A PERSONAL JOURNEY TO A MOST UNEXPECTED PLACE
--- by Eddie Browne (7 / 2002)
Don’t you find it a wee bit disconcerting when God grabs you by the scruff of the neck, takes you behind the proverbial woodshed, and whomps you upside the head with an angelic two by four?
I never saw it coming. Things were in place, the rough spots were ironing out, life was pretty okay, thank you very much. I was a nice evangelical charismatic in a fairly laid-back, growing church. My family was tied in to the church family. I was serving as doors of opportunity opened, and we had our ‘spiritual future’ ahead of us.
While I was always ‘itchy’ for more, the comfortable, predictable routine of our church life provided a measure of security and reliability that most families - and most sane individuals - desire. That is, until I ‘blew it’.
It was the Spring of 1999. All the talk was about the upcoming millennium, ’Y2K’, the end of the world, and, of course, the big question: Is it really the year of the millennium or is the ’actual’ start of the millennium the following year? I still get a headache over that one! I had just managed to help bail the church out of a sticky zoning issue with the local municipality. It was Wednesday night - mid-week corporate Bible-study. The pastor had made it well-known how much sleep he had lost over this issue. He was now standing to give a praise report for how The Lord had worked it all out. (I knew, of course, that it was the Lord and Ed!)
My moment had arrived. After almost a year of legal and zoning maneuvering, my own hard work behind the scenes to effect a cooperative spirit with the municipality, and despite the opposition of a particularly strong group who wanted control of our building, we had won. I had been the man of the hour. And now, finally, anthems of praise accompanied by richly-deserved back-slapping would be my just reward. Bring it on!
The pastor stood, gave God praise for working everything out, and then proceeded to mention the involvement of himself, the church’s attorney, and a representative of the landlord. And then he taught the Bible study.
I was stunned. Then it dawned on me that the congratulatory balloons, banners, and noise-makers were all missing! My head started spinning. I was furious. This isn’t right! I busted my hump for this thing! The stupid attorney didn’t do diddly-squat! And he gets the credit! I didn‘t even get honorable mention! This just isn’t fair!
Right about now you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with universalism (and no, I didn’t start wishing the pastor would burn in hell eternally - only to learn later that option didn’t exist!). Just be patient; this won’t take more than an eon or two.
The next morning, I was angrier than I was the night before, but this time it was for a different reason. I was angry about being angry. Sounds stupid, huh? Perhaps you’ve been there a time or two yourself. You’re more upset about how you reacted than about what bothered you in the first place. As the saying goes, ‘the game was a-foot’. Even as I was pondering this mess, God’s hand was seizing me by the collar for a little ‘talking-to’.
That one incident launched me on a journey that is now three years old and counting.
As I cried out to God about my anger, He gently but firmly put me on a path I now refer to as my time of ‘correction and direction’. Phase I was a fresh revelation of His grace and a new awareness of my need to please only Him. A very subtle yet real need for man’s approval had tainted me, undermining above all my relationship with Him. A full year and the wisdom of one who was called alongside to help me was required to achieve a much-needed healing.
I thought it was all finished then. Boy, was I wrong! For some inexplicable reason, I was drawn to study afresh the Biblical doctrine of eternal rewards. I couldn’t believe it! After almost thirty years in the Lord, many of them spent in the areas of preaching and teaching, it was as if I had never heard this stuff before. Maybe I was going senile - at least that would explain things!
I found myself more ‘Heavenly-minded’ than ever before. I learned that eternal rewards are the flip-side of grace. Even though we are called to perform good works, and will be rewarded for our faithfulness in doing so, in and of ourselves, we can’t do a single one of them! Only by His grace are we able - yet He still gives us eternal credit. The icing on the cake? We lose our reward in heaven for a good work if we seek to have the praise of man for that good work while here on earth. Eureka! In one year I had gone from seeking the approval of man to seeking creative ways to do good works that no one would ever know about. I had become the ‘stealth saint’. (Oops, I just blabbed!)
I was fully healed and on my way. Surely, now the time of correction and direction had come to an end. Now it was time to get to work; full steam ahead. Wrong. It didn’t end with eternal rewards. Now I was being ‘prompted’ to move into a full-blown study of the eternal destiny of man. It would probably help to mention here that I rarely do Bible-reading. I do Bible-studying. I am unable to ‘just’ read. Too many questions and side trails of study emerge. I get too curious. So, I hop down the bunny trail until my question is answered. So, for me to do a ‘full-blown’ study on anything - especially a topic like the eternal destiny of man - would mean a lot of work and a lot of time. I got tired just thinking about it!
I started with Heaven - I figured it would be much more pleasant. One of the first things I learned was how many people do not know the answer to these two questions: (1) Where will the believer spend eternity? and (2) What will the believer be doing? (Should I give you the answers or leave you hanging? I think I’ll leave you hanging!)
And then it was time. No more dodge-ball. The topic nobody wants to talk about but about which everyone has an opinion. It was time for Hell.
Fortunately, I already knew most of what there was to know, so I figured this shouldn’t be too bad. It’s pretty clear cut: you die apart from Christ, you spend eternity suffering in Hell. I may not like it much (except of course for a few chosen baddies in my life), but it’s God’s problem; not mine. So on I went into studying and researching Hell.
I was a little surprised at some of what I learned initially. For example, I had not been aware of the level of questioning about Hell that was going on in the church at large. As it turns out, in recent times, the church has been re-evaluating the doctrine of Hell rather extensively; and that while many have moved away from the long-standing majority view that those who die without Christ are doomed to eternal torment in Hell, most have reaffirmed their belief in eternal torment, a torment that includes the ‘physical’ agony of being burned alive.
Okay, so some people were going soft. All the more reason for me to become re-energized with the message of Hell. Somebody had to warn people.
I was a little more surprised, however, when I learned that the well-known English pastor and author, John Stott, while still holding to the concept of eternal punishment for unbelievers, had shifted to a more ‘merciful’ view, namely, annihilation. According to this view, an unbeliever, probably after a period of some form of punishment, is then consumed by Hell-fire, thereby ceasing to exist in any form. Thus, while the condemnation is ‘eternal’ - it will never be undone - the actual torment of insufferable punishing comes to an end.
I thought, ‘Hmmm; interesting. Stott’s no dummy. I’ll have to check out this annihilation stuff some more. It’s better than eternal torment, but getting torched is still getting torched!’
It didn‘t take long to see just how high emotions ran on the subject. As Stott once said, it is almost impossible to dwell seriously and for any length of time on Hell as eternal torment without being driven to madness by the sheer horror of it all. As I revisited the doctrine of Hell, I was shocked to find that I began to experience the very trauma referred to by Stott. Why now, I wondered. I’ve been a believer for twenty-eight years! How come this hasn’t overwhelmed me before? For some reason, I had managed to avoid this head-on collision with Hell by focusing on other theological matters and pushing Hell into a forgotten corner of my mind; only visiting it when absolutely necessary and armed with all the pat answers.
But this time I got zapped; and zapped hard. I couldn’t look at people without picturing them writhing in unspeakable agony, knowing full well there would never be any hope for relief - ever. One night, as a way to vent I suppose, I wrote an extremely graphic poem entitled, ‘Please Do Not Go There!’ It was an appeal to the person without Christ, and it was so vivid in its description of Hell, that I actually included a parental warning. While I felt it prudent not to engage in serious ‘soul-winning’ activity until I completed my research on Hell, I was certainly busy making preparations.
In addition to my exegetical studies, I interviewed believers - leaders and non-leaders alike. I was intrigued to find, that while almost all held the ‘orthodox’ view of eternal torment, they would retreat to some form of nebulous ‘trusting in God’ in the matter when personally confronted. On the one hand, I could understand the back-pedaling - it is a very distasteful subject. On the other hand, it was a clear contradiction of their public message. It was as if their hearts recoiled at what their minds wanted to believe.
Additionally, I made plans for an evangelism hot-line, a website, tracts and other literature, and the assembling of masses of volunteers to engage in an all-out ‘rescue campaign’. I studied mortality statistics and calculated that millions of souls were entering Hell every year. How could I possibly make a dent in such a torrent of doom? I studied the writings of others. I visited Hell-oriented websites. I read the testimonies of a couple believers who claimed to have actually visited Hell. I was a bit bothered, however, by the fact that the local Christian bookstores had virtually nothing on the subject. I noticed how little Hell was taught and preached by its adherents - a reality that I just couldn’t believe. I concluded that we, the church, were either too cowardly, too insensitive or believing something different than what our mouths proclaimed.
During this process, I came across web-sites and articles which actually taught that, according to the Bible, Hell as eternal torment did not exist. Not only that, but every human being would ultimately be saved, and that this was the clear teaching of the Bible! I was beside myself. What a bunch of flaming idiots these people were! Even worse, their heresy would only ‘let people off the hook’ and lull them into the very Hell-fire they refused to acknowledge. Now I was really distraught. Not only would I have to make a humongous effort to rescue people from Hell, but now I would also have to fight the heretics at the same time.
I started to curse the Internet and the easy accessibility it gave to such horrendous teachings. I painted imaginary bulls-eyes around these wayward teachers. I was glad to see that many of their articles were not well-written. Several articles had misspellings, grammatical errors, the occasional use of the wrong Greek word, etc. - all of which added to their lack of credibility. If they weren’t giving something so obvious as proper writing the attention it deserved; then clearly their theology suffered from the same poor attempts. I had three years of Koine’ Greek and two years of Hebrew and Aramaic. I got straight A’s in English. These amateurs didn’t stand a chance!
And so I declared my Christian holy war and went to battle. I worked my way through their infantile writings, preparing my uncontestable responses. I could picture my future epitaph: ‘Here lies Saint Edward of Christendom, a valiant warrior for all that is good and holy.’ I was pumped. I studied my brains out. I exegeted like I had never exegeted before. And just as soon as I smashed these heretics to smithereens, I would set out with my saintly hordes to save the world from Hell. Amen and amen!
Have you ever watched on television, or in a movie, a person who is sinking in quicksand? The flailing person keeps thrashing and thrashing, which only makes him sink faster. Eventually, his head disappears and all that is left floating on the surface is his hat - a sad reminder of the foolish victim below. Well, I researched and I researched. I studied and I studied. I reviewed and I reviewed. And the more I ‘thrashed’, the quicker I sank. I watched as my glorious epitaph changed to: ‘Here lies poor, poor Eddie; that egg on his face is actually pride.’ If I wasn’t so blown away by what I was learning, I would have locked up my Bible, dismantled my plans, been thankful that I only showed my poem to three or four people, shut my big, fat mouth, and crawled under a bush to die.
These ‘infantile’ authors had a point. Worse, they had a Biblical point. Even worse yet, it was exegetically sound. The more I had tried to kill the beast, the more I began to lose. For some reason, the misspellings and grammatical errors didn’t bother me so much any more. When I finally ‘gave up the ghost’ and ceded the battle, it dawned on me: other than these little people who lived inside my computer, I didn’t know a single person who believed in what I had come to call ‘Evangelical Universalism’. My church certainly didn’t teach it; not a single person I had interviewed believed in it. I had never been anywhere; I had never met anyone that held to this view. I now felt like the proverbial ‘man without a country’.
I slowly started sharing bits and pieces with trusted friends. Since they weren’t calling for the guys with the white coats to bring the straight-jacket, I ventured out a little further. I began tossing out teaser lines to people; lines like: ‘How come Paul the apostle is virtually silent on the subject of Hell? After all, he was the most prolific New Testament writer and the one who was given deep revelation to unfold to the church.’ Or: ‘How come there is virtually no teaching on eternal torment in Hell in the Old Testament?’ (‘Sheol’ does not mean Hell and Daniel 12 isn’t an answer either.) Or: ‘How come neither Moses, nor David, nor the prophets ever warned the people of their day about Hell?’ And so on. Most times I would get a blank stare; kind of like the deer caught in headlights. And then it would come: ‘I don’t know; what’s the answer?’ ‘Go study it for yourself and then come back‘, I would say, because otherwise I would begin to vomit theology all over them - and I got tired of making everything so ‘messy‘!
I found out very quickly that adopting this view was comparable to when I was born-again. I had a new perspective on life. I was excited. My love for God and others seemed to grow exponentially. My hunger for studying the Bible grew - which I didn’t think possible. It was as if God had taken a derailed locomotive, set it aright on the tracks, and said, ‘Get going!’
I knew this stuff was controversial, but I also knew that I was a bit of a hard case myself at first; and if I could be persuaded, surely others could be as well. It was a nice thought while it lasted! Other than a few open-minded believers, I ran into a brick wall. If you’re going to rock the boat, don’t expect many others to cheer you on. I honestly didn’t know I had two heads until I saw the looks of folks trying to figure me out as I joyously proclaimed the great news of God’s infinite grace.
‘Can’t you see it? It’s so obvious. It’s all over the Bible, if you’ll just remove the blinders!’, I would say. That’s when I remembered, only God can remove the blinders, and He won’t do it unless someone’s heart is fully open to His truth - no matter what. And therein lies the difficulty. Three little words: ‘no matter what’. There’s a certain core radicalism and boldness that needs to be in place - even if it has to be miraculously infused by the Spirit of God - to publicly confess the reconciliation of all people. I had managed to forget my own initial reaction: you remember, ‘those flaming idiots’! (Can’t you just feel the love in those words!)
You have to want all that God has to give, and you have to be willing to commit everything to Him and for Him. Pride and stubbornness can have no place. Then the blinders begin to fall as the truth is revealed, and new and fresh understanding replaces ’packaged’ theology. But mainstream Christianity is not going to roll over and play dead while you or I or anyone else shares this great piece of news. It challenges too many core and entrenched beliefs. It ‘makes waves’. And it will be opposed.
I love to dig into God’s Word. As it turned out, this was rather fortunate for me since I soon found I had more time on my hands than ever before. It seems bearing that big red ’H’ (for ‘heresy’) on your chest is not viewed as something admirable; and your church-related social calendar - that is now pretty empty - reflects that opinion. If I wasn’t so caught up in discovering new ‘gold’ in God’s Word, I may actually have begun to feel alone - which is what happens to so many who come to believe in the truth of the reconciliation of all people. There is no ‘support group’ in the yellow pages to call upon, but I discovered there are others who will not only identify with your view and with your challenges, but who will also gladly bear your burden with you; even if it’s only from a distance, requiring ‘cyber-fellowship’. You need only to reach out to them.
As my journey progresses, I am finding myself to be more committed to this message than ever. I am studying, I am sharing, and I am receiving every reaction imaginable. I am learning new, various, and better ways to present this truth. Like the Gospel, the delivery needs to fit the situation, even while the message remains the same.
But I also know this: the day is coming when pure boldness in the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ and the salvation of all will be required. I believe it will be a ‘wave’ of God as He reveals Who He truly is to large masses of people. Nothing but spiritual courage - not to be confused with cockiness and cleverness - in speaking the truth will break through the hardened veneer of human hearts to touch the sin-stained, needy soul with the message of freedom and hope in Christ.
Why not join me as I journey into the future. Maybe you don’t know where you stand with Jesus. He alone is Lord - there is no other. He alone paid the price for the sin of mankind by dying on Calvary’s cross. Through Him alone, we have all been reconciled to God, the Father. Ask Him to reveal this truth to your heart. Lay aside any pride or hurt or anything else that would keep you from coming to Jesus right now. He receives us as we are. He makes each one of us alive in the spirit. He renews us day by day. And He receives us into Glory. That, my friend, is the gift of God’s grace. All we need to do is simply believe that Jesus truly loves us and that He alone is Lord of all. As we repent (turn from sin) and accept Him as Savior, He gives us new life that will never pass away.
If you are wrestling with the truth of the salvation of all, I understand - I was there. First and foremost, ask God to teach you by His Spirit. Remain humble and teachable - even if others do not. Do your research. Read the articles widely available on the internet and elsewhere, asking God to give you discernment and understanding along the way. Study your Bible. Ask questions. And, like Jacob who wrestled with God’s anointed, don’t ‘let go’ until He blesses you. And God will bless you. I promise.
If all of this seems too overwhelming to you, let me leave you with this anonymous quote:
‘I should like you to tell me what moves a man to separate himself from all he has known and accepted, and to risk becoming a pariah in the eyes of his peers. For to refuse that risk, to continue as he has, is to die within himself.’