Alternatives to the Angry God Theology

green hills inspiring belief in universalismUltimately 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.

Related Posts

narrow road in Israel A Second Look at the Narrow Road of Jesus

21 Comments

  1. Thank you for this piece, Derek. This is an important topic to explore and discuss. Assuming the premise that we have a perfectly LOVING as well as perfectly JUST God, the Conditional Immortality view seems to me to be the MOST Biblically sound and consistent perspective. (I also believe “Unrecognized Mediation” can be factored in to a limited degree.)

    The Universalsism view doesn’t quite gel with me. The fact remains that no matter how much God desires those He has created in His image to sincerely, genuinely, and freely love Him, some will resolutely reject Him NO MATTER WHAT. God will not violate our free will. And unfortunately there will ALWAYS be those who willfully chose to reject Him. No amount of “rehabilitation” is going remedy those who defiantly spurn His correction. His patience is long but it’s not forever.

    1. Merrill,

      I hear you and others say that nothing God can do would be able to make all his creatures with free will choose goodness, life, and light. I disagree. God’s resources are infinite. The goodness of what God has for us is so absolute, rejecting it is in no one’s best interest. Even the hardest, I think, will be won over given time.

      As Robin Parry (a.k.a. Gregory MacDonald) points out, in a Calvinist version, God can just give us the ability to believe. I don’t agree. But in a free will, middle knowledge version of reality, God knows about all possible universes and could have created the one in which there would be no holdouts left in hell.

      1. Derek Leman,

        In your reply to Merrill you mentioned the “Middle knowledge version of reality”. I agree that God in His foreknowledge ” of our choices could have decreed from eternity a world that would allow for the greatest possible number of people to freely choose to accept His conditions for salvation, and I also believe that is indeed the one which He ultimately actualized.”
        However, I think it is wishful human thinking that He would have created the one in which there “would be no holdouts left in hell.” But who knows for sure?
        Dr. William Lane Craig, renowned Christian apologist and philosopher discusses some of this in the following link:

        http://www.reasonablefaith.org/molinism-and-infallibility

        Don

        1. Thank you, Donald. And Robin Parry (a.k.a. Gregory MacDonald) engages William Lane Craig’s arguments in the first chapter of The Evangelical Universalist.

      2. Derek,
        When you say “even the hardest, I think, will be won over given time”, does this include the Hitlers of the world?
        And does this also include the fallen angelic beings?

        1. Of course. Eternity is too long to punish any crime. And eternity is too long for even the most evil not to realize their wrongness and be transformed. Justice for finite crimes, even if they number 6 million, cannot be infinite torment.

          1. So are the unredeemed punished until they come to their senses, repent and decide to love God and others? And what does their punishment/ rehabilitation look like? How does it actually “reform” them without being in some sense “coerced”, infringing on their free-will?

  2. If we take into account the hierarchical nature (different rewards and losses based on our works) of the world to come described by Yeshua and Revelation, wouldn’t this mean that even after the wicked are purified, they would still be the lowest of servants to those that started to follow Yeshua in life (the first will be last and the last will be first)? This could be considered a form of eternal punishment, yet also it is universalism because this view says they are actually completely purified before entering into service.

    Therefore, we could speculate that Hitler, after purification would still be a servant for various Jewish rulers and other ethnic groups he went after for all eternity.

    This also fits well with those that never heard. The motive to spread the gospel isn’t so much for getting more in as opposed to giving more people opportunities to earn more “talents” for eternity (disciples, not converts). Therefore, those that follow Yeshua in this life (a minority in history) are being prepared to be rulers of those that never heard (the majority of all people in history) in eternity.

    1. Love your screen name, Elros, first king of Numenor. Tolkien geeks are welcome here.

      I have not decided what I believe concerning rewards and hierarchy in the world to come. I am aware of the strong evidence that Yeshua and others believed in something like what you are saying. I just haven’t had a chance to pass that through my new filters yet.

      But what you are saying sounds reasonable to me.

      1. Thanks, and yes I’m a big fan of Tolkien and what he did. I commented under a different name here before, but can’t remember it. Just getting a consistent username across different places.

        When you get to studying it through your new filters, I’d recommend adding in the honor-shame perspective from the Context Group scholars (Malina, Neyrey, Richards, etc).

  3. I should add that in the honor-shame society of the Ancient Near East, the Roman Empire, and 70% of the world today, “the first will be last and the last will be first” would certainly feel like punishment knowing that their honor-status level could be so radically reversed in the world to come.

  4. Once again I am enjoying your ideas. Thank you for exploring this subject many of these ideas & thoughts are similar to my own.
    “All things” I believe means all things the human race included.
    There are some scriptures however that bring much thought to the idea of eternal punishment.
    I eagerly await more words from you.
    Blessings Tina

  5. Great perspectives, Derek! Curious, what do we do with believer of other religions? Still try to tell them about Jesus or kinda let them be? Is there still a place for evangelism in your new view?

    1. Ilya,

      Absolutely, evangelism is important. We are advocates for Yeshua, for this peace we know in Messiah. Hell is real, though not unending and not torture. Happiness is real and the desires of our hearts are met through Yeshua.

  6. Dear Derek,
    I read your post with great interest, but not without a certain amount of fear and trepidation to not go beyond scripture. My view is more in line with Merrill here, conditional immortality and also more inclusivist for those who never truly encountered Jesus but feared God the way He was recognizable. Universalism goes a step too far for me because there are so many other verses in the bible which contradict this view. What about the second death in revelation or the sin against the Spirit, which will not be forgiven, neither in this world nor in the next? The “all”-language in Rom.11 and elsewhere speak in context about all nations, Jews and Gentiles, not all individuals. Col.1,20 is different indeed since it includes “all in heaven” – I´m not sure what this means, I must think about it, 1.Pet.3,19-20 comes to my mind, whoever these spirits are (people, fallen angels?) there is redemption beyond death. If there is redemption beyond hell I don´t know, these are ultimative questions we do not have a clear revelation, so I think we must take care. In the moment I can only trust God that He knows the heart of every person and his judgement will be absolutely righteous. Though if it would end like, we don´t need to tell people about Jesus because everyone will be saved anyway in the end, I disagree strongly, this is not the way of the apostles! Paul gave his life to spread the gospel about Jesus, not driven by fear but out of love and awe for the grandeur of what God did through Jesus and also with prophetic urgency to call for repentance. But if I understand you correctly this is not what you are saying. You want to take fear from people and encourage more to trust in God´s goodness, right?
    Blessings,
    Angelika

  7. What do you do with scriptures describing DEATH and PERISHing?

    Rom 6:23 For the wages of sin is DEATH/thanatos, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
    James 1:15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth DEATH. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.
    John 3:16“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not PERISH/apollumi, but have eternal life.”
    Luke 13:3 “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all PERISH/apollumi. …5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all PERISH/apollumi.”
    Mt 10:28 “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to DESTROY/apollumi both soul and body in hell.

    1. I’ll be slowly getting into more details about the “hell” and “destruction” passages. Please remember, I work in another industry now and my theological writing is very part time. If anyone wants to read a well-rounded book on the subject, look up The Evangelical Universalist.

      1. When you get into the “hell” passages, please don’t use the word “hell”. 😁 It drives me nuts when people are trying to teach about hell, but they mix Gehenna, Hades, Sheol, and the lake of fire (and sometimes the Abyss). When they get too far from the original languages, I start to notice assumptions and philosophy (and even Dante) creeping in.

        As you know, the word hell is translated from several different Greek and Hebrew words, depending upon which translation you are using. I tend to think of the “hell” that people want to avoid as the lake of fire which only begins to get residents when the beast and false prophet are thrown in. I am not concerned with the duration so much as what exactly happens there. How can one’s body and soul be “destroyed”, and yet the person receives eternal life as universalism would suggest?

        Thanks for the book reference. I’ll check it out.

  8. Would you be willing to address this specific verse in light of the eventuality of all coming to knowledge Derek? My heart and mind are open I just come to a full stop when I come across a passage such as Mark 3:29-29
    28 “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *