I just finished Scot McKnight’s “Kingdom of God” class at Regent, Vancouver. Being an ‘Anabaptist’ on kingdom ethics, he said, Jesus rejected Moses’ Law of an “eye for an eye,” believing that retribution isn’t always required, and forgiveness can be valuable. The next day on the kingdom’s eschatological separation, he argued that this is Eternal Concious Torment because “justice requires the full punishment of proportionate retribution.” He cited the cry of the oppressed for such justice, illustrating that we couldn’t feel satisfied if Hitler escaped justice.
Inviting questions, I said, “I hear you argue that ‘justice requires full retributory punishment.’ That sounds like Moses’ logic of ‘an eye for an eye.’ But I though you argued that Jesus opposed that!” He said, "Wow, you have just deconstructed me. He hesitated and it appeared to me that he had never reflected on the glaring conflict between his two assertions. He began to review that Jesus bore sin’s punishment so that those who embraced him need not receive justice, but that those who reject his provision still must. I said, “But what if Biblical ‘justice’ means ‘making things right.’ That would mean it could only be truly satisfied by bringing people to actually be righteous.” I believe McKnight has elsewhere acknowledged this as a Biblical concept of righteousness (dikaios), and I perceived him to say “yes,” as if that would be the desireable outcome or defintion, “But… that would require universalism.”
Then the focus became not the original question of justice’s meaning, but why one would reject universalism. His main response was that “affirming universalism would only be possible if one were a Calvinist.” He clearly meant human freedom would assure the possibility that some may reject salvation, because he added, “unless that guy in Oregon is right… what’s his name.” I said, you’re referring to Thomas Talbott. He said, “yes.” He then said, “I hope the next question will not be this difficult.” My impression was that even bringing up Talbott as a possible alternative, showed that he sensed that Talbott had made quite a case for God being able to enlighten and bring everyone to ackknowledge the truth without coercion.
The other obvious basis of his rejection of universalism is his sense that ‘eternal hell’ is Biblical. He argued that all such texts could refer to annihilationism, except the two in Revelation about torment. But he cited Don Carson’s rebuke of a liberal ‘Marcionite’ who said the N.T. God was not the violent O.T. God, telling him, “Jesus spoke more of hell and ECT than anyone else” (apparently assuminging there that Jesus’ Gehenna was Not annihilation?). So when another student asked if Gehenna meant the Jerusalem garbage dump, he said that he had written this in his James’ commentary, but now realizes that maybe this was a much later invention of the rabbis. But he argued that what is decisive, is that first century Jews had come to see Hinnom Valley as a symbol of endless torment in the afterlife, such that they would know this is what Jesus meant."
He did not acknowledge that there were apparently a variety of views on the afterlife among first century Jews, nor question that Jesus wouldn’t necessarily have endorsed the Pharisee’s conception of this. He seemed unaware of Jerzak’s argument that Jesus more likely would have assumed the Bible’s tradition in Jeremiah, where being thrown into Hinnom Valley meant a historical event at the hand of enemy armies. Indeed, we had earlier clashed when he argued against George Ladd and John Bright’s view that “kingdom” is a reign or rule, and that Jesus never defines it as the church. McKnight (later citing Bruce Waltke) claimed Jews expected a land and people, and thus the kingdom means the “same” as the church. I asked, if Jesus’ definition of the kingdom proved violently unpopular and seems to reverse many Jewish expectations, why must we assume that he conformed to what they expected. He replied that unless there is some continuity for their understanding, then Jesus would not have communicated effectively with them.
I concluded that he wanted rightly to affirm a crucial place for the church and that a lot of these distinction were semantic (all scholars see a close connection between the kingdom and the church who are to reflect God’s rule, while agreeing that the two are “not identical”). But it reinforced my perception on Jesus’ use of Gehenna, that traditionalists like Mcknight selectively assume that Jesus endorsed Jewish conceptions, when it bolsters a conclusion that they want to defend. And I think that if even an ‘Anabaptist’ melds Jesus into Jewish expectations, it shows how deeply entrenched traditional views of ECT are.
Yet, McKnight referenced a great theologian’s comment that every Christian should be hoping that universalism is true, commenting that it seems like we indeed should love others to the extent of hoping that they will all be saved. My deepest impression was that even an evangelical as unusually well-read and conversant with universalism as McKnight, does not seem to have yet thought through the coherence of his assumptions, as in his conflicted conceptions of justice. But being a hopeful personality, I sense that he continues to sincerely try to grapple with these issues.