Hot Topic: God is Love.
Favourite Bible Verse: 1 John 4:16
Spectacles of choice: Love of God trumps all
I really think and am persuaded that there is am imbalance today when discussing the nature of God and determining what we think is permissible for God to do or not to do. A favourite bible verse is 1 John 4:16 because there we are told that “God is Love”. Here we learn that love is not just another “attribute” of God lined up next to the rest. Rather we learn that “Love” is a description of his ontological being. “Love” doesn’t just describe his character or attributes, it literally describes God’s existence. He has compassion, he has anger, but he is love.
Love conquerors all.
Fine then. I’m with you. I share that view. But I don’t want to leave it there because to do so would require a serious revamp of the biblical testimony, of God’s dealings with sin and with sinners, of God’s wrath and of his judgments and of the many frightening images revealed in the scriptures about the fate of all those who, well, reject God’s love.
As Evangelical Christians we hold that the Bible is our final arbiter on all matters pertaining to the faith. So we need to be careful not to oversimplify any aspect of God, because doing so will almost surely result in spot-reading God’s Word to avoid those parts we don’t very much appreciate.
For example, many of my friends have taken “God is Love” as the bees knees of biblical statements. But I don’t think I’ve heard any of these same friends ever quote 2 Thessalonians 1:6: “God is Just“.
And why not?
Only they can answer that. Maybe they are unaware of that verse, or perhaps they don’t think its very relevant or maybe they just don’t like it or perhaps they think “God is just” is speaking in terms of love or non-punishment because God’s justice was poured out on the cross? For, as the argument goes, how can a loving (← the spectacles) God send the vast majority of every person who ever lived to hell simply for not knowing God or not obeying the gospel of Jesus Christ?
But the passage leaves little wiggle-room for what “God is Just” means:
“This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-10)
1. When Jesus comes it will be to judge. I’ve said before that I don’t believe universalism is an Evangelical option. That is because I don’t believe the scriptures can be used to support the idea that in the end all will be saved. I don’t mean to imply that someone who holds to universalism is not a Christian, or even that that are not Evangelical. Only that by holding to universalism they have abandoned an Evangelical approach to the faith (sola scriptura) in this area.
2. The question of salvation is this: do you “know” God and “obey the Gospel of Jesus Christ”. Because condemnation is reserved for those who do not. How that works out is a matter of dispute even among Evangelicals, but it seems everywhere in the New Testament that the way to come to “know” God and “obey” the Gospel is through faith.
3. Punishment: Everlasting ruination and exile. The punishment is spoken of in terms of “Everlasting” which, given the context, seems to strongly imply “unending”. The word “destruction” does not mean “extinction” as in “annihilation”, but rather “ruination” implying the consequence of loss that goes with complete undoing. To use N.T. Wright’s terminology: the individual will no longer be “human” in any proper and definable way such that they will never bear the image of God again. And all of this will be in a state of eternal exile from God.
4. But salvation is for those who believed the testimony of the apostles. Paul is confident that this includes the recipients of his letter because their “faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of” them has for each other is increasing. Jesus said that they will know us by our love for one another(John 13:35). This is the evidence that Paul sees as pure and sincere faith.
This is why I feel we need to resist the contemporary pressure in which I feel Evangelical Christianity is being strained under. The issues at stake in today’s debates have ginormous repercussions. How we understand salvation, the Gospel and the message hangs in the balance. If we tell everyone that everyone is going to be saved when we are taught through scripture that salvation is through a relationship with God and obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that there will be eternal consequences for those who remain separated from God, I cannot see how we will not be held accountable. At the very least our compassion should move us not to preach universalism.
The Gospel has always been the Christian hope. Altering the message of Christianity to make it more palatable for our contemporary society (2 Timothy 3:13) will not change the truth of the Gospel of Jesus and the message of his Apostles.