I joined this forum nine months ago. I had been a believer in Evangelical/Reformed doctrine for over 60 years including what was taught about hell and ECT. I have written (“Introducing Myself”) about the event that took place a year ago which caused me to critically examine my beliefs in the light of history and scripture. I discovered I could no longer hold on unequivocally to what I had been taught as scriptural truth. I also found out that my life might have been much easier had I never gone through that experience. I began to apply, with more vigor, a scripture text I had adopted as one I would live by - Romans 14:22 “Hast thou faith, keep it to thyself”.
Before your fingers reach for computer keyboards, allow me to assure you I am well aware that I am taking a verse out of its context as part of Paul’s teaching on the weaker and stronger believers in the church at Rome. But, standing alone, it works for me. Most of my family, friends and church family cannot understand why I appear to be abandoning ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’. Some are angry with me. My pastor is patently disappointed with me. I have been advised to keep such heretical thoughts to myself, presumably to avoid becoming guilty of leading others astray. I suppose, in Calvin’s day, I might have found myself being slowly roasted at the stake, the fate endured by Michael Servetus. Occasionally, I think to myself that life might be a lot easier if I simply reverted to my former beliefs in what the Reformed/Evangelical churches teach. But, I can’t.
The friends I have made in this medium have been extremely kind and helpful. It is not that I always agree with the comments and interpretations stated here, but I find them offered in a non-judgmental manner with the intent to build up rather than knock down. I suppose that is due to the fact that we are collectively and individually seeking the truth with the common goal of giving glory to our God and Saviour.
I came across the following essay by Charles Watson Sr. which states what I have been trying to convey, albeit much more coherently. It resonates with me. You may wish to read it and offer further comment, perhaps on your personal journey and beliefs.
When Christians are first introduced to the doctrine of Universal Reconciliation (UR), they are most often caught off guard. Since it challenges part of the foundation of the Atonement, as they know it, many are defensive of the Christianity that they know. Since Scripture states that the wages of sin is death and that the second death is the Lake of Fire, many believe that Jesus came to save us from an all too real lake of burning sulfur; one in which people are tormented “forever and ever.” Therefore, when anyone denies the doctrine of Endless Conscious Torment (ECT), Christians tend to either ignore the naysayers, or valiantly defend their doctrinal convictions.
When I began to doubt the doctrine of ECT, I was approached by several Christians, on many occasions, who felt led by the Spirit to tell me that I was stepping onto a very slippery slope, and that I was in danger of backsliding. At first, I felt alarmed. Was I sliding down a greasy slope toward heresy? It surely felt like it, at the time. I kept telling myself that I couldn’t accept UR no matter how much it rang true to my soul. It was heresy, and I could not become a heretic.
However, as time went on, I realized that I needed to look into what actually makes heresy heretical. Did UR deny some essential truth of the Christian faith? Did it deny Christ? It must have—since it denied the reality of that from which Christ came to save us. He did come to save us from ECT, right? Is that not the death about which Scripture so frequently speaks? . . . Is it?
At the time, I was questioning so much of what I had been brought up to believe. How far back had I slid? Had I crossed the threshold of no return? Could I regain my former status and escape this slippery slope of death? Just how close was I to the fiery pit that I was questioning?
Eventually, I began to realize that I was not backsliding at all, but following biblical instruction. Scripture commands us to “test all things,” and to “hold onto what is good and true.” Was I trusting in a carnal, earthly kind of reasoning? Is there even such a thing? On the contrary, I decided to accept God’s invitation: to come and reason with Him, rather than to blindly trust in what I was told was good and true.
Growing up, I was frequently reminded to beware of false teachers and to avoid strange theology, which sounds like great advice. Even though I was instructed to avoid false teachers, I was never taught how to identify them or their teachings. The company with which I surrounded myself identified strange doctrine as that which was unfamiliar or “unorthodox;” they assumed that one of the first steps onto a slippery slope included a willingness to entertain unorthodox ideas.
Backsliding definitely sounds like something we all should avoid, but what exactly is it that constitutes backsliding? Is questioning orthodoxy one of the criteria? Is it spiritually unhealthy to question the purpose of hell or any other concept? Does possessing great hope in the ultimate reconciliation of all things, which is a biblical concept, make one backslidden? Consider what Jeremiah had to say about this subject:
“’YOUR OWN WICKEDNESS WILL CORRECT YOU, AND YOUR BACKSLIDINGS WILL REBUKE YOU. KNOW THEREFORE AND SEE THAT IT IS AN EVIL AND BITTER THING—THAT YOU HAVE FORSAKEN THE LORD YOUR GOD. AND THE FEAR OF ME IS NOT IN YOU,’ SAYS THE LORD GOD OF HOSTS. JEREMIAH 2:19
Firstly, where is the wickedness in questioning orthodoxy? Where is it in the doctrine of UR? I am not referring to the supposed wickedness in denying what many see as the “clear” teaching of Scripture. When the Bible speaks of wickedness, it always pertains to moral misdeeds, which leads to spiritual error. Questioning the validity of orthodoxy is anything but spiritual error, because Scripture calls us to test such things.
Secondly, how are those who question orthodoxy forsaking the LORD? Can a belief in UR be identified as such? Testing and investigating orthodoxy is not equivalent to forsaking God. On the contrary, it is just the opposite; it is obedience in the face of religious opposition. When Christians blindly cling to their theological presuppositions, they are the ones who are living in disobedience. I would not dare say that anyone who believes in ECT has forsaken God by accepting that doctrine, but can I say they are following him as much as they are able? I don’t know, and I simply do not care to make such judgements.
Finally, is the fear of the LORD necessarily in those who believe in any particular doctrine of postmortem judgement? What is the fear of the LORD, exactly? We know that it is the beginning of wisdom; but what is a fear of the LORD that births wisdom? Is it derived from a deep fear of ECT — if not for ourselves, then for the uncommitted?
Why do so many Christians believe that God desires so many broken souls to be enslaved and manipulated by such a fear? I cannot believe that it is so, not any longer. I have come to believe that the fear of the LORD is more of a holy reverence toward God, rather than an unbearable trepidation. We who hold onto this great hope in UR are no more void of a biblical fear of the LORD than are those who believe in ECT or Conditional Immortality.
The fear of the LORD may affect our understanding of postmortem judgement, but it does not consist of it. Given the criteria Jeremiah provided for being backslidden, one cannot say that questioning orthodoxy has anything to do with it. If anything, our desire to test theology, whether it is strange or familiar, reinforces our fear of the LORD. As a Christian who believes so strongly in the cross, I cannot imagine a scenario beyond one in which Jesus succeeds in drawing everyone to himself. He is a God who keeps his promises, after all.
At the end of the day, if believing in UR places me on a slippery slope, I am looking forward to the ride! Christian Universalism is anything but heretical, because it is built on a solid foundation—the unfailing love of God. According to Scripture, wisdom begins with a healthy fear of the LORD and love is undoubtedly its end.