I’ve always thought that God was capable of far more than we could comprehend. And the older I got, and the more suffering I encountered, the more I sincerely hoped that God was 100% Love and so whatever He did, was a function of Grace. And yet,
- I’d been taught that God created many, or perhaps most, for endless conscious torment in Hell. (Calvin)
- And if He didn’t expressly create them for that fate, He would at least abandon them to that fate. (Arminius)
I knew those verses that seemed to support the idea of endless conscious torment and I had become aware of some verses that contradicted this idea… yet I’d been trained to “explain those verses away.” Now liberals usually own up to this “explaining away.” But my crowd, conservative evangelical, usually does not. We use phrases like, “well it obviously doesn’t mean,” or “the context clearly implies,” or “’all’ doesn’t mean ‘all,’ but ‘some’… that is ‘all’ means ‘not all.’” Well, that’s how I’d been trained to “explain those verses away.”
December 15th 2001, having preached all the way through the Revelation and now preaching on Rev. 21:5, (“Behold I am making all things new… write this down for these words are trustworthy and true”), I decided that I was going to stop explaining Scripture away—Scripture like Colossians 1:19-20; John 12:32; Romans 5:18, 11:32, 14:11; Eph. 1:10; Phil. 2:10; 1 Cor. 15:22; Revelation 5:13, 20:14. Scripture that indicated God would redeem everything; Scripture that indicated the kingdom of Satan would come to an end—the End, Jesus.
I decided to stop explaining those verses away. Actually I think I lost my ability to explain them away …and why would I want to?
At that time I had just preached through the Revelation—all those verses on God’s wrath, smoke of torment that rises for “ages and ages,” and the Lake of Fire and Brimstone (Theion in Greek).
For the next three years I would preach through Matthew—The Narrow Door, The Unforgiveable Sin, The Judgment of the Sheep and Goats, Christ’s statements on Gehenna (“Hell”) and the outer darkness “where men weep and gnash their teeth.”
I’m saying I preached through most of the “exclusive” passages that people use to explain the “inclusive” passages away. Yet time and time again, I discovered that the “exclusive” passages did not “exclude” the “inclusive” passages… like, at all.
Yes God would Judge, Yes men would weep and gnash their teeth in outer darkness, Yes the Fire was “eternal” and the “worm would not die,” Yes Sodom was destroyed by fire, and Yes all creation would be flooded with that same fire, and Yes Jesus Christ is the only way, and Yes we must confess Him as Lord… Yes, Yes, Yes!
But none of that means that Christ won’t make “All things new.”
Or that Christ is no longer the “savior of all men”
Or that the Lamb of God did not “take away the sin of the world.”
Or that John didn’t see “Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and all that is within them” praising the lamb on the throne.
Or that Jesus will no longer “draw all men to himself”
Or that “every knee” won’t bow in praise and confess Christ “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”
Or that God can’t “reconcile all things to himself making peace by the blood of his cross.”
Actually the more I looked at Scripture, the more I began to see how it could all be true, with no verses “explained away.” To be honest it was a bit of a paradigm shift. You know when a paradigm shifts, everything stays the same (all the facts), yet the meaning of every fact changes. When my paradigm began to shift, this was the meaning: Jesus…Jesus wins, everywhere, everywhen, and everyhow. “Jesus Christ and Him Crucified” WORKS, completely, totally and absolutely. God wins. Love wins.
It was Scripture that forced the paradigm shift, Scripture and a few other things as well. Among them:
- The realization that space and time are relative to things like Light and Meaning, both in Scripture and now in modern physics (Relativity and Quantum Mechanics).
- Some rather shocking encounters with satan and demonic spirits that revealed the power of Christ and the nature of God’s Judgment.
- The theology of people like Karl Barth and Early Church Fathers like Origin, Athanasius and Clement of Alexandra.
- And having children—“Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us that we should be called the children of God.” I began to understand Love and Wrath, all at once and for the very same person.
In 2004 I preached a sermon on Matt. 20:1-19 titled, The Vineyard (What if God is better than you thought?). It was about the parable of the Vineyard, in which the early workers grow furious over the grace extended to the late workers and so judge themselves out of the Master’s Vineyard. Trying to make a point about the offensive nature of our Lords grace, I simply read a list of “inclusive passages” and didn’t explain them away. I then said, “Now stop and check your heart. Are you angry? Questions are fine, but are your angry? If you’re angry that all may be saved, perhaps you’re not saved, for God desires that all would be saved—to be saved is to desire what God desires.” And I warned them, “Be careful not to judge yourself out of the vineyard, offended at Grace. God’s Judgment is Grace.”
Well many were offended. Some contacted the denomination. At the same time, hoping to head them off, I sent a copy of the message to the denomination myself. A committee soon began to investigate. Eventually they told me, “You can’t say this stuff.” But they couldn’t tell me what stuff. All the controversial stuff was Scripture. The more they said, “You can’t,” the more I asked “Why?” And the more I asked, “Why?” the more I realized, “They have no answer…no convincing answer.”
In 2005 I took a sabbatical. One day I went down to Denver Seminary, sat in the library, and just began listing all the Scripture verses pertinent to the topic of “Hell” (you realize there is no one word consistently translated “Hell” in Scripture). Well before long I had produced about one hundred and sixty pages of Scripture, commentary and quotations. The paper was divided into sections which examined key concepts like “Hades,” “The fire,” “eternity,” and “judgment.” Each section ended with a summary section under the title “It would seem that…” I posted it on the inter-net and titled it, An Adventure in Taking Scripture Literally or How to be Labeled a Liberal Heretic by Evangelical Christians. I thought my friends in the denomination would find the title amusing … but mostly I was wrong, way wrong.
Soon the Ministerial Committee asked me to state my objections to a revised edition of the Westminster Confession of Faith—our denomination’s confessional document. I did. They had a public trial and decided that they would not accept two of my Exceptions. To stay in the denomination I would have to “recant,” confessing that God is “pleased” to damn people and that there was a group of people who “could not be saved”—people that God could not save. I doubt that many of those pastors would even confess to such things, but they were trying to silence me. They were opposed to two ideas that had galvanized in my brain. Those two ideas were these:
- “Hell” (Hades) is not endless. God is not into torturing people endlessly or delivering people up to endless torture. Jesus is the End of all things. All things come to and End in Christ, including time and including death and hell. “Death and Hell (Hades) were thrown into the lake of fire … and death will be no more” (Rev. 20:14, 21:4). Evil comes to an end. Yet the Eternal Fire does not come to an end, because the Eternal Fire is the End; God is the End; Love is the End. We are endless because we are to be filled with the End, the Word of God—Christ. “Hell” is not endless. So, “Hell” has and end; “Hell” has a purpose—the revelation of Christ.
- God may just “Make all thing new.” Scripture says that He will, and so I believe He will. I use the word “may,” because we may not understand what a “thing” is. “Evil” is not a created thing, but more like the absence of a “thing.” Just as darkness is not a thing, but the absence of light; A lie is not a thing, but the absence of truth; death is not a thing, but the absence of Life. So if evil is made new it’s no longer evil. Darkness, lies and death will be filled with Light, Truth and Life. We will be filled with Christ. So everything that’s anything, God will make new. And anything that’s “nothing” will be filled with God’s “Something.” God will fill all things. “Behold I make all things new.”
Well in the fall of 2007, standing before my brothers in the Lord, I could not confess what I did not believe. And so I was “defrocked” and released from the church that I dearly loved. Some well-intentioned people said, “Is theology worth all this pain?” They didn’t understand—good theology is Jesus.
I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious. But for me to deny “the Truth” in me—what I at least believed to be true—to deny the Truth in me, to lie, would be to deny Jesus.
I’m convinced that people did not know what they did. And I pray that God richly blesses all that were involved in that debacle. And I’m convinced it was all part of God’s plan.
And through it all, God gave birth to the Sanctuary. He gave birth to a church and a ministry, through which we feel called to proclaim the Gospel of God’s Grace, unbounded Grace.
God is Grace. He is Love poured out. He is Jesus.