Response to a Christian Universalist: Is There an Eternal Hell? Wouldn’t an All-Powerful God Save All People?

 

The Off-center Cross of Christian Universalism

The Off-Center Cross of Christian Universalism

Christian universalism is the belief that all people will eventually be reconciled to God and be saved, and that there is therefore no eternal hell.

It is not the belief that salvation is available to all people if they choose to accept it, nor is it the belief that all religions lead to God. Rather, it is the belief that all people are eventually saved by Christ and go to heaven—or to whatever blessed state it is believed God has in store for humanity.

Recently a Christian blogger whose screen name is The Iron Knuckle posted an article titled, “Tough Apologetic Questions for the Non-Universalist.” I took up his challenge, and posted a long comment in response, whose original version you can read here.

The rest of this post is:

  • My comment, edited to add the main questions from the original article as headings, and to remove a closing biblical question for The Iron Knuckle.
  • Some commentary on The Iron Knuckle’s reply, and on the general aftermath of my response.
  • Some additional thoughts on why many people believe what they do about God’s omnipotence.

Here goes:


Hi The Iron Knuckle,

I don’t expect you to change your mind (I think we’ve had conversations before). But I’ll answer your questions from the point of view of a Swedenborgian Christian non-universalist.

1. Does God love the people in Hell?

Yes, God loves the people in hell.

Hell is not “eternal conscious torment.” This horrible and insane idea comes from reading literally statements in the Bible that should be read metaphorically. There is no literal hellfire. Rather, hellfire is the spiritual fire (in a negative sense) of anger and hatred that people in hell feel and express toward one another and toward God. Hell is not a place where people are punished by God for sins committed on earth. Rather, it is a place where people who have chosen to enjoy evil rather than enjoying good are allowed to engage in their particular foul enjoyments as much as is possible, but suffer the inevitable consequences of their actions, inflicted, not by God, but by each other and by themselves. I invite you to read my article:
Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?

God does not love the people in hell differently. God’s love is always, everywhere, with everyone and everything, the same. However, people in hell accept God’s love differently than people in heaven. Specifically, people in hell reject God’s love, and what they do inadvertently accept they twist into its opposite.

This means that God did not make hell, as your opening meme suggests. Nor does God send anyone to hell. Though the power to make hell comes from God (there is no other source of power), the people who live in hell make hell for themselves by twisting the power of God’s love into its opposite: greed, selfishness, lust for power over others, lust for promiscuous and adulterous sex, anger, hatred, jealousy, and so on. The people who go to hell send themselves there because they prefer hell over heaven.

2. Can God’s will be defeated?

God’s will cannot be defeated.

However, God’s will is not fully described by the single biblical statement that God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3).

God also wills that people be saved in freedom, by their own free will choice, so that the relationship with God is real and human rather than automatic and pre-programmed—which would cause us to be puppets or robots, not human beings. This is why our Lord says:

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. (Revelation 3:20)

And it is why the Lord says:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. . . . I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days. (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19–20a)

God’s will is not fully described by any single statement or verse in the Bible, but by the entire Bible.

God’s will is more complex than simply wanting to save everyone. God’s will is to have a freely chosen, mutual relationship with beings whom God has created. This means that God’s will is that we be free to accept or reject a relationship with God.

Giving us that freedom requires that God accept and respect our choice if we choose not to have a loving relationship with God. This also is a part of God’s will. Yes, when we choose evil instead of good it invokes God’s “permissive” rather than “ordaining” will, to use your terms. (Swedenborg discusses these concepts under the terms “divine permission” and “divine providence.”) Yet both are part of God’s will and God’s purpose for creation.

In short, God both loves us and respects us enough to give us a choice about whether or not to return God’s love. Giving us that choice and respecting the choice we make is part of God’s will.

Yes, we are children of God. But God wants us to grow up from spiritual infancy to spiritual adulthood. We do not remain infants as your parent/child analysis assumes.

After raising their children from infancy to emancipation, parents must let go of control of their adult children. They must allow their adult children to live their own lives, even if it is not the life that the parent wanted for his or her child. Not doing so causes major problems in the lives of their adult children, often extending to a complete rupture of the relationship.

I have three adult children. And I don’t intervene in their lives to prevent them from doing things I don’t think they should do and that could actually harm them. They are responsible for their own lives now. I give them my love, and I give them my perspective and my counsel if they ask for it. But I let them live their own lives and make heir own choices.

Just as parents must let go of control of their adult children, so God lets go of control of God’s adult children. God wants to be our eternal friend, not our eternal dictator, just as Jesus says:

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (John 15:15)

God’s will includes a will not to control us, but to give us the freedom to live our lives as we wish to live them, and to be in loving relationship with God, or not, according to our own freely made choice.

True omnipotence is not rigidly controlling everything. Nor is it being able to do just any old thing, including self-contradictory things like creating a stone that God cannot lift. A desire to control everything is psychological and spiritual weakness, not strength. Doing contradictory and self-cancelling things is weakness, not strength. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

True omnipotence involves accomplishing things. True omnipotence is God having the ability to do everything God wants to do, pursuant to God’s purpose for creation. And true omnipotence includes the ability to step back enough to allow others to have and use power as they wish to use it, though still within the realities of eternal divine law.

On the nature of God’s omnipotence in relation to the created universe in general, and in relation to human beings in particular, please see my article:
God: Puppetmaster or Manager of the Universe?

3. How do the people in Heaven feel about the people in Hell? Do they feel sad?

The people in heaven do feel sad about the state of people in hell. However, like God their Father, they recognize that they must allow the people in hell to live the life of enjoyment of evil that they have chosen.

Jesus said that there is a great chasm between heaven and hell (Luke 16:26). Due to that chasm, most people in heaven do not live in daily awareness of the state of people in hell. Some people in heaven, however, do serve as what might today be called “peace officers” in hell, moderating the worst excesses of the evil spirits there, and carrying out God’s will of not allowing the evil spirits in hell to fall into even lower and worse levels of hell than they chose through their life and decisions here on earth.

In short, the people in heaven also love the people in hell, and have mercy on them, but will not violate their free will as human beings, and will therefore leave them in freedom to engage in the type of life and pleasures they have chosen to the extent that that is possible, even if the people in heaven find that life very sad and distressing. (But the evil spirits in hell find it intensely pleasurable, even if they have to suffer the painful consequences.)

The people in heaven are also realistic in recognizing that the people in hell have no interest in hearing the good news of Jesus Christ and salvation, and will violently reject it if they attempt to preach that good news to them. This is what Jesus was saying metaphorically when he taught:

Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you. (Matthew 7:6)

I have the same problem with Western universalism as I have with the Eastern belief in reincarnation. Both posit that eventually, all people end out in a version of heaven. Both therefore take away our humanity, and make us into mere puppets, and our life and suffering here on earth a mere play and charade, with no real purpose at all. See:
The Bible, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Reincarnation

If eventually all people will inevitably “choose” heaven, then it is really no choice at all, but a predetermined outcome. This would mean that we are not free, not human, and ultimately just an extension of God. And so it would defeat the whole purpose of creation, which is for God to have others to love and to be in mutual loving relationship with.

For a choice to have any ultimate reality, it must be permanent, not temporary. Temporary things are relatively unreal compared to eternal ones.

And if we all end out in heaven anyway, then there is no good reason for God to put us through all this earthly confusion and misery. A truly loving God would simply create us directly in heaven, and skip all the suffering. If universalism were true, then a truly loving God could not stand to subject us to even one second of suffering. It would be utterly incompatible with God’s love and mercy to do so.

If God’s whole will is that there be no evil, then there is absolutely no reason for evil to exist in the first place, and no possibility that evil could exist, since it is contrary to God’s will—and God’s will cannot be defeated.

That is my response to your questions as a non-universalist, non-traditional Christian.


The aftermath

You can read The Iron Knuckle’s antagonistic (his word, not mine) reply to my comment here.

While it did take up some of the points I made in my comment, my general sense was that it contained rather more heat than light. And when he got around to saying that the God I worship is “weak” and “pathetic,” it became pretty clear to me that if he were to accept what I had said in my response to his questions, it would be a mortal threat to his faith.

He confirmed this in the subsequent thread of comments—which he has now deleted (that’s his right; it’s his blog) because of my patronizing (my word, not his) stance toward him, and because I refused to debate him on the substantive issues of his article and my response.

Why did I refuse to debate him?

Because, as he said in one of the deleted comments, if I were to convince him that he was wrong in his understanding of God’s omnipotence and his belief in universal salvation, he would cease to be a Christian altogether.

That’s not a result I want. Winning an argument is not worth destroying someone’s faith.

Besides, I probably wouldn’t have “won the debate” and convinced him anyway. His current faith depends upon his universalist beliefs. He will vigorously defend that belief, even if it is ultimately in error, in order to preserve his faith—which is more critical than the actual truth of the particular doctrines comprising that faith.

False beliefs, when they are held to by someone with a good heart, can still function as truth for them. The goodness in their heart overcomes the falsity of their beliefs and leads them toward living a good life based on those beliefs. That’s why people of good will in all religions can be saved even if many of their beliefs are mistaken. As it says in 1 Samuel 16:7, “The Lord looks on the heart.”

Further, debates and arguments almost always have the opposite effect of what the people engaging in them intended. When people’s closely held beliefs are attacked, they will staunchly defend them, actively seeking out and clasping tightly to themselves everything they can find that supports their beliefs, and minimizing or brushing aside anything that doesn’t. As a result, at the end of the argument they believe even more strongly in their original position, even if it happens to be false.

That’s not a result I want, either.

I’ve been where The Iron Knuckle is (minus the drugs and related crises that he describes in his personal history and testimonials). When I was a twenty-something as he is now, I wouldn’t have listened to my present self either. And I probably would have laced my rebuttals with just as many personal attacks and insults as he does.

In fact, I know I would have, because that’s exactly what my younger self did.

I look back with embarrassment on several instances when my father, who was an eminent Swedenborgian theologian, scholar, and professor, attempted to explain to my teenage self one of the finer points of Swedenborgian doctrine . . . and I informed him in very absolute and not particularly polite terms that his explanation made no logical sense, was entirely unworthy of belief, and could not possibly be what the Bible or Swedenborg said and meant. My views, I thought, were logically airtight, comprehensive, and impregnable. And he was obviously wrong!

My father responded to my youthful onslaughts with the same bemused smile with which I responded to The Iron Knuckle’s onslaught on me.

Of course, my father was right.

My understanding of the Bible and church doctrine, of which I was inordinately proud, (I’d spent many, many hours . . . gosh, several years . . . intensively studying and developing it!) was limited, immature, and faulty. I was not ready to hear and understand some of the more advanced and nuanced things he was attempting to teach me. That took another twenty or thirty years of learning and personal experience in life.

So although my response to The Iron Knuckle’s fists-flying critique of my points may indeed be patronizing, here we are. As they say, “What goes around, comes around.”

Does this mean I think The Iron Knuckle will eventually come around to my point of view? Not necessarily. For one thing, I’m connected with Swedenborgian doctrine and tradition, whereas he’s connected with Catholic doctrine and tradition. Different inputs result in different outcomes.

Beyond that, I have no idea where his spiritual journey will take him in the future. But I do predict that in another thirty years, he’ll think differently even about his own church and religion than he does now. That’s part of growing in faith.

And given the hurricane of a journey that he’s been on so far in life, it seems likely that the hurricane will continue for a few more years at least, until his life settles down into a more regular pattern. Who knows where those winds of constant, rapid change will finally drop him off? My own twenty-something self did not correctly envision or predict where I would be today.

“Bible-alone Christian”

The Iron Knuckle’s comment contained several inaccurate statements about my beliefs. For now, I’ll correct only the one that I corrected in the deleted comment thread. It is a critical one to understand about my Swedenborgian Christian theology and about the articles here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life, which are based on that theology.

The Iron Knuckle said in his response to my comment:

you claim to be a “bible alone” christian

In fact, I have never claimed to be a “Bible-alone Christian.”

I am not a Protestant. I don’t subscribe to the Protestants’ “five solas,” including sola scriptura: the idea that scripture (the Bible) is the sole source of reliable doctrine, and is generally self-interpreting. (I should mention that the Iron Knuckle is Catholic.)

What I do believe is that for a particular doctrine to be considered fundamental or essential Christian doctrine, it must be stated in the Bible’s own plain words.

I believe that God is perfectly competent to tell us clearly in God’s own Word what we must believe and do in order to be saved, in language that requires only basic reading comprehension, not theological interpretation and exegesis by human theologians. See “Christian Beliefs that the Bible Does Teach.” In general, I view essential Christian doctrine as doctrine that is required for our salvation.

And I believe that the key tenets that both Protestantism and Catholicism have set up as essential Christian doctrine fail this basic biblical test. See “‘Christian Beliefs’ that the Bible Doesn’t Teach.”

Meanwhile, I also believe that there are many non-essential Christian doctrines that are not stated plainly in the Bible, and do require interpretation and outside sources, such as the writings of various theologians, philosophers, and scientists, to understand and accept. While I would not insist that all people must believe and live according to these doctrines in order to be considered genuine Christians, I nevertheless believe that they are true.

There are many articles on here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life expanding upon such beliefs that I do not consider essential Christian doctrine, and that I do not claim to be able to demonstrate solely by quotes from the Bible.

That’s why I feel perfectly comfortable using the writings of my favorite theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), as a touchstone for spiritual and doctrinal understanding.

However, Swedenborg himself stated:

The Church’s body of teaching [traditionally, “doctrine”] is to be drawn from the literal meaning of the Word and is to be supported by it. (Sacred Scripture #50)

Swedenborg followed this principle in his doctrinal writings, quoting extensively from the Bible to support the key teachings that he promulgated as genuine Christian doctrine. The standard index of his scripture quotations fills a book of over 300 pages (over 400 pages in the most recent edition).

For my part, if I can’t point to a place where the Bible itself, in its plain, literal meaning, states a particular teaching, even if I may believe that teaching is true, I do not insist that all Christians must believe it and live by it in order to be genuine Christians.

My objection to the great mass of supposedly “essential” Christian doctrine according to the main body of traditional Christian denominations is that the Bible simply doesn’t say it. In fact, the Bible often flatly contradicts it. And I simply don’t go for the idea that human theologians are more competent at articulating key Christian teachings than the Lord himself is in the Bible. If the religion is Christianity, then its primary authority should be Jesus Christ, not Athanasius or Anselm or Aquinas or Luther or Calvin, or even Swedenborg (see: “Do the Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take Precedence over the Bible?“).

Nor do I go for the idea that the primary authority on Christian doctrine is the Catholic Magisterium—the reigning body of the Catholic Church, consisting of the Pope and the bishops. The doctrines this body has formulated and promulgated have so often been so completely wrong and false from a biblical, rational, and compassionate standpoint that the Catholic Church’s claim to have authority to define doctrine by apostolic succession all the way back to Peter rings very hollow. Historians have extensively documented how corrupt and riven with conflict this body has been at various times in Catholic Church history. This ever-changing group of men does not seem to have any special inspiration from God. It is just as error-prone as any other collection of human clerics and theologians.

However, the foundational Catholic error that Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven for all people on earth, and that Peter then passed them on to the Catholic hierarchy by apostolic succession, thus making the Catholic Pope and his bishops “the vicar of Christ,” wielding much of Christ’s power over the people of the earth, including the authority to determine their eternal salvation or damnation, will have to wait for a future article.

The Bible and God’s omnipotence

Finally, let’s look at why so many Christians have a rather simplistic understanding of God’s omnipotence.

The Bible states or strongly implies in many places that God is in complete control of everything in the spiritual realms, in the universe of nature, in human history, and in individual human souls, so that every single thing that happens, both good and bad, is an act of God even if someone else (such as Satan) is the one actually carrying out God’s will. Here is just one example:

I am the Lord, and there is no other;
    apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
    though you have not acknowledged me,
so that from the rising of the sun
    to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form the light and create darkness,
    I bring prosperity and create disaster;
    I, the Lord, do all these things.
                            (Isaiah 45:5–7)

That is the New International Version. In the more traditional and generally more literal King James Version, the last verse reads:

I form the light, and create darkness:
    I make peace, and create evil:
    I the Lord do all these things.

Yes, it says in the Bible that God creates both light and darkness (metaphorically, both truth and falsity), and creates and does both good and evil. God is presented a being who has absolute control over everything in the universe. God is presented as a being who brings blessings or curses, war or peace, good or evil upon whomever he chooses—and no puny human has any right or standing to question what God does.

Does God really do evil as well as good? Does God really punish and destroy God’s enemies? Is God both a God of love and creation and a God of wrath and destruction?

I don’t think so.

I believe that God is a God of pure love and wisdom, and that anger, wrath, cursing, and destruction are not part of God’s character and actions.

But I also think there’s a very good reason the Bible presents God as also being a God of wrath, punishment, and destruction against all evildoers.

If the Bible didn’t present God in this way, many people, including many Christians, would consider the Bible’s God to be a “weak and pathetic” God. As a result, they would have no respect for God, they wouldn’t listen to God, and they wouldn’t obey God’s commandments.

For people just starting out on the religious and Christian journey, who are often coming fresh out of lives ensnared in various types of evil and destructive behavior, evil looks very powerful. These neophytes to religious life feel in their gut that any God who didn’t get angry at wicked people, cursing them, punishing them, and wreaking all sorts of havoc upon them, is a weak God, and not at all worthy of belief.

In short, many people must believe that God has absolute power both for good and for evil, and absolutely controls everything in the universe, or they will ignore God altogether. And without the fear of God to restrain them, they will feel free to keep right on living evil, selfish, greedy, and destructive lives, free from the fear of any consequences.

These early-stage Christians need to believe, for the sake of their salvation, that if they do evil things, God will burn with wrath against them and miserably punish them. And many Christians (and people of other religions as well) never make it beyond that stage fear of punishment and hope for reward as the primary basis and motivator for their religious life.

Here is how Swedenborg puts it while explaining the Lord’s words to the serpent in Genesis 3:14, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals!”:

Jehovah God—the Lord—never curses anyone, is never angry at anyone, never leads anyone into crisis. He does not even punish us, let alone curse us. It is the Devil’s crew that does such things. Nothing of the sort could ever come from the fountain of mercy, peace, and goodness.

This passage and many others in the Word describe Jehovah God as not only turning his face away, being angry, punishing, and testing, but even killing—and, yes, cursing. This was in order to foster the belief that the Lord controls and arranges every last detail in the universe, including evil itself, punishments, and times of trial. After accepting this very general idea, people would learn just how he controls and arranges things. They would see that he transforms the evil involved in punishment and in our ordeals into good.

All scriptural teaching and learning begins with the most general things; for this reason the literal meaning abounds in broad ideas.  (Secrets of Heaven #245)

In other places, Swedenborg explains that these “general things” and “broad ideas” are necessary for new Christians and for simple-minded people generally so that they will respect God and listen to God, repenting from their sins and living a good life as commanded by God.

Christian universalists take this rather broad and simplistic understanding of God’s omnipotence in a different direction. They believe that if God is omnipotent, this means that God is able to and will save all people, and will ultimately put an end to hell and all evil, raising everyone up into heaven. Those who adopt this belief vehemently reject as unloving, unmerciful, weak, and ineffective any God who would not save everyone.

For more on God’s omnipotence versus human free will, and on how for the sake of our salvation the Bible as a whole is accommodated to human ways of thinking, and often veils divine realities in human appearances, please see these articles:

  1. God: Puppetmaster or Manager of the Universe?
  2. Why does God Harden our Hearts, and Why are We Held Responsible?
  3. How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads

All of this is why, when I encounter relatively new Christians such as The Iron Knuckle, and also non-intellectual Christians, who believe in simplicity that God’s omnipotence means being able to do anything at all, both good and evil, and that God has absolute control over everything that happens in the universe, including the ability to save every single human being and eliminate hell, I don’t argue with them about it. It is necessary for them to first adopt this “broad idea” of God as all-powerful so that they will respect God and listen to God instead of thinking of God as a “weak and pathetic” God.

However, if you are ready for a more philosophically and theologically sound understanding of God’s omnipotence, I recommend that you read Swedenborg’s True Christianity, #56, 57, & 58.

All of this is yet another reason I declined to debate The Iron Knuckle on his beliefs about divine omnipotence and universal salvation. I do not want to be in the position of attacking his relatively newfound Christian faith before it has a chance to strengthen and mature to the point of being ready for a more in-depth and realistic understanding of the ways of God and spirit.

Besides, his soul is in God’s hands, not mine. As long as he has a heart to follow God, God will lead him where he needs to go, both in his beliefs and in his life.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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20 comments on “Response to a Christian Universalist: Is There an Eternal Hell? Wouldn’t an All-Powerful God Save All People?
  1. I appreciate the post and your comment, and I remain completely exasperated at your patronising tone about how I’m young and naive and therefore my theological views are incorrect and invalid whereas you are mature and have thought things through and are obviously in the right.

    This is nothing but an ad hominim fallacy. I wish you would actually respond to the issues raised. Furthermore I’m not convinced that you actually read and understood the original post (instead of only paying attention to the headings), because your arguments are all already adequately dealt with there. Your comments about freedom and God’s will not being completely described by the parts of scripture which clearly state he is going to save everyone were all dealt with in the original post, for example. Your answers to the questions posed are inadequate, as the original post demonstrates. I do not mean to personally attack you by calling your God “false”, “weak” and “pathetic”; I am instead merely stating the reality of the situation. My God is more powerful than your god. My God is more loving than your god.

    I am more than willing to listen to you, (and your comments stating that I’m not are incredibly offensive) but why on earth would I want to trade the one true gospel of universal salvation for your depressing, watered down message where many people end up stuck in Hell forever?

    • Also, you are a protestant. Your view of the bible as outlined in this post is indistinguishable from that of every protestant ever. You believe in sola scriptura. Stop denying it. XD

      • Lee says:

        Hi The Iron Knuckle,

        Well, aside from the fact that:

        • I reject the Trinity of Persons,
        • I reject the satisfaction theory of atonement in all its variants,
        • I reject the specific Protestant variant of penal substitution,
        • I reject justification by faith alone,
        • I reject the concept of imputed righteousness,
        • I think that Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon were almost entirely wrong in their theology, and represented the final destruction and corruption of Christian doctrine after many centuries of so-called Christianity piling heresy upon heresy . . .

        . . . aside from all that, by golly, maybe I am a Protestant! 😛

    • Lee says:

      Hi The Iron Knuckle,

      Thanks for coming over here and commenting.

      Sorry for the patronizing. But I read your post, your response to my answer to your questions and the ensuing (now deleted) comment thread, your About page, and your entire long four-part personal history and testimony. And though there are, of course, many differences in our respective experiences (my younger years were nowhere near as turbulent as yours have been so far), in tone and approach you are so much like me when I was a little younger than you currently are (at the age of 25 I had just gotten married) that it’s hard not to see my own headstrong, self-assured, cocksure, and often very wrong younger self in your writings and your general approach to religion and life.

      And incidentally, I’ve also spent an awful lot of time watching Star Trek. 🙂

      Plus, as I alluded to in my commentary here, you’ve been going through rapid changes in your fairly short Christian journey so far. It’s not at all clear to me where you’ll end out, and whether you won’t go through yet another major change in your views in a couple more years, just as you have at least every couple of years so far.

      When I was a little younger than you are today, I lived for the argument! I knew I could take on all comers and win every time. Yes, I was intelligent and all that. Second highest SAT score in my well-educated, suburban, largely Jewish high school class. But I was also young and foolish, and didn’t know very much about life. Three or four decades later, with a lot more life experience over the dam, I generally pick my battles carefully, and engage in argumentation only when I think it may accomplish some good.

      In your case, the combination of your caustic tone and your assuring me that if I were actually to convince you that you are mistaken, you would abandon Christianity altogether, suggested that this was not going to be a fruitful battle to fight. I wouldn’t bother arguing with my own younger self. And the usefulness of a debate with you similarly looks rather meager.

      On the other side of the coin, there is a zero percent chance that you will convince me that you’re right about universal salvation and the nature of God’s omnipotence. I’ve already considered your basic arguments long before you ever made them, and have found them seriously lacking in depth, breadth, philosophical and theological rigor, and coherence with human reality.

      My basic theology has been settled for decades. Though I am continually learning more, I am both fully convinced of and fully comfortable with that theology. I’m not looking for anything else, nor do I expect that I ever will be. So if you think you’re going to level your jousting stick at me and knock me off my horse, that’s just not going to happen. I would encourage you not to waste your time trying.

      If you are interested in a more in-depth explanation of my specific beliefs about divine omnipotence and eschatology in contrast to yours, I would be happy to respond to any questions you may have.

      However, I have no interest at all in engaging you in a debate that you think one of us is going to win and the other is going to lose. That’s not what I’m here to do.

      And my apologies, but I’m simply not interested in spending a lot of time examining your beliefs and your rationale for them. My only purpose for doing so would be to equip myself more effectively to refute them for my readers here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life.

      For the most part, I find examining the common fallacies of other religious beliefs to be a sad and tedious undertaking. I find them so riddled with falsity, and find it so depressing that so many people are stuck in those fallacies and half-truths, that I do it only to make myself better able to help extricate people who are tangled in their web and want to break free.

      Last year I forced myself to read two books on faith alone by leading Protestant theologians, recommended to me by an online Protestant contact. I found it so teeth-gratingly unpleasant that I finally had to stop midway through the second book. I just couldn’t handle any more of that rank fallacy and falsity all dressed up as as biblical truth. It almost felt like it was going to make me physically ill.

      In four decades of examining the beliefs and practices of other churches and religions, though I’ve gained many fine insights along the way, it has never happened that I’ve thought, “Wow, I like this belief system better than my own!” The beliefs I hold to are so far beyond anything that I’ve ever found in any other church or religion—by whole orders of magnitude—that none of those others have even the slightest attraction for me.

      Having said that, I do find many of their adherents to be fine and wonderful people. During my decade as a pastor I cultivated friendly relations with all of the local churches, pastors, and spiritual leaders—Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, general liberal and evangelical Protestant, Unitarian Universalist, Jewish, Muslim, and any other religious flavor that existed in the town where my church was located. I did my best to bring them all into harmonious and constructive relationships with one another as much as possible, and enjoyed the whole process immensely. I even invited in spiritual leaders from traditions that weren’t represented in that town—Hindu, Buddhist, Native American—to address my congregation and any interested townspeople. Though I’m not a universalist, I do believe that God, and more specifically Jesus Christ, is present in all religions with saving power.

      Meanwhile, I myself am a Swedenborgian Christian. I am a cradle Swedenborgian. My first stirrings toward the Swedenborgian ministry came when I was only eight or ten years old. I saw my father in the pulpit, and knew that I would be a Swedenborgian minister myself. The route to get there was more extended and circuitous than I expected. And my ministry today is very different from what I thought it would be at this time of my life when I first entered seminary twenty-five years ago. But I will always be a Swedenborgian minister, scholar, counselor, author, and evangelist. That’s what God put me on earth to do. My primary purpose in life is to spread and teach this belief system to anyone who might find it enlightening, and to give people spiritual insights that help them through their personal and spiritual crises and in their daily spiritual walk.

      If you’re interested in learning from me, I’ll give you as much time and attention as you want. If you want to argue and debate with me and attempt to prove to me that I’m wrong, that would be a waste of both your time and mine, and is not something that I have the slightest interest in spending my time at. I regularly delete comments from people who come here just to tell me how terribly wrong I am. They’re a waste of my time. It’s right in my comments policy.

      As arrogant and off-putting and patronizing as all of this may sound to you, I’m not in the habit of sugar-coating things. My policy is that it’s better to state plainly where I stand and what my approach and interests are. Then anyone who comes my way can either take it or leave it—100% their choice.

      If, with all of this in mind, you still want to continue the conversation, I’m here.

    • Lee says:

      Hi The Iron Knuckle,

      A few more responses in the cold, hard light of day:

      I did indeed read your article and its questions. In fact, I read it through several times before and during the writing of my response. You will notice that even though I reproduced only your main questions here, the structure of my response generally follows the structure of your original post. However, I was also aware that I was writing a comment on your blog, not a full-blown article. I kept it as brief as I could while still providing a minimally adequate response to the big questions you are asking. The linked articles provide more depth on each subject, and are available for you to read, contemplate, and comment on.

      The reality is that I do think you’re young and naive, just as I was at your age. I’m not going to sugar coat that, even if it’s not “polite.” Some social conventions are good. Some social conventions get in the way of necessary truth. And the reality is that for those seeking wisdom, it requires a certain amount of life experience to gain that wisdom.

      I delayed my entrance into seminary by a decade because I realized that I was too young, foolish, and immature to be a pastor and give spiritual guidance and advice to people who actually had some experience in life and were facing real life issues and struggles. So instead of going into seminary right out of college as I had originally planned, I went out into the secular world, traveling, working, and supporting myself. After a decade had gone by, and I’d gotten married and had my first child, I finally felt ready to return to my youthful plans for seminary and parish ministry. Though I’ve done some very stupid things in the course of my life, delaying the start of my ordained ministry and learning a bit about life first, so that I went into the ministry as a thirty-something rather than as a twenty-something, was one of the smartest things I ever did.

      To dip into the substance of your views just a bit in relation to naiveté vs. experience:

      The idea that all people will be saved, I believe, demonstrates a naiveté about the realities of human life and character.

      • Bleeding heart liberals think that if we could just love hardened criminals enough, and give them intensive therapy for what their evil parents and this evil society did to them, they would all become fine, upstanding citizens and we could let them out of jail. Experience simply doesn’t bear that out.
      • Idealistic socialists and communists think that if we just level the social and financial playing field and give everyone the basics of life for free, everyone will become selfless contributors to society, and humanity will enter a new golden age. Experience simply doesn’t bear that out.

      All actual experience demonstrates that some people do make choices for evil instead of good, and that for some of the people who make that choice, no amount of love, truth, therapy, punishment, or anything else budges them from it. They enjoy engaging in evil. They have no interest in living any other way. Even if we gave them eternity to change their minds, they simply wouldn’t change their minds.

      So yes, I do think you’re naive for believing that all people will eventually choose the good and be saved. It’s endearing to see young, idealistic people believing that eventually we’ll all do a big group hug and sing kum ba yah together. Unfortunately, real life just doesn’t work that way. We’re human beings with free will. And some of us use that free will to persistently choose evil over good.

      I hate poking holes in youthful idealism. It feels just a bit mean. But more life experience tends to do a very good job of that anyway for people who aren’t so stuck on their own idealistic theories that they are unwilling to pay any attention to any reality that doesn’t support their idealistic notions. Better to pay attention to reality and be prepared for it.

      Raising children, for those who are actually paying attention and have a spiritual and moral focus in life, also provides a reality check for youthful idealism. Fortunately, all three of my children have turned into fine young adults. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t done some extremely stupid and dangerous things along the way, any of which could easily have gone south and ruined their adult lives. And like most young adults, they’re still doing a few things here and there that I don’t think are the best idea. But I have to let them live their own lives.

      Being a parent of growing and then adult children gives far greater perspective on God’s role as a parent to humanity. It’s just not as simple as young people and people who have never had children of their own commonly think it is. People who don’t have children commonly think that they would raise the perfect children. It’s difficult for people who are not parents themselves (either biological or foster/adoptive) to have a realistic understanding of God’s role as parent.

      The flat, one-dimensional concept of God’s omnipotence that you articulate goes hand-in-hand with this general naiveté about human life, human free will, and parent / child –> parent / adult child relationships. For a better understanding of the realities of divine omnipotence from a philosophical and theological perspective, I encourage you to read the three sections from Swedenborg’s book True Christianity that I linked toward the end of the above post.

  2. Rob says:

    “Bleeding heart liberals think that if we could just love hardened criminals enough, and give them intensive therapy for what their evil parents and this evil society did to them, they would all become fine, upstanding citizens and we could let them out of jail. Experience simply doesn’t bear that out.”

    But doesn’t God have an eternity to work on people? I don’t think the analogy stands up. He has eternity and infinite wisdom. I hope the universalists are right, or I am in for a bad eternity. Some of us can’t be good, we can’t love our neighbors. Some of us are just not a good fit in this world, so all that comes back from us is anger and resentment. I’m in my 50th year now, and I am no closer to improvement than when I began at 12.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rob,

      I continue to think that when you enter the spiritual world at the end of your life here on this earth, you will be pleasantly surprised. Loving our neighbor is not primarily a feeling, but an action. People with a naturally grumpy and solitary personality who still act rightly toward other people and contribute in some practical way to the wellbeing of society will be in heaven, not hell. And heaven has room for all different personality types.

      • Rob says:

        What about my other point, that God has an eternity to work on a person? Is anything to hard for the Lord? Or, “with God all things are possible.” Are you saying that given enough time (and there’s infinite time) that God can’t bring a person to loving Him and others through their free will? If it’s not impossible (and why would it be impossible?), then what reason could God have for not spending eternity seeking His lost coins? I guess that’s the question, is it impossible.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rob,

          If we humans cannot make a permanent, eternal choice about who we wish to be and where we wish to live, then our free will is not real. If we all end out where God wants us to be, then it is God making the choice, not us, and we are neither free nor human. For more on this, please read the sections starting with the heading, “What’s wrong with reincarnation?” in my article, “The Bible, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Reincarnation.”

  3. Annie Howell says:

    what is the main difference between universalist and swedenborg christians. I think both make sense and they both talk of Gods all inclusive love. However the belief in eternal hell isn’t something i want to belief. By the knowledge that some can never be good is like saying people are born bad. Its the whole nature v nurture thing but i think everyone has a choice of good and evil – free will – otherwise people wouldn’t be evil if they had no choice but to be that way. No one who lives in the dark not the light is very happy that way and i think everyone deserves to see the light. I don’t think there are evil babies but people can turn at some point but usually for a reason. A reason i hope that God takes away in time. If gods love is unconditional for all of us wouldn’t he do everything he can to take away the hurt that caused an individuals hate. Some humans don’t fit into life. Some its not their fault at all. People often suffer from mental health problems and can’t fit in. some commit suicide. I choose to believe that God guides the ones who couldn’t cope in life for whatever reason and his light takes away the hatred. The end of all things is a state of blessed reunion with God, the Creator — not eternal separation, misery, or destruction (John 12:32, Rom. 5:18, 1 Cor. 15:22,28, Col. 1:20, 1 Tim. 2:4-6). Since no human being is totally bad, no human should perish eternally. I believe God’s grace extends to everyone and, as we read in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, God is not satisfied with even ninety nine percent of people being saved, but keeps searching until the last lost sheep (person) is saved (Luke 15:3-7). Souls that leave this life on earth without experiencing salvation will have other opportunities for conversion, learning and growth after death (1 Pet. 3:18-20, 4:6). No one will ever run out of chances to return home to their Creator. Even the most evil beings who have ever lived can still be saved — and will be, in the fullness of time (Phil. 2:10). That is God’s promise! john 1:29 – “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! However there are some like Hitler that perhaps were simply evil but it would be better if he couldn’t change to kill him eternally than have him burn forever. And hell in the afterlife keeps the evil in that world as much as in this world.

    I’m interested in your beliefs on what swedenborg christians think happens if a person has potential to be kind but has hate in them. where does god put them?. is there a limbo. And if a person in hell suddenly becomes better does God realise or has he just abandoned his children to their fate. if your adult child becomes a murderer or rapist the parents while they are disappointed in their child usually still go to see them. And surely peoples goodness is based often on the life they lived. if you are raised in abuse and are neglected by parents or you are raised in a loving home and have everything you could want the adults you become will be quite different. even if you have a really hard life you can still choose love not hate and it can make people more determined but they are still likely to carry around the hurt. When people die they haven’t neccessarily left their demons to rest. no ones perfect and they might still need to work on some things. especially with temptation but things that arent their fault like self esteem issues. making a choice for heaven or hell is very black and white something that humans aren’t. we are messy, complicated, imperfect, loving and kind but with things like jealousy and greed in us that however much we try to stop has a way of coming out sometimes. I believe that God knows us and wants the best for us. If someone feels unable to cope then Jesus would never turn their back on them but would support them. I don’t want an environment where the nazis can persecute their victims in the afterlife or the racist still go on attacking blacks but I believe that these atrocities were man made and people will be in gods love and light and will stop the hatred.

    its weird how compared to all other religions how much christians fight each other. you have the muslims, the jews, buddhists and while some are a lot stricter than the others the wars that have gone on with the christians – people of the same religion is absurd. And christians seem the least unchrist like so much of the time. Like gandhi said i like your christ but not your christians. loving your neighbours and enemies isn’t something a lot of christians do. But with the religions of christ everyone seems to be at war with each other over different variations of the same belief while jesus was a pacifist who said turn the other cheek and preached love and kindness to all.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Annie,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughts and questions. There’s a lot to cover here—too much for a comment. So I’ll refer you to some articles along the way that cover these subjects in more detail.

      To take up your last point first:

      Christians aren’t the only ones who bitterly fight each other. The Muslim world today is rife with internal conflict and power struggles. Similar things are happening within other world religions as well. But to focus on Christianity, I believe that the reason Christians are so unChristian is that the “Christian” Church of today is, in fact, non-Christian. It has long since abandoned the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible for human-invented doctrines that are diametrically opposed to what Jesus and the Bible teach. For more on this, please see:

      And there are plenty more where those came from!

      But to your main point and question:

      The difference between Swedenborgian Christians and Universalist Christians is that Swedenborgians believe that God gives us a true choice between good and evil, and that if we choose evil over good, God respects that choice, and will not keep badgering us to change it until we accede to God’s wishes.

      Hell, from a Swedenborgian perspective, is not so much a place of punishment for sins as a place where people who have chosen to enjoy evil and destructive pleasures can engage in those pleasures as much as possible, even though it inevitably results in pain and punishment inflicted upon them, not by God or by devils with pitchforks, but by one another as they seek revenge upon each other. For more on what hell is really like, please see:
      Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?

      And on why there must be an eternal hell for our freedom to be real, and for us to be human beings rather than mere robots, please read the sections starting with, “What’s wrong with reincarnation?” in the article, “The Bible, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Reincarnation.”

      God’s love is unconditional for all the beings God has created, including the worst demons in hell. God continues to love God’s enemies. God continues to “make his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and send rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). God never withdraws God’s love from anyone.

      However, those who choose evil over good turn their backs on God and reject God’s love. And God will not force God’s love upon us. Doing so would be disrespecting us as people. It would be like that person whom we have told we do not love, but who continues to send flowers and make proposals anyway, causing us pain and anguish instead of pleasure and joy.

      God continues to love the people who have chosen hell, but the best God can do is to hold them back from plunging into behavior even worse than the evil behavior they have chosen to enjoy during their lifetime on earth. That is as far as God’s mercy upon the the evil spirits in hell can go without disrespecting them as people and taking away their humanity. Without the ability to choose who we will be and how we will live, we are not human beings.

      However, no one goes to hell due to external circumstances. People born into poverty, abuse, criminal culture, and so on do not go to hell because of that. Only what we have freely chosen, having the ability to choose something else, remains with us in the afterlife. Parental and social influences over which we have no control are not held against us. Also, people with mental illnesses do not go to hell because of things they have done under the influence of their illness.

      For more on how environmental influences do not cause us to go to hell, please see:

      I realize this doesn’t answer all your questions, but I hope it’s enough to give you some sense of where Swedenborgians stand on these issues. If you have further thoughts or questions, please feel free to continue the conversation.

      Meanwhile, Godspeed on your spiritual journey!

  4. Annie Howell says:

    when god created us he said we were very good but on earth without his loving constant presence we made mistakes. however with jesus in heaven we are all much likely to be better with Jesus’ guidance around us. some people here have no guidance whatsoever, feel bitter towards other because of this. but its because of their life situations. people who are surrounded by kindness and love are often kinder and more loving themselves while those who have never known happiness or a kind life can’t be expected to be judged by God on the life they lived on earth without looking at the type of life they lived on earth.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Annie,

      Yes, God created everything, including us, very good in the beginning (Genesis 1:31).

      But God did not then withdraw into heaven and leave us to our own devices. When Adam and Eve ate from the tree God had commanded them not to eat from, the next thing that happened was that they saw God walking in the garden. And this is presented as if it was something that happened regularly. When Adam and Eve hid themselves, God called out to them, asking where they were (Genesis 3:8–9).

      Adam and Eve had a direct, personal relationship with God. They didn’t disobey God because God wasn’t around to talk to them and have a relationship with them and give them guidance. They disobeyed God because they chose to pay attention to their senses, and follow sensory information and pleasure, rather than listening to God. Eve ate from the tree of knowledge when she saw it as desirable and pleasurable (Genesis 3:6), knowing full well that God had said not to eat from it (Genesis 3:2–3).

      In short, the choice for disobedience over obedience, and for evil over good, was made with their eyes open, under God’s direct care and guidance. It was a choice, pure and simple, not something they did because they weren’t getting proper care and guidance from God.

      There is nothing God could have done for them in the spiritual world after they died that God didn’t do for them in the Garden of Eden, where God walked with them and talked with them and gave them all the guidance they needed to choose good over evil.

      Yes, for many of us here on earth today things are much murkier. We’re not always sure what’s right and wrong. But God doesn’t hold us responsible for things we couldn’t know or didn’t do out of our own free choice. God doesn’t hold us responsible for our upbringing, or for faulty genetics, or for anything we’re pushed into by outside influences and pressures. God holds us responsible only for things we freely choose. On the evil side of the ledger, God holds us responsible only for wrong attitudes and bad behavior that we freely choose of our own accord when we could very well have corrected our attitudes and done the right thing instead.

      Everything that has been imposed upon us from the outside will fall away in the spiritual world after we die. Only what we have freely chosen as self-responsible adults will remain as a permanent part of our character. And people who never became self-responsible adults either because they died as children or teens or because a birth defect or illness compromised their mental capacity will all go to heaven, not hell, in the afterlife.

      I hope this helps.

  5. Yulian Loaiza says:

    Amazing article, and decision to not respond any further to allow Iron Knuckle´s faith to continue it’s natural path and potentially mature in the future.. I’m tuning into your blog more often; I find in your writing and way of explaining a further interest in christianity that I’ve begun adopting recently.

    Waiting eagerly for the future article when Jesus gave the Keys to the kingdom of heaven to Peter.

    Thank you very much for this insightful, faithful blog. 🙂

    • Lee says:

      Hi Yulian,

      Thanks for your comment, and for your kind words. I’m glad you’re finding our blog so helpful! If any thoughts or questions come up as you read, please don’t hesitate to comment further. Meanwhile, Godspeed on your spiritual journey!

  6. Rob says:

    “If we all end out where God wants us to be, then it is God making the choice, not us, and we are neither free nor human.”

    So the damnation of some or many is baked into the cake, so to speak. If it’s an impossibility that all will be saved, then it has always been a certainty from eternity past that many will not be saved.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rob,

      No, nothing is baked into the cake. Everyone could be saved if they wanted to. Salvation is freely available to everyone. No one is created for damnation. Everyone is created for heaven.

      The only people who aren’t saved are those who choose not to be saved.

      • Rob says:

        Why does a person choose one way or the other? What makes one choose the good and another the evil? Is the person who chooses the good smarter, wiser or inherently more virtuous? I used to ask this of Arminians on a Christian board and I couldn’t get an answer other than a re-assertion that everyone has a choice. Myself, I think people act whichever way because they think it will bring them happiness or at least freedom from pain. I think all our actions are based on those two things. I find it easier to forgive others too when I see them as like me, trapped in a hostile universe. But getting back to free will, I think it’s a horrible thing to create creatures knowing that some or most will experience misery forever, and I can’t fathom how people who believe in hell can choose to have children, knowing there’s a possibility that the child will experience that eternal misery. It just blows my mind.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rob,

          The thing is, people who go to hell don’t experience misery forever. Rather, for the most part they have a life that seems fairly ordinary to them. Sometimes they feel pleasure, and other times they feel pain. Just like a lot of people here on earth. They get to do a lot of the things they like to do, and they intensely enjoy it. Unfortunately, their destructive types of pleasures inevitably result in painful consequences. But for them, that’s just part of life.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rob,
          People do choose evil because of the pleasure it gives them. If evil wasn’t pleasurable, why would anyone bother with it? The problem is that evil pleasures bring pain as well.
          Good also has its pleasures, which may seem more subtle at first, but which in the long run are far greater. And though it may require some sacrifices, doing good does not inevitably bring pain, as doing evil does.
          So people make a choice between getting their pleasure or happiness from good things or from evil things. Either way has its attractions. But good brings greater joy, and doesn’t have the negative side effects that evil does.

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