Faith, Doubt and the Idol of Certainty: An Interview with Greg Boyd

“The quest to feel certain becomes an idol when a person’s sense of significance to God and security before God is anchored not in their simple trust of God’s character, as revealed on the cross, but in how certain they feel about the rightness of their beliefs.” – Greg Boyd 

Today I am just thrilled to share an interview with theologian and teacher Greg Boyd, whose new book, Benefit of the Doubt, releases this week.  Greg is the co-founder of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota where he serves as Senior Pastor, speaking to thousands each week. He has authored or co-authored 18 books and numerous academic articles, including his best-selling and award-winning Letters From a Skeptic and his recent books Repenting of Religion and The Myth of a Christian Nation. Greg has also been featured on the front page of The New York Times, The Charlie Rose Show, CNN, National Public Radio, the BBC and numerous other television and radio venues. 

What I love about Greg’s work is his commitment to both intellectual integrity and faithful obedience. His books always challenge me to not only think, but to act. And his latest, Benefit of the Doubt, is right up my alley…and likely many of yours too…for it tackles issues related to faith, doubt, certainty, and obedience. I think you will find many of Greg’s thoughts here helpful and profound. Enjoy! 



Rachel: First of all, thank you so much for this book.  I really related to your personal experience with doubt and found myself underlining paragraph after paragraph of Benefit of the Doubt, praying your words would reach those who need it the most.  To start off, tell us a little of your own story. What triggered your first doubts about your faith?

Greg: Thanks Rachel, I appreciate the opportunity to talk.  I don’t know if I can say when I first had doubts about my faith, because my faith has pretty much always been accompanied by doubt.  But it was a prayer meeting I attended twenty-some years ago that first got me questioning the very concept of faith that most Christians embrace today.  A dozen or so other people and I had gathered to pray for a young man who had been diagnosed with brain cancer.  At the beginning of the meeting the lady who owned the house we were in stood up and read Jesus’ statement, “according to your faith it will be done to you.”  She then told us that if our faith was free of doubt, this young man would be healed. The implication was that if we doubted, he would not be healed. 

As we entered into prayer for this young man, everyone in the room felt pressure to try to make ourselves certain that this man was in fact going to be healed. As I share in my book, after a couple of minutes of praying the image of the Lion on the Wizard of Oz suddenly popped into my mind and I saw him saying, “I do believe, I do believe, I do, I do, I DO believe!” just as he does in the movie.  It occurred to me that this was exactly what we were doing. We were trying to talk ourselves into becoming certain, as if faith was a sort of psychological gimmick.  And it made me wonder what kind of God would leverage the life of a young man on how well we were to perform this psychological gimmickry, and about a matter that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can’t be certain of.  It seemed like we were caught in a cruel, twisted joke! 

This motivated me to begin to seriously question whether the notion that our faith is as strong as we are free of doubt is really an accurate understanding of faith. The Benefit of the Doubt is really the outcome of that line of questioning that began in that prayer meeting so many years ago.  

 Can you explain what “certainty-seeking faith” is and why you claim that it's a problem today? 

 “Certain-seeking faith” is the sort of faith that people were trying to exercise in the prayer meeting I just talked about.  It’s the assumption that a person’s faith is as strong as they are free of doubt and that striving to have a “strong” (viz. doubt-free) faith somehow pleases God. I’ve found that this is how most Christians today think about faith, and it causes far more damage than most people realize (I spend two chapters in my book fleshing out these problems).  In fact, I argue that this misguided model of faith is at the root of most of the struggles believers have with the Christian faith and behind most of the negative things non-believers associate with the Christian faith. 

Among other things, as I stated earlier, this model reduces faith to a psychological gimmick in which people try to convince themselves that their beliefs are true beyond what the evidence warrants.  Thoughtful people legitimately wonder why God would consider this ability virtuous, to the point of leveraging people’s eternal welfare on it!  So too, this model makes thoughtful people who have perfectly reasonable doubts feel guilty and rewards people who either lack the concern or the intellectual curiosity to question their beliefs by making them feel like they have “strong” faith.  

On top of this, those who embrace “certainty-seeking faith” tend to become narrow-minded, for honestly trying to see things from other peoples’ point of view might lead them to question their faith and thereby jeopardize their “salvation.“ In fact, this model can easily lead people to develop learning phobias, for if you dare to read broadly and learn to see things from other people’s point of view, you might uncovering facts that could shake your certainty and thus displease God. I’m convinced this explains why Christians, especially conservative Christians, have a well-deserved reputation in the broader culture for being narrow-minded.

You go so far as to claim that certainty-seeking faith is “idolatrous.”  That is a huge claim, especially since this is the kind of faith most Christians today embrace! Can you explain it further? And how can we break free from it?


In the book I make the case that we are created with a core need to feel fully alive, unconditionally loved and worthwhile, and ultimately secure, and God created us with this need because he wants to meet it, and is the only one who can actually meet it.  An idol, I argue, is anything we use in place of God to meet this core need. While many people try to meet this need with the idols of wealth, power, success, sex and other such things, many Christians try to meet it with the idol of certainty-seeking faith. The quest to feel certain becomes an idol when a person’s sense of significance to God and security before God is anchored not in their simple trust of God’s character, as revealed on the cross, but in how certain they feel about the rightness of their beliefs. This form of idolatry is a danger whenever people assume (rightly) that they are saved by faith while also (mistakenly) equating faith with their sense of certainty.  For it means they now feel “saved” – uniquely significant and secure before God – on the basis of their psychological certainty. 

As I show in Benefit of the Doubt, the only way to get free from this without falling into some other form of idolatry is to realize that biblical faith isn’t about feeling certain, but about a willingness to commit to living for God in the face of uncertainty.  We need to accept that uncertainty is simply part of what it means to be human and to trust that God’s love for us, revealed most perfectly on Calvary, isn’t dependent on how certain or uncertain we feel.  The God revealed on Calvary isn’t a God who is impressed with people’s ability to make themselves feel certain that their beliefs are right.  He’s rather a God who simply wants us to trust him, in the face of uncertainty, by lovingly laying down our lives for him in response the way he has lovingly laid down his life for us. 

What difference do you see between ‘faith’ and ‘belief’?  And why do you believe this distinction is important?

 As I define them, “belief “ is an opinion about something or someone, while “faith” is a willingness to commit to a course of action on the basis of that opinion.  When I married Shelley, my wife, I had to first believe a number of things about her, but I only became married to her when I demonstrated faith by being willing to commit to living the rest of my life as her husband. 

The most important thing for people to realize about this is that salvation is not merely about beliefs that people hold.  James tells us the demons “believe,” but it does them absolutely no good (Ja 2:19).  Salvation is rather about entering into a marriage-like, covenantal, relationship with God through Jesus Christ by exercising faith. And whereas one might measure beliefs in terms of how certain or uncertain a person feels, the measure of faith is simply about how willing one is to trust God’s character and how faithful a person is in living out the covenantal relationship they have with the Lord, despite the uncertainties they may have.  

Sadly, many today think that people are “saved” simply because they espouse certain beliefs, apart from any consideration of how they live.  This is why research demonstrates that the vast majority of Americans admit to believing in Jesus (and a host of other “Christian” things) while also demonstrating that this belief has very little impact on how they actually live.   It also explains why so many mistakenly think God is impressed with our level of certainty over our beliefs, when in fact the only thing that means anything to God is how faithful his people are in trusting his character and in living in relationship with him, regardless of whatever level of certainty they have, or don’t have.

In the book you write that, “God enters covenants, not contracts, with people.” Could you share a little about how the court-of-law framework of theology has affected how we read the Bible? 

This is a very important point that I spend a lot of time on in my book. Whereas a “contract” is a deal between parties, a “covenant” is a commitment that involves the parties themselves.  Contracts involve exchanging money, work or possessions, while covenants involve a commitment of our life. And while covenants are rooted in people trusting one another, contracts are only necessary when people don’t trust one another. So too, while contracts are about what different parties can get from one another, covenants are about what different parties pledge to give of themselves toward one another.   Buying a car or house involves a contract: getting married involves a covenant.  

Unfortunately, while covenants permeated the lives of people in biblical times, western culture is entirely contractual. Indeed, marriage is the only remaining covenant we have, and people today are unfortunately increasingly viewing even this in terms of a contract.  Because of this, most contemporary western Christians interpret Scripture’s covenantal concepts as if they were contractual, and as I show in Benefit of the Doubt, this has fundamentally screwed up our understanding of a number of theological concepts in Scripture. 

Can you give us an example? 

Sure. Consider the way most Christians think about “salvation.” They think of it primarily in legal and contractual ways. God the Father is the judge, we are the guilty defendants, and Jesus is our lawyer.  In this view, the Father was going to send us to eternal prison (hell), which we deserved, until Jesus stepped in and worked out a strange deal with the Father in which he somehow takes on our guilt and our punishment, while we are acquitted, assuming we can believe these things are true with a requisite degree of certainty. 

It’s of course true the Bible uses some legal metaphors to describe salvation, but as I demonstrate in my book, the primary framework, and the framework in which even the legal metaphors should be understood, is covenantal.  This dramatically changes everything! Understood as a covenantal concept, salvation, isn’t about a deal that takes place between us and God. It’s rather about entering into a marriage-like relationship with God – a relationship that involves us pledging ourselves to him in response to the pledge of himself he offered us on Calvary. So too, whereas the legal model was focused on belief and therefore didn’t involve our character transformation as a central consideration, the covenant model is all about character, for its anchored in faith, and as I’ve said, covenantal faith is about our willingness to trust another and to live in a trustworthy way in relation to another. 

You can also see the significant difference between these two models of salvation by the sorts of questions they inspire. If a person is thinking in terms of the contractual model, there are all sorts of legal-type questions that need to be addressed. For example, since salvation is a legal deal, it makes sense to wonder if the deal can be “undone” (the debate about eternal security)?  If it can’t be “undone,” it makes sense to wonder what, if any, are the negative consequences for living in ways we know God disapproves of?  

On the other hand, if the “salvation-deal” can be undone, it makes sense to wonder what are the precise legal conditions that would undo it? Is the “salvation-deal” undone if a person fornicates, for example, and dies before they can repent? And (here’s one I’ve found Christian engaged couples ask frequently), what exactly does it mean to “fornicate”?  How close to “vaginal penetration” can you get before you “cross the line?  In the contractual framework, it naturally makes sense to want to get away with as much as you can without “crossing the line,” for contracts, recall, are predicated on a lack of trust and are about what individuals can get from one another. 

The mindset behind these questions makes perfect sense in a contractual, court-of-law framework, but that make no sense whatsoever in a covenantal framework. No one in a remotely healthy marriage would ever wonder about how much they could get away with before their spouse would divorce them, for example.  And if a spouse ever did wonder about this, it would simply reveal that he or she was already dishonoring their covenant.  For one only resorts to contractual thinking when the covenantal pledge to give of oneself to another and to trust and be trustworthy toward another is absent. 

In this light, and in light of how pervasive the legal paradigm is in contemporary Christ thinking, is it any wonder we see so live covenantal trust and trustworthiness in the lives of professing Christians today?  

You acknowledge that one of the greatest challenges confronting people who believe the Bible is “God’s Word” concerns the violent portraits of God in the Bible. and you spend a whole chapter on this topic. What advice do you have for people who are deeply troubled by these portraits?


There are three things I share in Benefit of the Doubt about this incredibly important topic.  The first is that I attempt to show that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ isn’t just one revelation among many others in Scripture. He is rather depicted as the supreme revelation that culminates and surpasses all others. God spoke in many different ways in the past, the author of Hebrews tells us, but in these “last days” he has spoken “through the Son.”  And in contrast to all that came before, the Son is “the radiance of his glory” and “the exact representation of his being (hupostasis, meaning “essence,” Heb. 1:1-3).  This is why Jesus could say such radical things as; “If you see me, you see the Father” (Jn.14:9) and could claim that all Scripture points to him (Jn 5:39-45; Lk 24: 25-7; 44-7). What this implies, I contend, is that, whether we can explain the violent portraits of God in the OT or not,   it would be unfaithful for us to ever allow anything we find in the OT to compromise what we learn about God in him. 

Second, I argue that as the NT depicts it, the cross sums up and supremely expresses everything Jesus was about.   This is why John said, on the basis of what he learned about God from Jesus, that “God is love” (I Jn,.4:8) and then defined the kind of “love” that God is by pointing us to the cross (I Jn 3:16). God’s very essence, in other words, is cross-like love. On the one hand, this increases the problem of the OT’s violent portraits of God, for the cross reveals a God who would rather did for his enemies than use his power to crush them.  So we have to wonder, how do portraits of God commanding genocide or causing mothers to cannibalize their babies point to the enemy-loving, non-violent God revealed on the cross?!  On the other hand, however, I argue that the cross itself holds the key to solving this problem, which leads to my third point. 

The cross reveals that, out of his covenantal faithfulness and unfathomable love, God is willing to stoop to bear the sin of his people and thereby take on an appearance that reflects the ugliness of their sin. Yet, in doing this, God reveals his true nature, for as we look upon the God-forsaken, guilty-appearing criminal on the cross, we know that it was God who voluntarily stooped an infinite distance to become this for us.  Now, if the cross reveals what God is really like, then it reveals what God has always been like. And this means we should read Scripture with the awareness that God has always been willing to stoop to bear the sin of his people and take on appearances that reflect the ugliness of their sin.  

I thus suggest that we should read all Scripture “through the lens of the cross,” and when we do this, we can begin to see how even the most horrendous portraits of God in the OT bear witness to the God revealed on the cross.  The cross reveals God to us only when we look past the surface appearance that reflects the ugliness of our sin and discern in its depth our gracious God stooping to bear our sin and take on this ugly appearance for us.  In this light, I suggest we should read Scripture always asking, where else might we find that God is revealed not by how he appears on the surface, but by what faith can discern as we look past the surface to discern God humbly stooping to bear the sin of his people? 

My short answer to this question is that, whenever we come upon portraits of God that, to one degree or another, fall beneath the beautiful, non-violent portrait we are given in the crucified Christ, we should assume that the revelatory content of these portraits is, to this degree, not found on the surface of the portrait itself, but in what faith can discern happening beneath the surface as it beholds God stooping to bear the sin if his people.  Hence, I submit that the ugliness of portraits such as the one of Yahweh commanding his people to slaughter “everything that breathes” or of causing mothers to cannibalize their children reflects the ugly, fallen, culturally conditioned hearts of his people, not God himself. What rather reveals God is that, out of his covenantal faithfulness and unfathomable love, he was willing to stoop to bear the sin of his people by being willing to take on this literary appearance in the inspired record of his covenantal activity (viz. the biblical narrative). 

You are such a prolific writer and theologian, and you’ve written about everything from open theism, to Satan and demons, to politics (The Myth of a Christian Nation is among my most often recommend books), to the problem of suffering. What’s next on the horizon for you? What are you feeling most passionate about right now? 

Right now I’m in the final stages of a massive research project I’ve been working on for five years that develops and defends the thesis I just outlined in response to your previous question.  It’s entitled The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Reinterpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. To say I’m “passionate” about this topic  is a massive understatement! I’ve been absolutely obsessed with this Scripture’s’ violent portraits of God, for I believe these portraits constitute one of the biggest reasons why many abandon the faith while many others refuse to take the Bible as God’s Word seriously. It’s also the primary reason why most Christians today refuse to accept that God is altogether as beautiful as he’s revealed to be on the cross and/or that God is unconditionally opposed to all violence.  

Because I’m proposing a new hermeneutic, I needed to make my case as airtight and as comprehensive as possible, which is why the book has taken me five years to research and write and has now evolved to over 600 pages! But non-academics need not worry, because I plan on following it quickly with a much shorter work that will capture the gist of my argument, but without all the scholarly material that’s packed into the larger academic book. I hope to have both finished by the beginning of 2014 which means they should be published (by InterVarsity Press) by the end of 2014. 

 When it comes to theology, you seem to have a curious mind and an explorer’s heart. How do you handle the inevitable criticism that comes along with that? 

I make it my primary goal of every day to get all of my “life” – my core need to be loved, to feel worthwhile, and to feel ultimate secure – from what God thinks about me as revealed on the cross.  I believe this is the most fundamental objective for disciples of Jesus.  To the extent that Christ is our “life,” we don’t need to be trying to get “life” from what people think about us, or from any other potential idol I might latch onto.  But to the degree we don’t get all our “life” from Christ, we can’t help but try to get it from what people think about us, or from some other idol.  This is sheer bondage.  Only to the degree that all our “life” is from Christ can we live in true freedom.  And only to this degree can we “die to ourselves” and live out the radical call of the kingdom to imitate Jesus by lovingly sacrificing ourselves for all others, including those who would identify themselves as our “enemy.”

Thanks so much for asking such great questions Rachel! Keep up your great Kingdom work! 

Thanks for this profound and thought-provoking responses, Greg. You are ALWAYS welcome here! 


Be sure to check out Greg’s new book, Benefit of the Doubt. And if you haven’t found Greg’s ReKnew site, you’re missing out; there are tons of great resources, articles, and discussions there. And if you’re interested in hearing Greg speak on the topics covered in this interview, consider participating in the upcoming ReKnew conference on Faith, Doubt, and the Idol of Certainty, September 27-28 at Wooldand Hills Church in St. Paul, MN. 



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‘More Than Serving Tea’: A Conversation with Kathy Khang and Nikki Toyama-Szeto

As happens with many good books, I stumbled upon More Than Serving Tea by accident, after I read an interview with one of its authors, Nikki Toyama-Szeto, at Intervarsity’s “The Well” blog. In the interview, Nikki spoke about power and privilege in ways I’d never really heard before, ways that were both practical and challenging.  I followed the link to her book, More Than Serving Tea, which she co-wrote with several other Asian American women, including Kathy Khang, who had also written a post for “The Well” about ambition entitled “The Dirty ‘A’ Word” which had me standing on my desk chair, waving my hanky, and shouting ‘amen’! 

Rarely do Christian women speak so candidly and practically about things like ambition, power, privilege, and race. So of course my next thought was, I have to get these ladies on the blog! Today I’m grateful to introduce you to these extraordinary women of valor and to their excellent book, More Than Serving Tea. 



Rachel: Nikki, tell us a little about your new role at International Justice Mission. What will you be doing? 

Nikki: I’m the Sr. Director of Biblical Justice Integration and Mobilization.  This means I help oversee the work of the IJM Institute—which is where our group grapples with the issues raised by our work in the field, and asks the questions, “How does our faith inform our response?”  I also oversee the world of our global prayer mobilization.  Some people believe that power is found in the size of your army, or in the depth of your wallet.  But I believe that the world and history are changed by praying grannies—the most powerful beings in the universe.  So we work with an extraordinary network of intercessors around the world who do the work of justice through prayer.



Rachel: Kathy, tell us about your role at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. What do you do as the director of regional multiethnic ministries?  

Kathy: I am essentially the set of eyes that looks at student and staff leadership development and programming and staff supervision through the lens of multiethnicity so that InterVarsity's ministry more effectively reaches out to the diverse student populations on campuses across Illinois and Indiana. I also serve on InterVarsity's national Asian American Ministries Leadership Team.



Rachel: In More Than Serving Tea you two join four other Asian American women explore how family expectations and cultural stereotypes often assume that Asian American women can only fill rigidly defined roles. Can you share a little of how you have experienced that in your life? What's the 'good news' for Asian American women who feel frustrated or burdened by these expectations?  

Nikki: Most of my interactions with cultural stereotypes have assumed that because I’m an Asian woman, I could be either a dragon lady, a newscaster, or a demure sexualized object. Those are the portrayals of AA women.  Today we have more diverse pictures.  But it’s the small comments of, “your English is so good” and “where are you from?” that communicate that you’re an outsider or that you don’t belong.   I was born in Chicago and I’m fourth-generation American, but still I will receive these  questions that my friend, a recent immigrant from Poland, never will receive.

I think AA women need to acknowledge that we live in a world that makes quick judgments about who you are based on what you look like and based on others past experiences.  It was hard to acknowledge for me—but one element of “good news” about that is Asian woman have some opportunities because they can turn the stereotypes on their heads.

Dealing with the expectations of others is common to all folks.  But perhaps there is an extra burden, a certain kind of expectation, that AA women experience.  Women who don’t follow the paths laid out for them can be seen as being “un-asian”.  I’ve heard so many women describe themselves as, “I’m not a typical Asian woman…”  Instead, I wish people would say, “I am a typical Asian woman—we just come in many shapes, sizes, and volumes.”

Kathy: I grew up with one younger sister. There were no sons for my parents to rely on in their old age, to provide for their retirement, and then to care for them; that was the message I heard directly and indirectly from family and the extended "aunties" and "uncles" who were not blood relatives but connected by ethnic heritage, culture, and language. I was told that I would be a worthy daughter by playing the role of firstborn son. But then the messages started to include complex addendum. I could be successful academically and then professionally and bring honor to my family, but I also needed to temper those goals because I needed to be fit to be married, which meant I couldn't be too successful and forget that my role would also include daughter-in-law. 

Because I married a second generation Korean-American, I married deeper into the culture. My worth then came from not only being a good daughter but a good daughter-in-law - who bear sons, cares for my children and releases my husband from domestic duties so that he could provide financially for the family (which includes his parents). My husband and I struggled to honor the expectations of our parents but still honor one another in our marriage.


The good news is that there is a deep gift in that ability to consider other's needs and expectations while still being able to clearly identify your own personal ambitions and values. There is a skill and diplomacy to know how to put aside the cultural expectations and still live out Christ's love and generosity much like the father in the story of the prodigal son - both sons and the father knew the cultural rules, but when it came down to it, the father, who had much to lose, put aside those cultural burdens in order to love lavishly.

There is also the example of Queen Esther who plays the game, passes as a Persian queen and hides her Jewishness. Her success and survival in the palace depends on living by the cultural rules and roles; she is at the mercy of the king. But she presses into the situation and takes advantage of her role as hostess to gain an audience and build trust. What I have often first experienced as burdens and frustrations are truly opportunities to allow God to redeem the brokenness in culture.

Rachel: Kathy, you wrote a chapter on sexuality in More Than Serving Tea in which you address the powerful effects of shame on Christian women. What are some truths that can replace the lies women tell about themselves? 

Kathy: As an Asian American woman who grew up in a shame-based culture, I have an intimate relationship with shame. Shame is different than experiencing guilt, feeling bad that you got caught doing something wrong. I've read that shame in its most toxic form is believing that you are inherently wrong, broken, a mistake, and unredeemable. That in itself is a lie. I believe that to some degree it is a good thing that we experience shame, much like Adam and Eve experienced shame when they realized they were buck naked and tried to cover themselves with leaves. It can remind us that we are not doing, being what God intended for us to be and do.

The lie is that shame of our big mistake is all that is left, and that is not what scripture tells us. God did not leave Adam and Eve covered in leaves. Peter's story doesn't end with him denying Christ three times. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Mary in name don't belong in Jesus' family tree because they are women with some culturally suspect backgrounds. There is nothing that keeps us from God because God pursues us and is with us, even when we don't think it "feels" like He is. And from where we sit, we can't imagine the full picture. 

Rachel, Nikki: I love what you said in your recent interview with "The Well" about stewardship of power. Tell us a little about the danger of unacknowledged power and privilege. How can we become more aware of our own power, and how can we steward it in ways that bring about justice, shalom, and reconciliation? 

Nikki: Different people have power.  And people have different levels of comfort with the power that they have.  But I think some of the most dangerous folks are the ones who have power but don’t think that they have it—they play the “but there’s nothing I can do” card.  I think some of the ways we can be more aware of our power is to recognize some of the privileges we have, privileges we take for granted and assume everyone has: our education level, our able-bodiedness level, our sexual orientation, the passport we have, etc. Are there ways that people in power carry our views?  

How to use that to bring about justice, shalom and reconciliation is varied.  I think for me, I try to think about the justice issues that are optional for me—and then press myself to “opt-in.”  For me, it’s a luxury to be able to say, “I’m not going to care about that today.”  For example, I would love to be able to not have my race or gender affect my interactions for one day—to be able to rest from that.  But that’s not optional for me—and I long for white sojourners who will say,  “I’m going to choose to not let that be optional for me either.”

Rachel: Nikki, in the interview with "The Well" you also talk about how, in some cases, the most faithful response to power is to actually step in and claim it. Do you think that’s a hard thing for Christian women in particular to do sometimes? What advice would you give women who feel disempowered in the Church?

Nikki: I do think that it can be challenging for women, Christian women, to step up and claim power.  There are the images of Christian women (meek and mild) that put a theological layer on top.  But for women, I think they can advocate on behalf of other women.  Champion those other women around you, who you think could and should step up.  I do think our churches benefit from active engagement of all its members.  

For women who feel disempowered in the Church, that’s a big question.  One of the things that gives me hope is thinking of Rosa Parks—and just how immovable the currents systems must have seemed to her, when she decided to sit on the bus.   It can be easy to just dis-engage, to give up.  Ask God, where are you in this situation? And what is your invitation to me?  I’m not advocating that everyone should step in and grab power—that’s the way of the world.  But what I do want to free us from us from is assumptions about Christian stewardship of power.  Sometimes God does call us to step up.  Even if your culture, your gender roles, others expectations are speaking differently.  And I would say particularly those who’ve been on the margins, in your church, in your community—you have a perspective that is really important for the life and health of our Christian communities.  Our faiths will be anemic, pithy, and shallow if some of these voices continue to stay quiet.  I think it takes a truly anointed and strong leader to make space for dissonant voices.

Kathy, in your article at "The Well,"  you wrote about how 'ambition' is treated as a dirty word among Christian women. Why do you think that is? 

Kathy: I'm not sure we Christians are comfortable with the idea of ambition because, as I wrote in the piece in The Well, it is often mistaken as the opposite of humility. Christians value humility so we can talk about leadership so long as we remind one another that we are talking about "servant leadership". Instead of creating a new culture around the word "ambition" that better reflects our Christian worldview, we add "Christian" words assuming that will reclaim what the secular world has tainted. 

I've found as a Christian woman it is often better & safer to lead the conversation by talking about my dreams and hopes because having ambitions often assumes a secular worldview where promotions, opportunities, and recognition is about money, success, and ego. We've almost assumed ambition is masculine, which assumes Christian men get a pass and Christian women shouldn't be ambitious if they want to be feminine. And this is where it gets dicier because at the core we Christians have a tough time talking about gender - the differences, similarities, and stereotypes. The Church has its own version of "boys will be boys" and "sugar and spice and everything nice" where men can be servant leaders but women lead by serving. 

Beyond semantics, it is how so many of my Christian friends grew up - dichotomizing our spiritual and occupational lives. It's a little crazy if you ask me. 

Rachel: Kathy, What can Christian women do to recognize and celebrate their ambitions rather than feel guilty about them? 

Kathy: We need to be one another's biggest fans and cheerleaders regardless of the arena in which our ambitions - our God-given gifts we are to steward well and faithfully - play out. We need to be the ones destroying any sense of competition or judgment between socially-constructed divisions amongst women. Single, married, divorced, young, old, SAHM, working outside of the home with kids - we should be leveraging the gift of a multigenerational Church and the examples we see in scripture to see what we are doing aligns with what women have been doing all through history.

I'd also love to see more churches do away with the awkward Mother's Day Sunday sermons and Children's programs and celebrate women more consistently through the year. I had ambitions before I got married and certainly before I had children. 

On a very practical level, celebrate your friends' ambitions in tangible ways. Write a note or send a card congratulating someone on a new job or with a word of encouragement. Share prayer requests with one another and keep track of how God answers those prayers. Ask questions and find out what the women around you are achieving, creating, and leading. And help one another achieve those ambitions. When I was writing More Than Serving Tea I confided in a few friends who helped my husband juggle the preschool and elementary school schedules so that I could get away to write, edit, and promote the book. Christian women and men made that possible.

And to celebrate and recognize personal ambitions, think of meaningful ways that resonate with you personally. I keep a private blog full of incomplete posts. And when More Than Serving Tea went to contract I gave half of the advance check to my mother and then went out to buy myself a pair of pearl earrings as a symbol of celebration.

Rachel: Christians love to talk about how faith is changing in the U.S. and we often point to statistics that paint a gloomy picture of church attendance and religious involvement. We also have a bad habit of ignoring the continued growth of Christianity among immigrant and ethnic minority communities in the U.S. What's something you wish more people knew about Asian American Christians? What are some common mistakes we make in discussing multiethnic Christianity?

Nikki: I wish that people knew that Asian American Christianity is not a monolith—but a diverse group of creative, and committed followers of Christ. Asian American churches come in many shapes and sizes, and span the theological spectrum.  They might be some of the best places to go to learn about powerful prayer, costly discipleship, death to self, life in community.  I think there are lots of different values that God holds dear that are being expressed in the life of our Asian American churches.  Asian American Christians are usually bi-cultural—we have to be in order to function in both our families, as well as in broader American society.  And I think that’s something that the American church can receive from the Asian American church.

Kathy: I would say that even in your question, Rachel, you make a common mistake. I was late to the emergent/emerging church conversations because Christians who were loving the talk about how faith is and continues to change in the U.S. were and continue to be predominantly White. "We" can mean different groups of people in different contexts, and honestly I often have to point out that the "we" too often excludes non-White voices at the table. Those gloomy statistics are gloomy if you are a White church in a White-lead religious movement. Diversity and multiethnicity is then, at its worst, seen as a threat to the "way it was", a gilded memory of a Christian and secular history that has been documented and repeated through White, dominant culture's lens and messengers. If "we" want to discuss multiethnicity, we all need to know what our cultural lenses are. That is where the White Church may have some good work ahead in understanding its own culture, preferences, and strengths as well as differences within the White, dominant cultural experience. Phew!

Multiethnicity in Christianity cannot be limited to conversations about race in Black and White terms and history or how we are going to change up musical worship to include some Gospel music and a song sung in Spanish. We cannot assume token gestures and good intentions mean churches have "arrived", and being together in the same space doesn't mean being on the same page. Proximity isn't unity. 

The Asian American Christian church is extremely diverse, vibrant, multigenerational, and cutting edge with all the struggles and concerns of the historically White Church - evangelical and mainline. I wish more people understood that "Asian American" includes Thai, Hmong, Laotian, Vietnamese, Pilipino, Pakistani, Indian, and Pacific Islander as well as Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Our cultures are not all the same. There are nuances to shared values as well as distinct differences, and that plays out in the beautiful, diverse expressions of our faith and faith practices. 

And that goes back to the discussions about multiethnicity. There is a cost for a hyphenated American like me to help what once was a White church become multiethnic. I have to leave my immigrant church, a concern for first generation congregations who saw and still see churches as a both a strategy and physical space to connect generations divided by language, education, power, and levels of assimilation through faith. I'd love to see more conversations about the cost of asking English-speaking second generation Asian Americans to leave their comfortable, homogenous Asian American churches without offering up a similar call to the White church. (Should I duck now?)

Rachel: No ducking necessary! Thank you both so much for your time. This was encouraging and enlightening. 


Be sure to check out Nikki’s interview with The Well and Kathy’s interview with The Well and of course More Than Serving Tea. You can learn more about International Justice Mission here and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship here. 



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Hell Series: Ask a traditionalist 1 (free will, postmortem repentance)….response


We’re taking advantage of our “Ask a…” series to talk with some of today’s leading theologians about the difficult topic of hell.  Earlier this month, Edward Fudge responded to your questions about conditionalism (sometimes called annihilationism)—the view that immortality is conditional upon belief in Jesus Christ, so the unsaved will ultimately be destroyed and cease to exist rather than suffer eternally in hell. Later, Robin Parry responded via video to your questions about Christian universalism—the view that one day God will reconcile all people to himself through Jesus Christ.  

As I began exploring options for the view typically referred to as “traditionalism”— that hell is a place of eternal torment—I realized there are a variety of perspectives to consider. For example, a Calvinist will likely view hell much differently than an Arminian….as would someone who identifies as an inclusivist as opposed to an exclusivist. Some, like today’s guest, believe in postmortem repentance, while others do not.  So our interview today will not be the last entry in our hell-themed series! I’d like to also include a Calvinist, and perhaps a rabbi, as several of you suggested. 

That said, today’s guest is a perfect fit for the series, and I think you will be delighted with how thoughtfully and thoroughly he responded to your questions. Jerry L. Walls was born and raised in Knockemstiff, Ohio.  He has a PhD in philosophy from Notre Dame, and is the author of over eighty articles and reviews, and a dozen books, including Why I am not a Calvinst (with Joseph Dongell, IVP, 2004) and a trilogy on the afterlife: Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, 1992); Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy (Oxford, 2002); and Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation (Oxford, 2012).   He is also the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology (Oxford, 2004). His co-authored book (with David Baggett) Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (Oxford, 2011) was named the outstanding book in apologetics and evangelism by Christianity Today in their annual book awards.  He has appeared on numerous radio shows including NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” and was interviewed for the documentary “Hellbound?”  Before coming to Houston Baptist in 2011, where he is Scholar in Residence, he was a Research Fellow for two years in the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame.

Jerry holds a traditional view of hell in the sense that he believes hell is a place of conscious, eternal misery. But he says he agrees with C.S. Lewis’ famous line that "the doors of hell are locked on the inside."  His view is a modification of the traditional view in the sense that he believes God always welcomes sincere repentance, even after death.  Unfortunately, he says, some will never exercise that option.

You asked. Jerry answered. 



 From David: Given the possibility for postmortem salvation, your view, in principle at least, doesn't preclude universal reconciliation, does it? Would it be fair to call yourself a "hopeful universalist"? Or is the logic of your position at least compatible with (hopeful) universalism?

Indeed, in principle my view does not preclude universal salvation.  In fact, that is exactly what I believe God desires (I Tim 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). He is the God who does not rest content with having  99 sheep in the fold, but continues to seek the one who is lost, and rejoices when he is saved (Luke 15:3-7).  So in view of this, eternal hell is an entirely contingent reality.  There is nothing necessary about it.  God does not need to damn some people forever in order fully to glorify himself, in order fully to be God, as some Calvinists would have it.  To the contrary, God would prefer it if hell were empty.

Eternal hell only exists on the condition that some of God’s free creatures reject God’s love and grace and persist in doing so.  So the reason I believe in eternal hell is because I believe some, unfortunately, will in fact persist in refusing grace, and be lost forever, and that this sad truth has been revealed to us.

I find myself in the ironic situation that I would be delighted if one of the things I have been defending throughout my career turns out to be wrong.  It is at least conceivable, and perhaps possible as well, that the traditional interpretation of those texts that have been taken to teach that that some will in fact be lost is a mistaken interpretation.  I hope it is, and that my universalist friends like Marilyn Adams, Robin Parry and Tom Talbott turn out to be right.  I am not convinced by their interpretations although I do think they are at least plausible.  But I want to be first in line to celebrate if I am wrong.

(For a defense of postmortem grace, see Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation, chapter 5; see also Kyle Blanchette and Jerry L. Walls, “God and Hell Reconciled,” in God and Evil, ed Paul Copan, et al.) 

From Matt: Revelation 14:9-11 portrays the eternal torment of the condemned as taking place "in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb" (14:10). What does this mean? And how should we understand this portrayal in relation to other traditional images of hell as banishment from the presence of Christ?

Well, I’d start here with Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill, where he observes that God is “not far from each one of us.  For in him we live, and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).  In this passage, Paul is applying this point to people who may be seeking God, but have not yet found him.  So the point here is that even people who may be “far” from God in terms of meaningful, loving relationship are still “close” to him in the sense that he continually sustains them in existence.

So the unhappy creatures in this text in Revelation are in the presence of the Lamb by virtue of the fact that he sustains them in existence, and they may even be aware of this fact.  However, they are utterly separated from him by their sinful rebellion.


Indeed, the paradoxical nature of this observation may illumine why fire is used as an image of the torments of hell.  Fire in the Bible is a common image for the presence of God, not his absence (cf Deut. 4:24; 5:24-5; Psalm 50:3; Hebrews 12:29).   But his presence is experienced very differently by those who are rightly related to him, as opposed to those who are not.

David Hart has noted that there is a long theological tradition, particularly in Eastern Orthodoxy, that “makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before the divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement” (The Beauty of the Infinite, 399).  

As the Psalmist noted, there is no place where we can successfully flee from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7ff).  The God of love is everywhere, and we cannot exist a millisecond without his sustaining grace and power.  But our freedom does allow us to refuse his love and go our own way, even as it remains true that “in him we live and move and have our being.”  If that is our choice, his glorious love will be experienced like a burning fire rather than “the spring of the water of life” that will deeply quench our thirst (Revelation 21:6).

 Can you explain what you mean when you talk about "optimal grace"? And how does the doctrine of election, as understood by some Calvinists, provide an unsatisfactory or incomplete view of God’s grace as it relates to hell? 

This idea is central to my view of hell, and also to purgatory, so I will try to make this clear in a reasonably concise way.

Let me begin my explanation by saying what is involved in choosing hell.  People do not choose to go to hell as a direct choice.   It’s not like anyone says, “hey, I really want to go to hell”!  Rather, they choose to go to hell by resisting grace and choosing evil.  And not just choosing evil initially or partially.  After all, we all choose evil initially by virtue of being fallen.  What defines the choice of hell is that God and his love are decisively rejected and evil is decisively chosen instead.

Here is where optimal grace comes in.   In short, optimal grace is whatever form and measure of grace is best suited to elicit a positive response from us, without overriding our freedom.  Because we are all different, the exact nature of this will vary from person to person.  But the important idea is that if God truly loves each one of us, and truly desires our salvation, he will offer his love and grace to each of us in the way that is optimal to elicit a positive response.

Pretty clearly, not everyone has such grace in this life, and that is one of the reasons I believe in postmortem grace and repentance.  What this means is that in the long run, everyone has an equal opportunity to be saved.  In the afterlife, God can find ways in his infinitely creative wisdom to give everyone the best opportunity to respond to the gospel.

What this underscores is that no one goes to hell because of ignorance or lack of opportunity to be saved.  Nor does anyone go to hell for rejecting a distorted or garbled view of Jesus and his amazing love.  No, emphatically not!  You go to hell for rejecting Jesus, not a caricature of Jesus.  You go to hell for spurning the amazing grace he showed us in the cross and resurrection, not for being ignorant of it. 

But in order for that to happen, you have to be properly and truly aware of who he is and the truth and beauty of his love.  Only when you are properly informed of the truth can you freely, deliberately and decisively reject it.  In other words: a decisive choice of evil is only possible given optimal grace. 

So that is what is amazing and even perplexing about the idea of hell.  A lot of people assume that if optimal grace were true, universal salvation would automatically follow.  But again, I would insist that eternal hell is not in any way due to some having less opportunity to be saved than others.   I believe some people will decisively reject God’s love and be lost, even though he gave them every opportunity to repent and be saved.

And thanks for raising the Calvinist connection because this is something I am always happy to talk about.  Actually, however, the problem with the Calvinist view of election is much worse than being merely unsatisfactory or incomplete.  As Calvinists see it, some people get irresistible grace by which they will inevitably be saved, and others are completely passed over with respect to saving grace, and are inevitably damned.  The unequal distribution of grace here is poses insurmountable problems for God’s goodness. 

Indeed, Calvinism and eternal hell are a lethal combination that is biblically, logically and morally indefensible.  It can only be defended by forthrightly admitting that God does not love everyone (which Calvinists are often loath to do, for good reason), or by engaging in misleading rhetoric, which is the far more common strategy.  If you want to be a Calvinist, you should be a universalist.  I do not have the space to defend those claims here, but I have done so elsewhere.  See my You Tube videos entitled “What’s Wrong with Calvinism” as well as my co-authored book, Why I am not a Calvinist.


Now what I find interesting, however, is that many people who are not Calvinists believe that God gives everybody at least some chance to be saved, but not optimal grace.  They hold that at least some ray of light has come into every life, or that everyone has heard the gospel at least one time.  They affirm that everyone is given at least what we might call “minimal grace.”

And why do they insist on this?  Because they want to be able to say that God is fully just in damning such people.  In other words, it is important that everyone have enough grace or opportunity for salvation that God can be just in sending to hell those who die without faith.   But optimal grace is not required for this. 

Now here is the question: If God can make sure everybody has at least some real opportunity to be saved, why could he not make sure that everyone has optimal grace?  Does he lack the creativity, the wisdom, or the means to do this?  And more importantly, if he could do this, is it not the case that he would do so?   Why would he not?

So here is one of the most fundamental issues in how we conceive of God, one that will profoundly shape not only our view of hell, but our entire theology.  Does God genuinely, deeply, love all persons and desire to save them?  Or is his only concern to give them enough revelation and grace that he can justly damn them if they die without faith?

There is far more to say, of course, but this answer is already rather long.  If you want to explore this further see Hell: The Logic of Damnation, chapter 4; Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation, chapter 5, and the essay “God and Hell Reconciled, cited above.   If you want just a bit more on the last point, see this video.

 From Tanya: I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around this position. While it makes beautiful, logical sense --(you get to keep Hell, and a merciful picture of God to boot) what would this look like? Who in their right mind would sit in hell, "in conscious, eternal misery" and simply refuse to repent? At that point, believing in the existence of God doesn't seem tough, I mean, somebody is responsible for the hell you are in -- so who would sit and stew for eternity "on principle?" Can you paint me a believable picture of a specimen of humanity who might do this?

Let me begin here by saying I am with you in thinking there is something absurd in the idea of someone freely choosing eternal hell.  I wrote a defense of eternal damnation for my PhD dissertation at Notre Dame several years ago, and my biggest challenge was trying to make sense of how anyone could freely choose the misery of hell.  I am currently writing a popular level book tentatively entitled Heaven, Hell and Purgatory: Life as Comedy, Life as Tragedy, Life as Story.  I just finished the chapter on hell, and I am still struck by how crazy this can seem.  And yet, the decisive choice of evil does have a certain logic and we can make at least some sense of it.

What is clear is that people who do this are not altogether “in their right minds.”  That is, they are not thinking clearly, they are not embracing the truth about themselves and about God.  They are deceived at a deep level.  And yet, they are not deceived in the sense that they are innocent victims.  Rather, they are self-deceived.

If you want a believable picture of this, read CS Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce. In case you have never read it, the premise of the book is that a group of people (“ghosts”) from hell take a bus ride to heaven and are invited, indeed, implored to stay.  Common sense, of course, assumes that they would jump at the chance.  But what Lewis depicts, with remarkable psychological and emotional plausibility, is how almost all of them spurn the offer and return to hell.   

As Lewis famously remarked in another book, “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”  It is not that God locks them in against their will, but they are not willing to come out.  Lewis went on to comment: “I do not  mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good.”

One of the more memorable of the characters that illustrate this truth is a “Big Ghost” who takes the trip to heaven bent on getting his “rights.”  When he gets there, he is greeted by a man who was one of his employees in this life.  He is outraged at this because the employee had murdered someone, and he cannot fathom how the employee can be in heaven, while he has been in hell.  What he simply cannot (will not) understand is that he too, needs grace, that he too needs to be forgiven for his own sins and transformed before he is fit for heaven.  When he realizes this, and that his former employee is the very person sent to instruct him, he decides to return to hell.

“So that’s the trick, is it?” shouted the Ghost, outwardly bitter, and yet I thought there was a kind of triumph in its voice.  It had been entreated: it could make a refusal: and this seemed to it a kind of advantage. “I thought there’d be some damned nonsense.  It’s all a clique, all a bloody clique.  Tell them I’m not coming, see?  I’d rather be damned than go along with you….” It was almost happy now that it could, in a sense, threaten.

Notice particularly that the Ghost is “almost happy.”  What this points out is that hell has its pleasures, and its own version of “happiness.”  


I’m sure all of us can relate to the pleasures of resentment, bitterness, self-righteousness and so on.  It is not hard to see that anyone who is resentful is not truly happy, indeed, they are miserable. But those who choose to hold on to their resentment do enjoy a perverse sort of pleasure and a distorted sense of satisfaction.  To anyone who urges them to repent and give it up, they may well give the bird and insist they are doing just fine, thank you.

I have tried to make philosophical sense out of this in chapter 5 of Hell: The Logic of Damnation, as well as in the popular book I am currently writing.  Also, keep your eyes open for Kevin Timpe’s forthcoming book Free Will in Philosophical Theology, which has a very insightful discussion of the logic of choosing evil, including damnation.  But again, I’d start with Lewis.

Similarly, Nate asked: First, what is the nature of the "conscious, eternal misery?" Is it physical (fire, pain, etc.), is it emotional/spiritual (loss, separation, despair, etc.), or is it both? Second, if there is opportunity for repentance upon experiencing conscious misery, why would some not choose it? This seems to go against the human instinct for survival and comfort.

I think the essence of the misery of hell is the natural unhappiness that results from resisting the love of God and having a character decisively formed by evil, with all that that entails.  For instance, such a character cannot enjoy meaningful relationships, which are essential to human happiness.  The nature of such misery is not hard to understand, indeed, there is a profound continuity between such misery and the misery evil naturally produces in this life.  John Wesley put it like this:

For it is not possible in the nature of things that a man should be happy who is not holy….The reason is plain: all unholy tempers are uneasy tempers.  Not only malice, hatred, envy, jealousy, revenge, create a present hell in the breast; but even the softer passions, if not kept within due bounds, give a thousand times more pain than pleasure.

However, I also believe that the misery of hell includes a physical dimension for the simple reason that human beings are embodied beings by nature, and the damned will be resurrected in their bodies.  I do not believe the fire is literal but rather an image, just as I think “the worm that does not die” is an image or a metaphor (Mark 9:48).  As has often been pointed out, hell is also pictured as darkness (eg Matthew 22:13), and literal fire and darkness are incompatible.  This does not mean that the realities imaged by fire, undying worms and darkness are not terrible because that language is metaphorical rather than literal.  After all, a metaphor communicates because it the reality it depicts is similar to the image that is used.   

I discuss my view of the misery of hell in detail in chapter 6 of Hell: The Logic of Damnation.

 From Rachel: So the most common Bible passage cited by those who oppose the possibility of postmortem salvation is probably Hebrews 9:27-28: "And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him." How do you interpret these words from Priscilla and Aquilla? (Okay, so that last bit is a personal theory about the authorship of Hebrews, but the question still stands!) 

Well, I think this text is way overrated by those who cite it against the possibility of postmortem conversion.  Not the text itself, because it’s pretty hard to overrate Biblical texts, but rather the way the text is interpreted.  In short, those who cite this text for that reason are trying to squeeze more out of it than it actually says.  So what does it say?  We die once. Well, I certainly agree with that, and I would guess most proponents of postmortem salvation do not posit that we die multiple deaths.

Next, it says that after we die, there is judgment.  And of course I agree with this.  But notice: it does not say judgment is immediately after death, nor does it say, (if there is an immediate judgment) that it is final.  Indeed, most traditional theology holds that the final judgment is yet to come.  So there could well be a preliminary judgment immediately after death that would judge one’s life to that point, but that judgment could still allow for repentance.

The text goes on to compare and contrast the first and second comings of Christ, but again, I see nothing there that rules out postmortem repentance.  

It is also worth emphasizing that God’s word of judgment often leads to repentance and ends in mercy and redemption.  For just one example, consider Jonah’s word of judgment to Nineveh: in forty days, Ninevah will be overthrown (Jonah 3:4).  Of course, as the story turns out the Ninevites repented and their city was not overthrown.  Did God change his mind?  No, he did not.  Implicit in the word of judgment was an invitation to repent.  The Ninevites, however, did change their minds, which is what repentance literally means, a change of mind.  Had they remained impenitent, the judgment would surely have fallen.

From Chris, and the community at  Proponents of the eternal conscious torment view typically hold to the biblical teaching that the unsaved are likewise resurrected and that both body and soul are subject to hell. However, they believe that these resurrected bodies of the lost will live forever, albeit separated and isolated from God. Yet the Bible explicitly says that only God has immortality inherently and that immortality is brought to light through the gospel and granted to the glorified saints who persevered in the faith to the end, whereas it does not appear to say anywhere that immortality is granted to the unsaved. So when eternal conscious torment is the very question at hand, what biblical evidence would you point to as teaching that the resurrected bodies of the lost will likewise be made immortal?

Immortality, like eternal life, is far more than ongoing conscious survival, or even the resurrection of our bodies.    Or to use a distinction philosophers often employ, continued survival is necessary but not sufficient for immortality.  Scripture of course speaks of a resurrection of both the just and the unjust (John 5:28-9; Acts 24:15). Immortality properly speaking is the resurrection to the fullness of life in relation to God and others for which we were created.  It is the glory that comes from having the character and likeness of Christ (2 Cor 3:18; 4:4-7).

It does not follow, however, that to fall short of glory, as sin inevitably causes us to do (Romans 3:23), is to lose existence altogether. The resurrection of the unjust can be a resurrection to ongoing existence even though it is not resurrection to the immortality of life with God.  I believe that texts like the one from Revelation 14 cited above give us reason to believe that even those who reject God’s gift of salvation and the glorification that entails still remain in conscious, embodied existence.  Indeed, they remain in relationship to God even though it is a relationship of sin and rebellion.   

I will grant you the biblical data on this matter is debatable.  But if hell is freely chosen, as I have argued, and is not the torture chamber sometimes depicted, the conditionalist view loses a lot of its motivation.  God’s perfect love and goodness is perfectly compatible with those persons who refuse the gift of salvation and immortality, but whose ongoing existence is defined by an ongoing rejection of the very God of love in whom they continue to “live and move and have their being.”

From Preston Sprinkle: Are there degrees of punishment in Hell? And if so, could those who receive a "lesser" sentence ultimately be annihilated? For instance, a 15 year old Saudi girl has been raped her whole life, and has just met a Christian on the streets who gave her a 5 min gospel presentation (in Arabic), making her now accountable, but seconds later she gets hit by a bus: will she be kept alive by Jesus so that she will consciously feel the most tormenting pain for ten trillion years. And more? And will she sit alongside Hitler in his misery? I ask not facetiously or rhetorically (assuming a right answer), but because I've been faced with the same question ad nauseum.

Yes, I do think scripture gives us reason to think the misery of hell varies in quality as well as intensity, depending on the patterns and kinds of sin committed.  A person consumed with hatred, for instance, likely experiences a different sort of misery than one who simply let his life and character be formed by following his lusts and desires.  The different forms of suffering Dante depicts, as well as Lewis in The Great Divorce, is very suggestive in that regard.

As for the scenario with the 15 year old girl, well, that is the very picture of “minimal grace” and the very sort of thing that would be ruled out by my view of optimal grace.  Given this story, we have no reason to think this girl has really understood the gospel, let alone well enough to reject it decisively.   The assumption that she would be lost forever simply because she heard one garbled sermon makes the doctrine of hell as often defended a moral and theological absurdity.

From Eric: Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is not directly related to the post, but there's seriously a place called Knock 'em stiff, Ohio?

Not only is there really a place named Knockemstiff, Ohio, but it has also achieved notoriety fairly recently in literary circles.   This is due to my friend and high school classmate (though he dropped out his Jr. year and did not graduate with our class) Donald Ray Pollock, who lived up the road from me in Knockemstiff, and has used it for the setting in his critically acclaimed fiction.  Don burst on the literary scene in 2008 after working 32 years as a truck driver in a paper mill when he published an extraordinary short story collection entitled Knockemstiff.  He followed that up a couple years later with a novel, The Devil all the Time, which won several awards including “Badass Book of the Month” from GQ.  He is currently finishing his third book, another novel, on a Guggenheim fellowship.  

walls-Knockem 0.jpg

Before he published his collection of short stories, I arguably had the title of “Greatest Writer from Knockemstiff.”  Now I have to content myself with the thought that I am likely the most accomplished writer in my high school graduating class.

Don’s books are a bracing read, but be forewarned that they are on the far end of “raw and gritty.” In fact, it is not too much of a stretch, given our current discussion, to suggest that his books provide some vivid glimpses of hell.   Here, by the way, is my review of The Devil all the Time.


Thanks again for your questions! You can check out every installment of our interview series—which includes “Ask an atheist,” “Ask a nun,” “Ask a pacifist,” “Ask a Calvinist,” “Ask a Muslim,” “Ask a gay Christian,” “Ask a Pentecostal” “Ask an environmentalist,” “Ask a funeral director,” "Ask a Liberation Theologian,"  "Ask Shane Claiborne," "Ask Jennifer Knapp," "Ask N.T. Wright and  many more— here




Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.