Many bloggers have already pointed to the appalling way in which a church in North Carolina handles those they disagree with. An AP video shows an interview with the pastor of this church who plans a bonfire on Halloween for all translations not the KJV, as well as many other books the pastor deems heretical (i.e., anyone who doesn’t agree with him on everything – for a full list, see his website. There will also be Bar-be-que chicken.)
So, it is good to hear a debate where the two parties disagree on what can be a very divisive issue and still keep the conversation civil. Premier Christian Radio (an online and digital Christian radio station in the UK) has a weekly programme each week (called ‘Unbelievable‘) normally dedicated to Christians and non-Christians discussing topics civilly, but this past week (17 October 2009) they asked the question ‘Can an Evangelical be a universalist?’ The two panellists were: 1) upholding the ‘traditional’ view that sees some going to ‘heaven’ and others hell is Laurence Blanchard, pastor of Charter Oak Lighthouse; and 2) Robin Parry, a theologian who wrote a book (under a pen name) called The Evangelical Universalist. Please go to the Unbelievable website or iTunes and download the discussion (as of today, it’s on the front page).
Of course, for only an hour it can’t give the attention that this topic needs. But, the most amazing thing was no one shouted. No one called anyone a heretic. No one threatened to burn anybody’s books. In fact, both said they saw the other as a true Christian. Dialogue the way it was meant to be.
I am in general agreement with Robin Parry’s arguments, whilst I don’t typically call it ‘universalism’. The way he reads Revelation is similar to the way N.T. Wright interprets it in Surprised by Hope, i.e., that despite all the apocalyptic images of horrible torture, there seems to be a finish to the punishment and hope for people beyond that. Unlike Wright, the conversation revolved around the age-old (but incorrect) question, ‘Who goes to heaven?’ rather than a question of the resurrection of the dead and the new creation.
Because of their focus on the ‘final destination’, I may veer from Parry a little. The focus of the conversation, perhaps driven more by Blanchard, was very individual focused. I think this has a tendency to happen when we look at ‘heaven’ (i.e., disembodied souls leaving this old world behind and going to our home in the sky) as the primary goal rather than the New Testament hope of a restored creation (in which all creation is restored). It is to this new creation that Christians point, and in doing so we, by the Holy Spirit, bring God’s new creation in spots around the world. Mission, then, is the work of the Holy Spirit bringing in bits of what God will do definitely when Jesus returns at the final resurrection. Mission is spreading the gospel (good news) that Jesus is the world’s true king, and that announcement does in some since divide the world into those who would accept it and those who won’t. Unlike Parry, I do not see hell as a ‘place’ that one goes to after death (but, like Parry I would describe it more as a state, though after the general resurrection).
Where I see this making some difference is in the why. I read somewhere, but not sure at the moment, that God gave the 10 commandments not so you would be a better person (though that may happen), but so your neighbour can have a better life. Similar here: mission and it’s call to conversion for the world brings the kingdom God is working out. God is working for a world that goes back to the intention he made for it.
Where I rejoin Parry is that I do not believe that one must make the decision before one dies. God does not give some sort of mandate that all must worship him, but the work continues on in the new creation somehow (I am following Tom Wright here, who reminds us that we will have new tasks in the new creation – it’s not just sitting around). Could that be the continued mission to those who still cannot accept what God is doing and relegated themselves to some sort of state in which they live in their existence outside the New Jerusalem?
I hardly have all of this figured out. And maybe this should have been more than one post!