Thursday, April 07, 2016

A Game-Changer On Hell?

By George W. Sarris

Until now, most Christians have assumed that evangelicals – people who base their convictions clearly on the teaching of Scripture – cannot possibly be universalists – people who believe that God will one day redeem all mankind
With the release on March 8 of Zondervan’s Four Views on Hell (Second Edition), that understanding suddenly changed!
For the first time, a well respected, evangelical publishing house has clearly acknowledged that universalism is a view Christians should seriously consider.
An Evangelical Universalist
The four views presented in the book are: Eternal Conscious Torment, Terminal Punishment, Purgatory, and an essay by Robin Parry on Christian Universalism.
According to the book’s general editor, Preston Sprinkle –
All of the authors are committed Christians who believe in the full inspiration and authority of the Bible . . . All of the authors will derive and articulate their views based on Scripture and theological reasoning. 
Dr. Sprinkle goes on to say –
I found Robin Parry’s essay to be a fascinating read! And, if I can be quite honest, I think it is a game-changer . . . Christians can no longer dismiss his view as unorthodox. We must now actually crack open our Bibles and, like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), see if these things are so.
Check It Out
For a very long time Christians have been told that most of the billions of people who have lived on this earth will remain separated from the love and mercy of God for all eternity. The moms and dads . . . grandmas and grandpas . . . sons and daughters . . . relatives and friends who have not exhibited the “right kind” of faith here in this life will be shut up in a place called hell to suffer forever.
But is that really true?
Is the greatest story ever told – the story of the creation, fall and redemption of mankind – really a tragedy for the vast majority of people who have ever lived . . . including many who you know and love?
Four Views on Hell is a great introduction to the Biblical arguments that directly relate to these issues. The arguments presented are not exhaustive. But they’re clear and clearly presented.
After reading Parry’s essay, you still may not be convinced that he is right. But it’s no longer enough to simply state categorically that an evangelical can’t be a universalist!
The landscape has changed. Maybe it’s time to take another look at an issue you may have been wondering about for a very long time.
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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

God Bless Us . . . Every One!

By George W. Sarris

Tiny Tim got it right.  And Charles Dickens made it clear with the simple addition of a single space in the text. 
The last two words of the child’s famous saying could have been written as one word.  But then the meaning might have been misunderstood.  The little boy could have been asking “everyone” to pronounce a blessing on him and his family – God bless us, everyone!
But that’s not what he was asking.  His request was directed to God, asking Him to bless “every one!”
The real message of Christmas is not that God loves only some people – Tiny Tim . . . the Cratchit family . . . even a changed Scrooge. 
The message at the heart of Christianity is that God loves each and every person He created.  
He loves you.  He loves all those you personally know and love.  He even loves all those you don’t know personally . . . and may not love.
The Savior of the World
The angel who appeared to the shepherds on that glorious night to announce the birth of the promised Savior said,
I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
The best-known verse in the Bible tells us that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.  And the very next verse explains why Jesus came: 
. . . that the world through him might be saved.
Jesus’ disciple John told his readers that Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins,
and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
As we celebrate this Christmas, let us rejoice in the knowledge that Jesus Christ came to redeem all mankind!  
And let our request be that of Tiny Tim:
God Bless Us . . . Every One!
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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Does the "Greatest Story" Have a Happy Ending?

I like happy endings. Most people do.
That’s why great stories usually end with the guy getting the girl . . . the hero defeating his foe . . . the adventurer succeeding in his quest.
Sure, there are tragic elements along the way. The guy loses the girl . . . for a while. The usurping foe overpowers the hero . . . for a time. The adventurer gets thwarted in his quest . . . until he overcomes all odds and achieves his goal. In the end, good triumphs over evil and all is well.
Will that happen in the greatest story ever told -- the story of the Creation, Fall and Redemption of mankind?
When the last page is read and the book is closed, will the Hero in this story ultimately succeed or fail in His quest to “seek and save what was lost?”
Does this story have a happy ending . . . or is the greatest story actually a tragedy?
It Wasn’t Always a Tragedy
For the first 500 years of the Christian Church, most Christians believed that God would ultimately redeem all of His creation. The story had a happy ending.
St. Gregory of Nyssa – the man who was honored as Father of the Fathers and who added the phrase “I believe in the life of the world to come” to the Nicene Creed, explained the belief of many at that time.
God’s love will
 . . . always increase and develop, until the One who ‘wants all to be saved and to reach the knowledge of the truth’ has realized his will . . . until the good will of the Bridegroom is accomplished. And this good will is that all humans be saved and reach the knowledge of the truth.
Then in the sixth century, as the Church became more politicized and Scripture began to be read in its Latin translation instead of the original Greek and Hebrew, most of Christendom was told that the story ultimately ends tragically. Some are saved. But most are forever lost.
St. Augustine – the foremost spokesman for this idea in the early Church – is a case in point. He didn’t read Greek.
Unlike Gregory of Nyssa who read the New Testament in his native tongue, Augustine taught that
“. . . many more are left under punishment than are delivered from it.”    
In explaining his view, he also contradicted the apostle Paul by saying that the last enemy – death – would never be abolished:
For death will not be abolished, but will be eternal, since the soul will neither be able to enjoy God and live, nor to die and escape the pains of the body.
So who was right . . . Gregory or Augustine?  Does the story have a happy ending . . . or is it a tragedy?
A Happy Ending?
The God who created all things is all-powerful. The God who created all things is all-wise. It is the very nature of the God who created all things to love. And this Creator has specifically said He wants all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.
Jesus said He came to seek and save what was lost. The Apostle Paul explained that just as God created everything and everyone in heaven and on earth through Christ, so He will ultimately reconcile to Himself everything and everyone in heaven and on earth through Christ.
At the very end of His story, God tells us that every tear will be wiped away. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. The gates of the glorious city that has come down from heaven will always be open.  The fruit of the tree of life in the center of the city is always available.  Its leaves are for the healing of the nations. And at that time, there will no longer be any curse.
I really like happy endings. I think God does, too. How about you?
                    Visit George W. Sarris on FacebookYouTube, or his Website.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Rethinking Hell Conference Challenges Beliefs

  By George W. Sarris

“Historic?  I’m not sure it’s too strong a word.  I can’t think of anything quite like this!”

That’s how Dr. Jerry Walls described the second Rethinking Hell Conference that was held at the prestigious Fuller Theological Seminary June 18-20. 

It brought together scholars, pastors and laypeople from the US, Canada and as far away as the UK to discuss an issue that has been the subject of debate and division during most of the history of the Christian Church: 

What happens to sinners after we die? 

Three very different views have existed from the early church to the present day – each represented by respected leaders . . . and each claiming the authority of Scripture for its beliefs.

The Traditional view states that the righteous will go to heaven, and the wicked will experience endless, conscious suffering in hell.

With Conditional Immortality, eternal life is conditioned on salvation, and only some will meet that condition.  The saved go to heaven.  The rest die, perhaps suffering for some time after death, until they finally cease to exist.  This view is sometimes called Annihilation.

The third view says that hell is a place where the wicked will be punished, but that punishment has a remedial purpose.  After a period of time, they will be restored to fellowship with God.  This view is generally called Universalism or Universal Restoration.

The conference was sponsored by the Conditionalists, with this year’s theme – “Conditional Immortality and the Challenge of Universal Salvation.”  Five main speakers included recognized authorities supporting each of the three views. 

Oliver Crisp, Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller, presented the Traditional view of hell.  “This is an in-house discussion,” he said.  “We are not talking about how people are saved, but how many are saved.”  The scope of salvation is wider than often thought, but the tradition handed down to us teaches that some will be in hell forever.

Jerry Walls, Professor of Philosophy and Scholar-in-Residence at Houston Baptist University, continued the Traditional view, stating that some will suffer forever in hell on the conviction that mankind has an inviolable free will.

“We cannot entirely eliminate the possibility that some will choose to harden themselves in sin for all eternity,” said Walls, author of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things that Matter Most.

David Instone-Brewer, Senior Research Fellow in Rabbinics and the New Testament in Cambridge, UK, presented the Conditionalist view by examining Jewish literature dating from before, during and after the time of Christ.  He said that in the Qumran community, punishments were followed by destruction. 

Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Taylor University, Jim Spiegel presented the philosophical case for Conditionalism.  He described six philosophical problems with the Traditional view and suggested that Universalism was more problematic from a Biblical perspective. 

Spiegel said that if hell continues forever, evil continues forever.  The annihilation of the wicked brings a permanent end to evil.

Describing himself as an Evangelical Universalist, Robin Parry, PhD in Old Testament from the University of Gloucestershire and editor for theological publications at Wipf & Stock Publishers, likened the creation/redemption story to a puzzle where the piece describing hell doesn’t quite fit in with a loving, all-powerful God.  He described hell as a hospital where God annihilates evil, not evil-doers. 

“God doesn’t create trash,” said Parry, author of The Evangelical Universalist, “and He doesn’t trash what He created.”

I had the privilege of speaking at one of 16 breakout sessions that offered attendees an opportunity to participate in smaller groups.  The sessions representing one view were held simultaneously so people could hear arguments for all three.

Topics ranged from “The Biblical Tour of Hell” . . . to “An Orthodox/Catholic Eschatology: the Hopeful Inclusivism of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware” . . . to “Is God Creation’s Biggest Loser?”

A gracious and humble spirit was evident with each of the main speakers, the breakout session speakers and with the participants. It was clearly felt by all who attended.

What was most amazing to me was the number of people – from speakers to conference organizers to participants – who admitted that they had been challenged by what was said to rethink their view of hell . . . which, after all, was what the conference was all about. 

Several said they had been unaware that a prominent belief in the early Church was that God would ultimately restore all of creation. 

A number mentioned that they had never heard a Biblical case for universal salvation. 

Almost all agreed that a belief in the ultimate restoration of all was not outside the bounds of faith. 

And several acknowledged that they were “hopeful” that it was true. 

Traditionalist Jerry Walls ended the conference with these words, “Universalism is the best story.  It’s the only one where true, lasting bliss pervades.  It’s the only one with a perfect ending.”

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

What Do You Think?

By George W. Sarris

Rethinking Hell.  I was blown away when I saw the name of this conference.
I was even more impressed when I learned that it’s the second time scholars and other knowledgeable people with strong beliefs will be getting together to discuss their views . . . and listen to those of others who disagree but hold equally strong beliefs. And I was honored to be asked to participate.
The second Rethinking Hell Conference will be held June 18-20 at the prestigious Fuller Theological Seminary, with all three historic views of what happens after we die being represented . . . those who believe Scripture teaches endless punishment . . . those who believe Scripture teaches the wicked will be annihilated . . . and those who believe Scripture teaches the ultimate restoration of all.
Speakers include a Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Seminary; a Senior Research Fellow in Rabbinics and the New Testament; an Editor from Wipf & Stock Publishers; a Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Taylor University; and a Professor of Philosophy and Scholar-in-Residence at Houston Baptist University.
Each of the three views represented at the conference was held by leaders in the early Christian Church. And each is held to this day by sincere Christians who believe strongly that their view is the one taught by Scripture. I’m expecting to see some lively discussions!
Disagreeing, yes . . . but disagreeing without getting mad at each other. That, in itself, is pretty amazing!
I’ll be speaking at one of the breakout sessions, and to help set the tone for my presentation . . . put together a 2 ½ minite video that captures the essence of why I’m convinced this is such an important issue.
Click here to watch it.
Rethinking Hell.  An important conference . . . about an important issue.
What do you think? Tell your friends on Facebook and Twitter. Join the discussion!
            Visit George W. Sarris on FacebookYouTube, or his Website

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

"He Descended Into Hell"

By George W. Sarris

Down through the centuries, that phrase from the Apostles Creed has generated a great deal of thought and discussion.
It describes what the ancient church believed happened between the time on Good Friday when Jesus was crucified, dead and buried, and when on Easter Sunday morning He rose again from the dead. 
Images from the ancient church picture Jesus standing on the broken doors of hell, which have fallen in the shape of a cross – to show that by His death, Jesus defeated death and hell.
He holds Adam and Eve by their wrists and is pulling them up out of hell to illustrate that on its own, mankind is unable to defeat sin and death – salvation comes about only by the work of God.
Under the doors, hell is pictured as a chasm of darkness with broken locks and chains strewn about.
Jesus told His disciples that the gates of hell would not prevail against His church. Gates are defensive structures. The imagery is of a church on the offense, attacking the gates of hell and bringing release to those held captive by it.
As we prepare to celebrate the most important event in the history of the world . . . the event that resulted in dividing history into BC and AD (or BCE and CE for those who choose not to acknowledge the lordship of Christ) . . . let us not forget that the gates of death and hell open to Him.
Jesus Christ is the Victor who defeats all His enemies and sets the captives free!
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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Is God Creation's Biggest Loser?

By George W. Sarris

Even asking a question like that would almost seem blasphemous . . . if it weren't for the fact most Christians have been told that’s what we’re supposed to believe!
It’s not usually expressed that plainly, of course. The preferred statement is something like,
Of course God is a winner! He wins by defeating all His enemies and casting them into hell where they will spend all eternity separated from Him!
But what is that really saying?
God loses . . . forever . . . most of those He originally created in His image!
If a manufacturing company had to throw away the majority of its products because they were defective, would it be considered a successful company?
Does God ultimately “throw away” most of those He created?
Maybe Not!
Interestingly, the Christian Church has not always taught that God ultimately loses most of His creation. In fact, for the first 500 years after Christ, many of the most prominent Christian leaders believed that God would ultimately win in the end!
In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul explained that just as God created everything and everyone in heaven and on earth through Christ, so He will ultimately reconcile to Himself everything and everyone in heaven and on earth through Christ.
Even St. Augustine, whose teaching about the eternity of hell became the dominant view in later centuries, acknowledged that in his day “some – indeed very many – deplore the notion of the eternal punishment of the damned and their interminable and perpetual misery.
These early Christians believed that God doesn’t defeat evil by simply shutting it up in a corner of His creation and leaving it there forever – like some kind of cosmic graveyard keeping sinners imprisoned for all eternity. Instead, they believed He will destroy evil by transforming the hearts of evil-doers – ultimately making them into those who love goodness. At the very end of time, God will actually get everyone He created into heaven.
If my web survey is any indication, there may be a lot of people today who agree with these early Christians.
What Do You Think?
Can God really be that great? Is God’s grace really that powerful? Does God’s work in the hearts of men and women actually extend into the ages to come?
That’s a powerful thought . . . about an immeasurably powerful God! With beliefs like that, no wonder the early Christians ended up taking over the Roman Empire!
     Visit George W. Sarris on FacebookYouTube, or his Website. To participate in the Heaven & Hell Survey, click here.