Can God Be Too Good? Part 3 by Monte Wolverton
What Does the Bible Say?
Let’s consider three passages from the New Testament, beginning with Romans 6:23:
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ
Jesus our Lord.
Now let’s look at Matthew 25:41-46:
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life.”
Finally, let’s consider Philippians 2:9-11:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
If we were reading these passages with no prior knowledge of traditional Christian teaching about the afterlife, we might conclude that they contradict each other. The first passage tells us that those who sin will die. We might think that “eternal” in the second passage says that the unrighteous will not merely die but be punished eternally. The third passage suggests that everyone will ultimately worship Jesus.
Even as you are reading this paragraph, however, you are attempting to reconcile these contradictory passages by filtering them through the doctrine you have been taught.
Many take the second passage at what they assume to be “face value” (because it fits comfortably with the traditional idea of heaven for the righteous and eternal hell fire for the wicked—even though it doesn’t actually say that). If that’s your perspective, you will then develop (or consult Bible helps for) explanations as to why the other two passages don’t really mean what they seem to say. And then you will sit back, satisfied and relieved, believing you have wrangled obstreperous scriptures into harmony.
If we were more honest and courageous, we might ask ourselves—isn’t Scripture inspired by God? If so, why do we need to “harmonize” seeming contradictions? Was the Holy Spirit incapable of making the Bible internally consistent?
There’s a better explanation. What if God has done this deliberately? What if he is showing us different facets of eternal truths that can’t be summarized in a single passage?
As Brad Jersak observes in his book, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, “Our obsessive attempts to harmonize the Scriptures into artificially coherent, stackable propositions—as if they required us to contend for their reliability or authority—actually do violence to their richness.”
There are many paradoxical and seemingly contradictory passages on this topic (see “Infernalist, Annihilationist and Universalist”). It may well be that God intended these passages to keep us from being too dogmatic and polarized (of course this has not stopped institutional Christianity from doing so).
Jim Fowler argues that The Extent and Efficacy of the Life and Work of Jesus Christ should be seen as a balance between what he calls the objective-universal “all” of humanity at large and the subjective-particular wherein “not all” will choose to individually and personally respond to Jesus Christ.
Infernalist, Annihilationist and Universalist
Infernalists (the majority Christian view) believe that God consigns the unrepentant wicked to some form of eternal punishment in hell.
Annihilationists believe that God simply allows the unrepentant wicked to die (perhaps after a “second death” in the “lake of fire”).
Universalists believe that God will somehow, in some way, ultimately redeem and reconcile all humans to himself.
Each school of thought uses particular passages to support its claim—an easy task, since the Bible and New Testament in particular offer many paradoxical passages about the afterlife. Commentators often attempt to reconcile these passages by favoring one passage at the expense of others. The list below shows passages favored by each group. As we might expect, preferred infernalist passages emphasize dire punishment after death; favorite annihilationist passages emphasize eternal death as the only fate of the wicked; favorite universalist passages imply a future universal redemption.
But when we attempt to prooftext our pet doctrines, we may be missing an important point—perhaps God’s intent is to show us different aspects of the same issue. Taking these passages (and many others) as a whole, we come
away understanding that God is the ultimate judge, that God holds the power of life and death and that God, by his grace, offers reconciliation and salvation to all who will accept.
1 Peter 3:19-20
2 Thessalonians 1:9
Matt 3:10-12; 13:30, 42, 49-50
1 Corinthians 3:17
Philippians 1:28; 3:19
2 Peter 2:1-3;3-7
1 Corinthians 15:28