Friday, October 21, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: When We ALL Get to Heaven

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The Huffington Post headline reads “Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics”.

The Post adds, “Pope Francis rocked some religious and atheist minds today when he declared that everyone was redeemed through Jesus, including atheists. During his homily at Wednesday Mass in Rome, Francis emphasized the importance of ‘doing good’ as a principle that unites all humanity.”

Everybody’s Home Free

Tom: It’s not quite universalism, but add a few good works in there and it seems everybody’s home free. If so, that’s pretty generous of Rome, wouldn’t you say? Do you know if he’s walked that one back yet?

Immanuel Can: I haven’t heard, actually. The Catholics have a doctrine they call “general grace”. In part it’s right and in part it’s not. The part that’s right is the idea that God is gracious to everyone in a general way because he gives us all good things, and provides for us an amazing world in which to exercise our freedom, regardless of our attitude to him. But then the Pope takes it a step further and says that this “grace” is also the grace of salvation, so that even raw pagans are eventually saved whether they will it or no.

Tom: To be fair to Francis, there is probably a difference between what he intended to say and what the HuffPo reported. They love this kind of thing. I don’t think he meant to say that raw pagans get saved against their will. What he said was:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” ... “We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

So not everybody gets in. The raw pagan may be saved, but only if he’ll “do good”. So it’s almost universalism, but not quite. Maybe we can call it “works-based potential universalism”?

The Inevitable Reference to Rob Bell

IC: This sort of argument also came up in evangelical circles a few years back, with Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. So it’s a controversy that crosses the Catholic-Protestant boundary.

Tom: Quite so. Is Bell’s position that everybody gets in: Hitler, Stalin, Charles Manson ... Madonna? I don’t want to mischaracterize an entire book that I haven’t read.

IC: Well, that’s the inevitable consequence of universalism, isn’t it? Some views allow for a purgatory in between earthly life and eternal bliss, but isn’t the upshot really that once Nero, Genghis Khan, Muhammad or Pol Pot have spent sufficient time in the penalty box they are released to the very same eternal bliss enjoyed by their victims? And given that however long and nasty purgatory might be, it’s immeasurably shorter than eternity, it would seem that the difference ends up being negligible, however you look at it.

Tom: The review I read of Bell’s book in Relevant Magazine suggests, as you say, that he anticipates repeated chances for the unrepentant sinner while in hell until everyone finally sees the light, making Bell’s hell much more like the Catholic purgatory.

“As the theory goes, the gift is so good, so loving and so compelling that eventually hell will be shuttered and all people will be fully reconciled to God through the saving power of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.”

So, yes, a very different view of hell’s finality.

Universalism and God’s Character

IC: But that’s just one problem. Think of what kind of relationship it suggest exists between mankind and God.

Tom: Oh, please, go on ...

IC: Well, it suggests that God has no respect for our individuality, our decisions or our affections. It suggests that the kind of connection he wants with us is a unilateral and arbitrary one, not one based on authenticity and choice. And from our side, it suggests that it’s of no particular consequence who we are or what we want, or even what we do — ultimately, all will turn out not to matter anyway. So it turns our decisions into a sham, our wills into an irrelevancy, our identity into something valueless, and our destiny into something about which our opinions matter not at all.

Tom: That was well put.

IC: Rob Bell’s wrong then … something wins, alright … but the thing that wins is not “love”: it’s cold domination.

Tom: C.S. Lewis famously said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.” Lewis and Rob Bell would not be on the same page, apparently.

IC: We need to ask ourselves, “What is the nature of the relationship that God seeks with man?” Is it something unilateral, domineering, and one-sided, a relationship in which our personalities and individual choices are wiped out by the overwhelming will of God forcing us into his heaven, or is it one based on genuine worship, sincere love and the preservation of the individual identities that God has given us, in which he freely invites us to join him?

Either / Or

Tom: It seems to me that a treatise on the love of God that ends with love winning everyone over without a solitary exception can only amount to one of two things. The first is the scenario you've just set forth in which free will is essentially obliterated. The alternative (and it seems to me that this must surely be Mr. Bell's bottom line) is that this infinite opportunity for salvation — this perpetual divine dialogue with the sinner — is nothing more than a backdoor way of saying that man in his natural state is perfectible via persuasion (or worse, torture); that the problem with the sinner is that nobody has yet reasoned with him in language he can comprehend or else put his feet to the flames for a sufficient period.

IC: You raise a very good point, and I don’t want to pass over it too quickly. We need to ask, if all men are ultimately reconciled with God, by what means does such reconciliation take place? For we know we Christians are reconciled to God through his son, Jesus Christ. But as you say, if the answer for other people is through mere persuasion, or torture in purgatory or some such temporary hell, then what does that say about Christ’s claims to be the only way to God? They are no longer true then. And what does it say about the meaning of the Lord’s sacrifice? When the Lord prayed to his Father, “… if it be possible let this cup pass from me” do we read that the Father said, “There are one or two other ways, but they’re only available in the future — so I’m going to compel you to undergo this terrible death anyway”? Of course not: “Neither is there salvation in any other.” So what “other way” could people be saved in future eternity, since there is no other way but Christ?

Tom: I think, unlike the Catholic emphasis on works that comes out in Francis’ statement I referenced earlier, Christian universalism would claim that all humans WILL be reconciled to God through Christ. They would agree that it is only his sacrifice that made such reconciliation possible. (Well, only that ... and just a little bit of extra time and sufficient loving, reformative torment for certain sorts of people to grasp the concept.)

Faith as a Mechanism

But the universalist gives himself another problem here, doesn’t he: he maintains that the Object of his faith is the same as other Christians, but he does away with faith as the mechanism for some. Because once you are dead in Hades, faith is no longer required, obviously.

So then what does the universalist do with verses like “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” for those who will be, in the universalist scenario, “saved” after death and judgment?

IC: That’s the point. After death and judgment, there is no longer any “faith” required. The truth has been revealed. So people would no longer be responding to the person of Christ, or believing in the word and character of God, but rather capitulating to a mere selfish necessity, and strategizing for their own best interests. So then this second “salvation” would be without grace, without faith, and would not require any sacrifice on the part of our Lord Jesus Christ, and no kind of regeneration: for it does not take any of these things to show a sinful soul how to angle for his or her own benefit. All it would take is the threat of judgment.

In no way are the mechanics of the universalist’s second “salvation” the same as that of real salvation.

Tom: Yes. And furthermore, what of Satan then?

Yes, What About Satan?

IC: I think I catch your point, but please go on.

Tom: He’s the fly in Bell's ointment, is he not? If this “sovereign love” of which the universalist speaks is so overpowering that it cannot ultimately be resisted by anyone (and I’m gritting my teeth here, because certain advocates of this theological position make God sound like the protagonist in a cheesy romance novel), Satan seems to have managed to do a pretty good job of resisting it.

“Needs more time,” would Rob Bell say?

IC: Believe it or not, I’ve spoken with universalists who even will go so far as to say that Satan eventually will “come around”. Yeah, I know. I guess they’ve pretty much given up the concept that anything can be genuinely evil. Good thing the Lord hasn’t.

Tom: Wow. I’m almost speechless.

Universalist Interpretation Historically

Some history: a century or so ago, the universalist argument from scripture related primarily to the meanings of two words in the New Testament: “all” and “eternal”. The “all” comes from Ephesians 1:10 (“to unite ALL things in him”) and Colossians 1:20 (“to reconcile to himself ALL things”). The phrase “all things” was interpreted by the universalist to mean “every person without exception”. Tenuous at best, but it was their only positive argument from scripture.

IC: And not just “every person”, but Hitler, Charles Manson and Satan as well — and regardless of whether or not they are prepared to repent. It kind of makes you wonder what God has to do with any kind of justice, doesn’t it?

Tom: It’s a very lopsided view of God.

Their interpretation of “eternal” or “forever”, on the other hand, is part of a negative argument that basically says, in the words of that great theologian Elvis Costello, “Forever doesn’t mean forever anymore.” The Greek aionion, from which we get “eon”, is held by the universalist to mean “a very long time” rather than “forever”. The unfortunate thing for the universalist is that this disputed adjective appears in the phrases “eternal fire” and “tormented forever”, but it also appears in the verses that speak of God’s “eternal dominion” and our “eternal life”.

IC: That’s interesting. So for universalists, God’s kingdom is supposed to be genuinely eternal, but his condemnation is only “eternal-ish”: that is, not necessarily forever, nor even for very long, especially in comparison to eternity. Can these guys actually read at all — never mind the Greek; that’s maybe too much to ask of them … can they do basic English? Or is it context they can’t figure out?

Tom: Well, to a point. Most of them have finally abandoned this argument, though you still find a few stragglers who have not gotten with the program. But as far back as 1917, universalist C.W. Emmet wrote:

“It is best in fact to admit quite frankly that any view of the future destiny of [unbelievers] which is to be tolerable to us today must go beyond the explicit teaching of the New Testament. ... [This] does not really give us what we want, and it only leads to insincerity if we try to satisfy ourselves by artificial explanations of its language. And we are in the end on surer ground when as Christians we claim the right to go beyond the letter, since we do so under the irresistible leading of the moral principles of the New Testament and of Christ Himself.’ ”

So the modern universalist is either relying on arguments which his fellows have abandoned, or claiming the right to step outside the teaching of the apostles under the “irresistible leading ... of Christ”.

Irresistibly Led ... Right Out of Scripture

IC: What sort of Christianity includes such a conception? “Christ”, they say, tells them one thing and the word of God tells them the opposite? But is not Christ himself the living embodiment of the word of God? And the Spirit that they claim is speaking to them from Christ leads them “irresistibly” to deny the very thing that they admit scripture plainly teaches?

Tom: Thought you’d like that quote.

IC: All that sounds like a mystical, experiential denial of the whole biblical revelation. In any event, the Word cautions us not to believe every spirit, but to test them, the test being that they must conform to the word of God or, says John, there is just no light in them.

This would be a good time to do that.


  1. I read the Huff Post article. Quite interesting, especially to a Catholic. Here is my take on it. I think that Pope Francis is simply getting tired, as I am, (and aren't you too?) about this enormous universal bickering on this globe about who does and who does not have the moral high ground. He, correctly, is linking into a New Testament passage showing Christ's thinking about that as well. His statement that we can all meet at a point where we do good is nothing more, nothing less, than exactly that, namely let's agree that by doing good we do God's work and that you can be at many different places in your life, even not believe in a God, and still meet others at that point. Bingo, fuss, quarrel, bickering, etc., be done with it, it's over.

    At no point does he imply anything beyond that. So you guys, so steeped in your not well thought out doctrinaire 'no salvation through good works' mantra, which kicks in the minute you hear a Catholic suggesting that to remain in God's good standing may also require that you don't act like a creep, are kind of (actually way off) base. (Yes, I have put on my Kindergarten teacher hat here). At no point does Pope Francis or even the Huff post imply any more than a meeting point in a moral space and not a physical or spiritual time and place. Nowhere is it implied by the Pope's message that faith, good behavior (yes works), attitudes, character and qualities like that no longer are important. No, the implication simply is that if you are doing good works, those prerequisites may potentially already be in place, however imperfectly, and that such a place is therefore the best starting point achievable in this world where the other qualities, like faith, at least have a chance of being recognized and of succeeding. So, give the man a break, he is probably a lot smarter than you or I and has a much broader and better perspective on Christianity.

  2. So, wait ... "Do good, Mr. Atheist, because it will give us something to agree on and work together about in this world, but we all know you're going to hell even if you do"?

    Wow. A little hard on the atheist, in my view.

    What Francis intended I'm not sure, but to be fair, the HuffPo quote is "atheists who do good are redeemed", which, if it doesn't mean "saved" is cause for some pretty fine hair splitting. Their characterization of his words is certainly inflammatory, and probably deliberately so.

    1. That's why I think you guys also have an agenda that may not necessarily be beneficial. You are imputing him with intentions that he does not have. In my opinion he did not suggest meet at that place or hell. And by meeting there that you are automatically redeemed is not what Pope Francis implied here and it would obviously be a stretch by the Huff Post to interpret it that way. But I thought my suggestion (interpretation) was reasonable, namely (aka the Iran negotiations) if you can get everyone in the same room where you participate in a recognized common good is a good starting point. The rest, like some more good, like potential growth of faith (as one of the things), can happen there. It is less likely to happen if you are not at all in that same room. Again, I don't think he implied, nor should anyone else, that free tickets are given away, but there is now a chance that one becomes aware that tickets are available.

    2. It's easy to make the mistake of thinking that the most important thing about heaven is how many humans get there -- how many "tickets" are issued, if you will. But really, it's not. What's more important is that those humans become suitable for eternal fellowship with God. And without the transformation brought about by faith in Jesus Christ and the regenerative washing of the Spirit, not one of us is suitable for that.

      In your room analogy, Qman, I see no place for realization of sin, for repentance, for redemption or regeneration...only a place for rethinking, if the participants are so inclined. More importantly, in such a room there is not place for faith, for faith depends on there being something important that we have *not* seen, not about what can be seen in common, and thus compels agreement.

      No faith. No regeneration, no transformation, no glorification...and yet universal salvation? This is not the salvation spoken of in the Bible. And it is not the salvation that made the sacrifice of Christ necessary in the first place, for in it sin is posited as not a very serious problem, as it will be overcome inevitably, without the path of salvation He so clearly laid out, and for which He paid so very much.

    3. Well, I have to disagree with you, IC, because I think you are missing the point here ( highly unusual for you, but it can happen as for all of us ;-). First, it was Pope Francis' analogy but I know what he is trying to say. He was not implying, as you are, that only those people who already have faith should be in that room. He is practical, like me, and like Christ is, in that life means that any time you walk into a room and assemble with people you'll meet all types. That's why it is unrealistic to expect anything else. Only if meeting people where they are (and you obviously know that from PN Forum) will there even be a remote chance to have a discussion and possibly learn about faith. What Francis is saying, of course, is that it would be advantageous for the room to already be set up so people meeting there already have a core set of good qualities, like desiring to do Good, even if only in the worldly sense for now. Growth may be possible from there. He may have an advantage with that over you guys because it is eminently practical and, in his opinion, was even recommended by Christ himself. I tend to agree with that. Btw, Happy Easter to everyone.

  3. And Happy Easter to you too, Qman. He is risen indeed.

    But why is He risen? For what purpose did that serve, if mankind can be saved without Him? And why did He die, if sin is not really a problem? And why is He coming again, if we are already sufficient in our human nature to find our way to God?

    There is an important difference between us here, and it's over the question of whether human nature is perfectible. Yes, I agree with you that among people you meet all types; but all types are not suitable for fellowship with a holy God. That's the real issue.

    In fact, none of us are.

    But how does *anyone* become suitable for fellowship with a holy God? Fortunately, the Son is perfectly suitable for such fellowship, a thing which He already has always had with the Father. And we can be made suitable too -- but not unless we are first "in His Son," as the Bible puts it. (Ephesians 1:7) We are accepted by God -- but only because we are "in the Beloved" of the Father (Eph. 1:6).

    There is no alternate way to God. Time and our own efforts -- far less our own putatively-perfectible potential -- will never ever make us fit for fellowship with Him. And that is the plain teaching of Scripture on the matter, as you can see. (Acts 4:12)

    He was delivered up for our transgressions, and raised because of our justification. (Romans 4:25). And He IS risen. This is our assurance that God will receive us in Him.

    So yes, Happy Easter indeed.

    1. Alright, let me make one final run at it and try to explain differently what I mean. My answer to your comment is yes, yes, yes. But, at the same time, what I mean seems to get missed.

      Faith, as you said is needed, but I am saying how does faith come about? It is not necessarily there yet in your life (especially not instantaneously so). A few possibilities here. You are raised with it by loving parents, or you have figured out slowly as you grow (up) that that is what you should acquire and put on based on your observation and learning (come to faith later), or God somewhat forced your hand because he gave you a conversion experience (which can take many forms, inspiration, illness, sudden change of mind and heart, etc.). In any case, faith comes about in many different ways (of course also does not come about for many). Finally, it can come about because you find yourself in Pope Francis' room and meet others there and you learn from each other. After all, when you and others have suggested here (on this site) that evangelization is one of the Christian duties, then how is that different from "the Room" where there may be a better opportunity for evangelization? Finally, yes, ultimately, faith is required, but heck, the question for (most) people would be, how do you get it in the first place?

    2. Well, can I offer an answer to your question and perhaps invite you to entertain an alternate possibility to those you've listed?

      That is, that "faith" is not a natural byproduct of mere circumstances, whatever they may be, but rather that it means essentially "trust, reliance or belief in something for which *conclusive* evidence is *not presently available*"?

      I do so on the strength of the definition given in Hebrews 11:1 "Now faith is the assurance of things *hoped* for, the conviction of things *not* seen." And if so, then faith is not produceable where the seeing of all the relevant facts is available (see 2 Cor. 5:7).

      In the eternal state, then, the existence of God, the triumph of Christ, the rightness of the path of salvation and the reality of eternity are all no longer matters of question -- that is to say, not even potentially matters of faith -- but rather of sight. Faith, then, is no longer a possibility: and yet, "without faith it is *impossible* to please God" (Heb. 11:6).

      Therefore, you have a situation in which, as the Bible assures us, it is impossible for God to be pleased with these reluctant people, impossible for them to have faith, and yet somehow possible for them to be saved. Yet as you say, "ultimately faith is required": and in that I believe you are Biblically well-supported.

      I submit to you that the Bible describes no such state of affairs as a second run at salvation available in eternity, and in fact, the necessity of faith rules that out quite decisively, as do the explicit words of prophecy on the matter. (Rev. 14:11, Rev. 19:3, Rev. 20:10)

      I understand that you may have residual doubts about that. May I suggest that perhaps you're just going to have to choose the object of your faith on that one?