The second Rethinking Hell conference just finished, and this year was more fun than last year because I got to present a breakout lecture entitled A Philosophical Case for Conditional Immortality (I’ll post the audio and slides in a future post).
Being embedded in the Conditionalist movement as a contributor at RethinkingHell.com, much of the material is not new to me, but the level of scholarship and visionary thinking is pretty high among the speakers at this conference, so I came away with some valuable learnings.
1. Evangelical Universalists are not the same as the liberal Unitarian / Universalists of the past.
Plenary speaker Chris Date (Conditionalist) challenged Traditionalists to address the arguments that modern Conditionalists and Universalists are actually making, not the arguments from the previous century.
He warned that by failing to address the actual arguments and challenges from the minority camps, Traditionalists are inadvertently communicating that they don’t have answers, and that their claims are as irrelevant as the “answers” they are providing.
Specifically, both evangelical Conditionalists and Universalists maintain a high view of scripture, with most ascribing to infallibility, if not inerrancy. By treating them as if they were theological liberals borne of higher criticism, Traditionalists’ talking points consistently miss the mark. Even worse, their appeals to tradition sound more like the establishment Catholics than sons of the Reformation.
2. The Doctrine of Optimal Grace is important
Traditionalist philosopher Jerry Walls’ lecture on optimal grace really planted a seed in my mind. Do we think of God as offering just enough grace to absolve Himself of guilt in sending some to hell, or should we not rather consider that God offers every chance He can to each person before allowing them to solidify their choice for condemnation? Of particular power was his quote from Conditionalist Terrance Tiesson:
God’s saving grace is universally sufficient so that, on at least one occasion in each person’s life, one is enabled to respond to God’s self-revelation with a faith response that is acceptable to God as a means of justification….
I suggest we maintain the term sufficient because there is an important sense in which this grace is, indeed, sufficient, even though it does not suffice for salvation. Its sufficiency lies particularly in its being enough to justify condemnation. 1
Dr. Walls pointed out that this ‘minimal grace’ model seems like a poor reflection on the mercy and love of God, and argued strongly for an ‘optimal grace,’ where God gives each person a maximal amount of grace and chances to repent – in fact, he goes so far as to propose post-mortem repentance as an addition to his otherwise traditional view of hell (eternal conscious suffering).
Now, I’m not sure Dr. Tiessen was arguing for a minimal grace, but rather he may have been arguing that all are without excuse, and God does not need to offer any more than minimal grace in order to be just in condemning them. A, Calvinist might further argue that God is perfectly just in condemning ALL sinners to hell, and is not in the least unjust in saving a few.
Dr. Walls has adopted post-mortem repentance (neither explicitly supplied nor prohibited by scripture) as a solution to the problem of the unevangelized. Myself, I have suggested an alternate, albeit less direct solution, in God’s use of generational justice, arguing thus:
My claim is this – modern nations who are largely without a gospel witness are not so because their ancestors never heard the gospel – most DO have early first and second century witnesses that they murdered or rejected, and in doing so, they brought God’s just judgment upon themselves AND their descendants.
And so God is just in condemning the Unreached, based not only on their own sins, but on the sins of their forefathers. In the proxy of their own leaders, they DID receive the mercy of the opportunity to hear the gospel, but, just as all sinned in Adam, these sinned in their ancestors, who rejected God’s mercy for themselves and their descendants. 2
But even if God is just in condemning all, the question still remains, to what extent does his desire to save the lost play out for the unevangelized, and does God provide more than a stingy, minimal grace in His desire to save all? While we may not conclude, as Dr. Walls has, that God is obligated to extend our chances to repent into eternity (something NOT available in Conditional Immortality, since the lost are destroyed at judgment), we may need to respond to the challenge of optimal grace within the Conditionalist framework.
3. Fellowship and invigorating dialog among evangelicals who differ on secondary doctrines is both doable and satisfying
This gathering proved to me that the well known aphorism of Rupertus Meldenius is more than a mere sentiment:
In the essentials, unity
In the non-essentials, liberty
In all things, charity.
The spirit of fellowship around Christ, and the open way in which all three views were received and challenged at this conference, was very refreshing. It proved to me that we ought to have more open discussions around the hot button secondary issues, for the sake of the Church, and those watching the Church, for such peaceful means of discussing contentions is a strong witness to the reality of Christ:
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:35)
What fun it would be to also have dialog on debated topics such as Complementarianism/Egalitarianism, inerrancy/infallibility, homosexuality, etc. The same question should be considered – can we accept those with one of the three (typically) views as brothers, or at what point to we need to cease fellowship or at least narrow the local expressions of our doctrines?
- Who Can Be Saved?: Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions by Terrance L. Tiessen, pp. 230, 242 ↩
- The Unreached: Can God justly punish those who have never heard? (wholereason.com, accessed 2015.06.23) ↩