Universalism and the Character of God - Part 2

Author:
Tim Hall

The Bible--Huh! Good God, y’all! THAT’S what it’s good for!

”Say it again!”

For those of us who identify as Christians, the Bible will play a central role in defining the contours of our faith and practice. Just what the Bible is and what it’s for is a question entirely too large and convoluted for the scope of our current question, but I feel comfortable making one (I take it fairly uncontroversial) claim:

Whatever else the Bible might be or might be for, it is at least a document, or a set of documents, intended to reveal to us the nature and character of God. 

What’s John Got To Do, Got To Do with It…?

”What’s John, but a firsthand eyewitness?”

If we can agree on that one innocuous claim, then I think we can also probably agree that when the Bible answers that question explicitly, our spiritual ears ought to prick up. One of the most specific, and, due to its specificity, boldest claims about the nature of God comes to us in the first letter of John, chapter 4, the last part of verse 8, where, in a rare instance of universal agreement, every translation that renders the text at all renders it thus:

God is love.

It is a claim as simple in its syntax as it is profound in its implications. What are those implications?

A Brief Intro to Logic

”God as my witness, I'm with this.”

When I taught philosophy at a private school in Dallas, our section on introductory logic focused largely on conditional statements, both their various formations and how they get manipulated to create good (and, perhaps more often, very bad) arguments. Understanding this elementary logical framework can revolutionize our approach to argumentation in all sorts of areas, including theology and exegesis. It works like this:

Consider the following conditional:

If you are visiting Mercy on All, then you are online.

There are a few things we can do with this conditional statement: we can convert it, invert it, or contrapose it.

Conversion

A conversion is where we simply flip our terms. With the example above, it would sound like this:

If you are online, then you are visiting Mercy on All.

Clearly, this doesn’t follow with any kind of necessity. There are all sorts of places you could be online without visiting Mercy on All.

Inversion

An inversion negates both sides of a conditional statement, thus:

If you’re not visiting Mercy on All, then you are not online.

Again, as before, this is clearly not necessarily the case--there are still all kinds of places you could be online other than here.

Contraposition

One way to think about contraposition is inversion + conversion. Here, we both flip and negate our terms:

If you are not online, then you are not visiting Mercy on All.

What we see here is that the contraposition follows absolutely from the conditional; if the conditional is true, then the contraposition will also necessarily be true--always and forever.

”Always, forever love you”

That brings us back to the stark Johannine characterization of God as love. To say that “God is love” means—tautologically—that “if it’s God, then it’s love,” which means in turn, “if it’s not love, then it’s not God.” (I believe there are excellent reasons, both textual and philosophical, to suspect the converse is also true—that if it’s love, then it’s God. But there is no need to press that issue here. For our present purposes, the above is enough.) So: 

Is a hell of irredeemable pure harm for those who undergo it compatible with love? 

It seems to me a question that almost answers itself. 

Certainly, non-universalists have tried to square the two. For instance, I’ve heard folks say something like, “Sure, God is love, but it’s not some mushy kind of love that you made up, it’s God’s kind of love.” 

And I agree. But this only helps the universalist’s case, because the Bible is not the least bit hazy or obfuscatory about what it means by the kind of love God is. It defines the parameters of God-love explicitly, in places like 1 Corinthians 13, and implicitly, through the life and example of Jesus Christ—who is God. So what does it say? What are those parameters?

What is Love?

”Baby don't hurt me.”

There are several places where the Bible talks about what love is and how it looks, but perhaps none is as descriptive as the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Here, Paul makes some very specific claims about the nature of love (which, again, God is):

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. - 1 Cor. 13:4-8 (NRSV)

We could spend many posts looking at all of the claims Paul makes about love here, and it would be well worth the time. It would be especially relevant to focus on love’s patience and lack of “irritability” (a better translation of which is “failing to keep a record of wrongs” [!]) But for the sake of time and space, let it be enough for now that:

Love is kind.

As with the word “love” itself, there is no Biblical “mushiness” around the concept of kindness. Both etymologically and in an outline of its usage, kindness implies helpfulness (Ps. 141:5, Lk. 6:35, Rom. 2:4, etc.).

This brings us back to John’s unequivocal declaration:

     - If it’s God, then it’s love (1 Jn. 4). 

     - If it’s love, then it’s kind (1 Cor. 13). 

     - If it’s kind, then it’s helpful (Biblical definition and usage). 

So:

If it’s God, then it’s helpful.

And from this follows, with absolute necessity, the contrapositive of all of the above:

     - If it’s not helpful, then it’s not kind.

     - If it’s not kind, then it’s not love.

     - If it’s not love, then it’s not God.

It is easy to see how the universalist conception of hell—temporary, educative, perhaps purifying—is helpful, and is thus perfectly in line with love, and thus perfectly in line with God. Much harder to see (indeed, I would argue impossible) is how the same can be said of any conception of hell which consists in irredeemable pure harm.

So is hell helpful? Because if not, then it can’t be kind, then it can’t be love, then it can’t be God.

Who Do You Say That I Am?

”Then I ask myself this question: Who am I?”

Lest someone object at this point that perhaps Paul is describing how love ought to be between humans, and that God’s love may be something altogether different, I offer two brief considerations: 

1. To paraphrase 19th century British philosopher J.S. Mill, between saying “God’s love is unlike our love” and saying “God is not love,”  there is no difference.

2. Lest there be any doubt about Mill’s claim, there is a litmus test, and it is Jesus—who is God:

     - Paul says love is longsuffering, and we see Christ enduring the cross.

     - Paul says love is kind, and we see Christ’s earthly ministry of perpetual healing.

     - Paul says love keeps no record of wrongs, and we see Christ from the cross praying, in full expectation of acceptance from his Father, for the forgiveness of the unrepentant sinners who are just then crucifying him

So Christ, who is God, displays perfectly just the sort of love Paul describes. It seems as false to me as it seems problematic to suggest that God’s love is somehow different.

God Is Love, But…

”What about those things? What about that, what about that?”

Perhaps the commonest objection to the character of God as love, though, is the insistence (indeed, an insistence I share) that “God is also just, and God is also holy.” Folks will say that, then they’ll clap their hands as if that is quite enough all by itself to justify an irredeemable judgment of pure harm. But is it?

I would suggest first of all that what we have already said above should be enough on its own to answer anyone who would suggest that it is. God is just, but if there is a justice separate from love, then it can’t be God’s justice. God is holy, but if there is a holiness separate from love, then it can’t be God’s holiness. It is and remains the case that if it isn’t love, then it isn’t God. 

But there is more to say.

God Is Also Just

As with love, and as with kindness, the Bible nowise equivocates about the nature of justice, and over and over again we see that Biblical justice is proportional and it is recoverable.

Proportional:

23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. - Exodus 21:23-25 (NRSV)

This same sentiment is echoed in Leviticus 24 and again in Deuteronomy 19, and countless commentators on these verses have noted that they are a check on sinful man’s tendency, like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, to do unto others far more and far worse than they’ve done unto us. And an infinite hell of irredeemable, pure harm seems to out-Pesci Pesci himself. 

”If you hit me, then I’ll hit you back.”

St. Anselm (AD 1033–1109), Catholic philosopher and theologian, sees the inequity in an unending punishment for temporal sins and attempts to justify such punishment in Book 1 of his Cur Deus Homo. Anselm offers the idea that God is worthy of infinite honor and that sin against God therefore deserves infinite punishment. But this seems purely specious to me. Why in the world should we suspect such a thing to be true? Anselm’s own reasoning has to do with classes of people. It appears to seem obvious to him, as I hope it seems in no way obvious to any of us, that harm done to a serf should elicit less punishment than would harm done to a king. To my ear, this schema, dealing as it does with the supposed graduating worths of graduating classes of people, seems as peculiar to his Middle Age culture and perspective as it seems contrary to everything the Bible has to say about all of mankind’s essential equality (cf. Gal. 3:28, etc.). Nevertheless, perhaps there is a salvageable principle beneath the underbaked analogy?

“Serfing, Aosta!”

In an effort to salvage that principle, evangelical writer and speaker Denny Burke, who presumably shares the problem I have with Anselm’s feudalistic approach, asks us instead of a serf to imagine a spider, to imagine seeing someone sitting on the street, methodically and cruelly pulling its legs off. So far, so ghastly. Seems downright sociopathic. Then Burke asks us to replace the spider in our minds with a human baby. Heavens. This does achieve, at least for me, its rhetorical effect. It is an image too gruesome to contemplate. Undoubtedly the infant mutilation would deserve punishment far greater and more severe than would that of the spider, even as the arachnid abuse does earn its own measure of disapprobation. Kudos, Mr. Burke. Your analogy does represent an improvement over that of Anselm, at least in my estimation, successfully avoiding the pitfalls while retaining the principle. I suspect Anselm himself would approve. 

And the principle is this: Burke would have us believe that as the spider is to the baby, so are both spider and baby to a God worthy of infinite honor—only infinitely moreso. Thus Burke and Anselm together conclude, as stated above, that harm committed against our infinitely worthy God is deserving of infinitely more punishment, and thus a hell of irredeemable, pure—even infinite—harm is proportional after all, and thus perfectly just. QED.

But this thinking is seriously flawed in more than one way. First, sin against an infinite God is not thereby infinite harm (and therefore is not due infinite punishment) any more than sin against a 43-year-old Tim Hall is 43-year-old harm. There is a confused conflation in Anselm’s thinking between the kind of harm done and the kind of being who receives it. You can blow a spitball through a straw at me (though I wish you wouldn’t) or you can punch me squarely in the nose (though I really wish you wouldn’t), but the harm you do with the spitball is not equivalent to the harm you do with your fist simply because you’ve done both to the same guy. Severity of harm isn’t measured by the recipient of it. 

Second, what Burke (and Anselm) fails to do is to follow his thought experiment all the way through to its logical conclusion, which is this: imagine seeing someone sitting on the street, methodically and cruelly pulling the legs off God. This, of course, we cannot imagine, because this, of course, is ridiculous. And what Anselm and Burke miss or ignore, Elihu, Job’s God-approved interlocutor, sees clearly and calls out: 

5Look at the heavens and see;

    observe the clouds, which are higher than you.

6 If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against [God]?

    And if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to him? - Job 35:5-6 (NRSV)

The suggestion of Elihu’s rhetorical questions is clear, and it pointedly refutes the would-be Anselms of the world who proffer that the answer to them is “infinite harm”—the answer is rather “absolutely nothing. (Say it again!)” (Many thanks to Stan Patton for pointing out this text to me.)

(All this, by the way, quite before Christ comes along and fulfills the law by telling us what He thinks about folks taking eyes for eyes. Spend a few seconds contemplating a hell of irredeemable pure harm in light of Christ’s revolutionary treatment of proportional justice from Mt. 5.)

Recoverable:

We will explore the overwhelming Biblical motif of redemption more fully in a future post, but suffice it for now to say that either God is not just or justice is perfectly compatible with restoration from judgment. We know this for sure because we see just exactly such recovery happening over and over and over again throughout the Old Testament and the New. Again: we will explore this in more depth in a future post. But one example for now will serve both to demonstrate this recoverability and to explore the other attribute often offered as a check on love:

God Is Also Holy

When non-Universalists aren't busy telling us God's love is checked by his justice, they're busy telling us it's checked by his holiness. Let's see that in action:

Ez. 36:21 But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came.

So God is holy and will not allow his holiness to be impugned. This doesn’t sound great for the Israelites, who did the impugning. What will God do?

22 "Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD:  It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came.

Yep. We saw this coming. God’s not just going to sit there and let his holiness be profaned. God is going to act. Uh oh, Israel. 

23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.

Oh, boy. Here comes! You done did it now, Israel! God is gonna vindicate his holy name. What's God going to do? We know, because all the non-Universalists tell us so, that God vindicates his Holiness through irrevocable punishment. Let's watch: 

24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land.

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

Wait, what? That's not what God's holiness is supposed to do! Where's all the fiery and irrevocable smiting?! Somebody get an infernalist on the phone to tell Ezekiel he misunderstands God's holiness.


Unless maybe the Bible has a different idea about how God’s holiness prompts God to act. It’s a pattern Ezekiel here suggests and the rest of the Old Testament (and the New) bear out. We will look at that next time…

”The next time I fall in love, it will be with you…”

Tim Hall

Tim is an educator in Texas and a worship leader at his UMC campus. He majored in philosophy at the University of North Texas, minoring in English, and has taught courses in literature, philosophy, and Christian apologetics. Tim resides in North Texas with his wife, children, and pets. He suspects the pets will be with him in the New Jerusalem as well as everybody else. Except maybe the cat.