Messiah is, and believe in the Love that redeems. Readers who want to know more about universalism are encouraged to pick up The Evangelical Univeralist, by Gregory MacDonald (an alias for theologian Robin Parry). Or get The Inescapable Love of God, by Thomas Talbott. If you want a scripture-heavy, less theological version, get Hope Beyond Hell, by Gerry Beauchemin.