We kinda like Timothy Dalrymple's assessment of the Rob-Bell-is-a-smug-universalist controversy, offering as it does a decent assessment of the real struggle that Christians ought to have about issues of divine justice and eternal punishment. We think it ought to be read by gentle readers. Note well that Dalrymple has read a prepublication copy of the book but is refraining from direct public interaction with its contents out of respect for the publisher's request in giving him the copy.
To Dalrymple's stuff we add a couple of observations. Well, more than a couple:
- There's more of a discussion to be had about the use of aion and its cognates than many of the responses to Bell have acknowledged, including Dalrymple. Knowing Bell's patterns of reasoning, we're sure he raised the issue in a rather shallow and uninformed way himself. But there's some complexity to the usage of this word that isn't being talked about to our satisfaction. Here's the deal--in sum and as we see it: aion and its cognates can mean "age" or "epoch" but they are commonly used in biblical literature to mean "having to do with the age to come," and so "eternal," inasmuch as the age to come is the final chapter in God's saga. Whether that means that the judgment of the age to come means everlastingly conscious punishment or something else that is enduring for the age to come (like some combination of conscious punishment and annihilation, or just annihilation) is harder to say with certainty. Two things to add to this: (a) the church that interpreted these texts as indicating everlasting conscious punishment wasn't doing it without good reasons; (b) this little discussion has been going on for centuries. Implication: we won't settle this, so we better acknowledge humbly what we know and what we don't, agreeing to get on with the fellowship and the evangelism.
- Dalrymple notes that some revisionists' understanding of this issue seems to reflect a lack of appreciation for God's holiness/righteousness/justice. Perhaps so. But for many revisionists, the revision in fact reflects sincere thought about whether God's righteousness would demand what they describe as unending torture .* It's the implications of God's justice, not just whether it's a factor, that matters here, we think. If we were an annihilationist, we would find it unjust to be told that we didn't understand God's justice.
- Again, we say that whatever it is that awaits the unredeemed, it is horrible in and of itself, and even more so in comparison to the gracious gift that God gives those who plead to Christ for divine mercy. That's why Dalrymple says that universalists can still be and often still are evangelists. That's why the precise contours of eternal punishment don't need to be known to discuss the gospel with people who need to hear it. We can, then, simultaneously agree to disagree (on hell, some) and agree (on what people need, and then get busy giving it to them, a lot).
- Finally, Dalrymple belongs to that unhappy tribe that in this digital age continues to keyboard as if they were using a typewriter. To wit: he uses two spaces after periods, thereby disturbing the kerning functions so deeply and successfully embedded in digital media and leaving awkward empty spaces at the beginning of lines where the margins split the two spaces. He will be held to account for this someday.** Yes, we really do have opinions on everything.
*Rejoinder to those for whom the injustice of eternal torture is patent: what is clearly unjust for fallible, sinful and finite humans to exact as punishment on other humans is not necessarily unjust for the infallible, holy and infinite God. Still, there's an issue here to be taken very seriously.
**His post also has the humorous typographical error "eternal torment in hill," which we point out by way of amusement and not criticism, not wanting to point out specks when we have logs. See disclaimer.