There are some problems inherent in asking about how we should live out the things we believe.
First, we are not all going to come to the same conclusions about how our theology should be worked out practically. The fact that we affirm – more or less – the same theological truths does not mean that we will come to the same conclusions as to how those truths should be applied. After hearing today’s speech, you will probably find yourself saying “Why didn’t he mention such and such?” or “Why didn’t he conclude this way?” I am very much interested in hearing that feedback. I don’t claim to have a monopoly on ideas about this subject, and I am definitely still in learning mode. Just consider my words today as a springboard for the discussion. We could use a number of articles on the Afterlife website on this issue, and I welcome you to contribute — particularly if you disagree with any of my conclusions.
Secondly, how any of us live out our faith involves our personal calling and giftedness. That will mean that even though you and I might agree theologically, we are going to be compelled by the Holy Spirit to live out our faith in different ways. We might even – in our most critical moments – think of each other as being inconsistent. The traditionalists have the same problem. Some of them think of this world as a gift from God, and do their best to preserve it and protect it from harm. Others of them see the planet as a tool, only useful for meeting temporary needs, and destined to be done away with in favour of a cosmic, heavenly home. So, these traditionalists look at their brothers who are trying to protect the planet , its rivers, its wildlife, and its forests – as idiots who are wasting their time on the wrapper instead of enjoying the candy bar. I think it is more consistent with conditionalism to take care of the planet because my theology says that God created this planet as a good thing – and something he intends to restore to something even better than its original perfection. I think it quite compatible with conditionalism to work alongside my traditionalist friends – and alongside atheists and people of other faiths to protect our planet as well. Some of that reasoning is theological. But some of it has to do with my own walk and my own personal experiences. I have enjoyed some of the most pristine and beautiful of the sites this planet has to offer the senses. I have also seen first-hand how ugly this world can get when left in the hands of those who don’t care about it, whether their reasons are theological, political or commercial. So, my heart beats for the protection of this whole planet, and I see that passion as consistent with my theology, because I see them both as a gift from God. But I am aware that those are two aspects of myself, and I don’t fault anyone else for not agreeing with me, because you are not me.
A third problem inherent in asking about how we live out the things we believe is that there is a danger of sometimes losing our faith and being left with only its application. The New Testament Gospels reveal how the Jewish Pharisees were guilty of this. They had emphasized personal works and the obedience to their society’s rules so much that their rules eventually became what they believed. After a century or so of teaching people to do things, or not to do things, the reasons for the commands were lost, and there was nothing left but the commands. Each generation of Christians faces this challenge. Not too long ago, evangelical Christianity was focused and fixated on obeying that portion of the scriptures that related to helping the poor and bringing justice to the suffering. This message became known as the social gospel. It was a good message, and a biblical message. But we allowed it to become our only message. As such, we became guilty of the same heresy that destroyed the Pharisees.
So, how do we honestly live out our conditionalist faith in the midst of these kinds of challenges? Let’s start by looking at some scriptures.
2 Peter 3:1-4 NLT
1 This is my second letter to you, dear friends, and in both of them I have tried to stimulate your wholesome thinking and refresh your memory. 2 I want you to remember what the holy prophets said long ago and what our Lord and Savior commanded through your apostles. 3 Most importantly, I want to remind you that in the last days scoffers will come, mocking the truth and following their own desires. 4 They will say, “What happened to the promise that Jesus is coming again? From before the times of our ancestors, everything has remained the same since the world was first created.”
Peter wrote to the churches to whom he had sent his second letter, that his purpose was to stimulate their wholesome thinking and refresh their memory. Implied in those remarks is the possibility that good, decent, biblically grounded Christians can sometimes get off target. Over time, it is possible for our minds to get focused on something different than the things we should be thinking about. It is possible to know the truth, to have experienced it, to affirm it, but still – in some ways – to forget it. Peter did not want that to happen to his churches. So, he wrote them for the purpose of giving them a kind of road map to their thinking and acting.
In a sense, that is what the entire Bible is for. Peter would agree with that because he goes on to tell them to remember what the holy prophets in the Old Testament taught, and what Jesus taught through his apostles. The apostle Paul had told the Ephesian Christians that the church was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus himself serving as our corner stone. He used the metaphor of a temple to describe the church. Partly, his reason for doing that was the same reason Peter mentions the apostles and prophets here. We, the church, cannot reinvent ourselves. Our identity is bound up not just in who we are, or who we can be. Our identity is linked to the purpose of our creator.
A second reason Peter gave for his letter was to remind the churches of something that he had taught them when he personally planted those churches. He had apparently taught this as one of the principle lessons wherever he went. The lesson was that at some point these churches were going to be invaded by scoffers, critics, who doubt the foundational truth of the literal second coming.
2 Peter 3:5-8
5 They deliberately forget that God made the heavens by the word of his command, and he brought the earth out from the water and surrounded it with water. 6 Then he used the water to destroy the ancient world with a mighty flood. 7 And by the same word, the present heavens and earth have been stored up for fire. They are being kept for the day of judgment, when ungodly people will be destroyed. 8 But you must not forget this one thing, dear friends: A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day.
He goes on to say that these scoffers are those who are guilty of the very kind of thing that I have been talking about. I don’t think Peter is talking about secular humanists or atheistic philosophers. Peter describes how these critics deliberately forget the biblical truths of creation and the flood. It is as if they had been built on the foundation of biblical truth, but at some point decided to slide off of that foundation.
The scoffers reason like this: It has been a long time since we have been taught that Jesus is literally coming again. He has not come again. Therefore, he is not coming again.
Peter’s response to the scoffers is very systematic.
· First, he reminds his readers that a long time ago, God said something, and “poof” – the world was created. In the beginning God created the sky and the land. God – who lives in infinity, created a time which we call the beginning, and he filled that time with meaning by inserting the present universe in it.
· Secondly, this same God who created this planet with a word, decided to judge and destroy it with water. He warned the ancient ones that he would do it, but he did not do it immediately. He waited a long time before destroying the world, and rescued eight people in the midst of the destruction.
· Thirdly, this same God who had promised to destroy the world with a flood – later promised to destroy this rescued world with fire. There would be a second day of judgment. God is consistent with himself, so we should expect this second judgment to happen. But we also have every right to expect it to happen only after a long period of time. That is how God worked in creation. That’s how he worked in the flood. That is how we should expect the judgment promised to accompany the second coming to occur as well.
2 Peter 3:9-12
9 The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. 10 But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment. 11 Since everything around us is going to be destroyed like this, what holy and godly lives you should live, 12 looking forward to the day of God and hurrying it along. On that day, he will set the heavens on fire, and the elements will melt away in the flames.
So, Peter gives his readers a lesson in apologetics. He tells them that the scoffers will misread the long period between the warning and the occurrence of the second coming judgment. The scoffers will interpret that to mean that God is too slow for his word to matter. But Peter reminds his readers that God’s long wait time is a measure of his grace. He is patient for the sake of this planet he created. He does not want anyone to be destroyed. But he is also a God of justice. He has planned a day of judgment. It will happen. But it will happen unexpectedly. It will come like a thief, who waits patiently until the household is still, asleep in their beds up in the upper chambers of the house. Then, he violently breaks in and takes what he wants. God is not a thief. But the coming of Jesus Christ can be described that way because it will be preceded by a long period of quiet, patient waiting.
What is God waiting for? He is giving us an opportunity to spread the gospel of life only in Christ. Every day he waits is another day for us to get this message out to a world on the brink of destruction! God’s chosen means of the coming destruction will be fire – the lake of fire, which the book of Revelation calls the second death. Peter says that on that day, God will set the sky on fire, and all the elements of this world will melt away in those flames. The only thing that will remain – again, according to John’s Revelation – are those who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb – those whose names are found in his book of life.
Then Peter asks that all important question – a question we ourselves are taking up at this year’s conference. Since this is going to happen, how should we live now? Peter answers the question by suggesting that those who anticipate God to act again in judgment and redemption will live holy, godly lives, looking forward to that day, and hurrying it along.
2 Peter 3:13-15
13 But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness. 14 And so, dear friends, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found living peaceful lives that are pure and blameless in his sight. 15 And remember, the Lord’s patience gives people time to be saved. This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him–
And our reasons for living like this are not merely negative ones. We should live with a holy and righteous fear of sin and a hatred of evil, injustice, and all things wrong with this world and inside us. But we long for God’s coming day of judgment precisely because this evil world as it is now is only temporary. Peter says that we who remember what God did in the past can look beyond that final judgment and look forward to what follows it: a new sky and a new land: a new world filled with God’s righteousness.
So, Christian believers have the opportunity to get a head start on eternity. We do this, not by dying and going to heaven, but by living with heaven’s peace, purity, and blamelessness inside us now. So, even now, before the judgment day comes, there are two forces at work, which are preparing this planet for its next regeneration.
One of those forces is the witness of those who are currently waiting for the return of the world’s rightful king. As we live like believers, our peaceful, pure and blameless lives show this world that it does not matter as much as the next world. Every effort that we can make to demonstrate the difference between us and those who do not have that hope is important. We cannot be like everybody else, because everybody else is going to burn up in hell. They think that we are chicken little. But we must continue to proclaim those words of warning to this generation that largely chooses to ignore us. We must be different, or else this world will never believe that the sky is going to fall.
The other force Peter mentions here is the force of God’s patient love. He said that Paul had mentioned this in a letter to the same group of churches. What did Paul say to them? He might have said something like his testimony to Timothy, that God had mercy on him (Paul) so that Christ Jesus could use him as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others could realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life (1 Timothy 1:6). Or, he might have told them something like he had told the Romans that even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who were made for destruction. He demonstrates his patience in order to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory (Romans 9:22-23). And these are only two options. In the Pauline corpus, the Greek verb μακροθυμεω is found twice, and the noun μακροθυμια is found ten times. Paul’s theology reflected the awareness that God is a patient God, and the fruit of the Holy Spirit manifesting himself in the lives of Christ’s followers is patience.
2 Peter 3:16-18
16 speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction. 17 I am warning you ahead of time, dear friends. Be on guard so that you will not be carried away by the errors of these wicked people and lose your own secure footing. 18 Rather, you must grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. All glory to him, both now and forever! Amen.
Then, Peter does an interesting thing. He actually exegetes Paul here. He explains that some of the people who go around spouting Pauline theology have misunderstood him. I think Peter is referring to those who might be tempted to over-emphasize what Paul taught about God’s sovereignty in election. If a person believes that salvation is nothing more than working out the reality that some people are going to be saved by grace, and others are going to be lost, that person is likely going to rest in his own eternal security. Instead, Peter urges his readers to grow in grace and knowledge of Christ, so that they do not lose their own secure footing. In other words’ God’s grace should make us into people like God: holy, pure, and patient.
For some of us, conditionalism is all about rooting out and exposing Plato’s heretical doctrine of humanity. They see the doctrine of the innate immortality of the human soul as a false doctrine that has done terrible damage to the truth, a result of scripture twisting, and a way that Satan has found to keep people from focusing on Christ, and keep them focusing on themselves. I agree with all that, but to me fighting Plato’s innate immortality doctrine is not the essence of conditionalism
For others of us, conditionalism is all about rethinking hell. It challenges the assumption that God’s ultimate goal for most of the human beings he created is to torture them perpetually, with no hope of relief, and no true end to sin or sinners. I challenge the same teachings, but to me fighting the perpetual hell heresy is not the essence of conditionalism either.
No, I am a conditionalist because I believe in God.
— I believe in the God who promised that his Son would come again and destroy the lost and fully redeem the saved (v4). Traditionalism teaches that even Christ’s second coming will not result in the destruction of evil. Their god is too small to do that. Ours is not. The God who promised to cleanse the universe of evil once and for all – He is the God I believe in.
— I believe in the God whose love is patient, and does not want anyone to be lost (v9).
— But I believe this same God is just, so he has appointed a day of fiery destruction for all those who reject his Son (v12).
For me, conditionalism is at its heart a defence of who God is. He is not a God who is helpless to destroy sinners and cleanse his universe.
I am also a conditionalist because I dare to take the word of God seriously, even if that makes me a heretic in the eyes of some others.
In every generation “truth” is often determined by the powerful majority that is willing to accept it. Anything that does not conform to that “truth” decided by the powerful becomes suspect, and those who dare to adhere to a different view of reality are branded and ostracized, or worse. This generation is no different. Aside from certain settings (like this one) there will be a price to pay for siding with conditionalism. I can tell you stories from my own experience, or that of my students – even my children – who have had to pay that price. Such has always been the case for those who dare proclaim an unappreciated truth.
We will be branded unbiblical. Well, there is a kind of biblical which is the wrong kind. Traditionalism has an arsenal of proof texts, taken out of context, misapplied, or – in some cases – mistranslated which appear to teach that all human souls must live forever apart from grace. Proponents of traditionalism love to pile those texts, one on the other, until they form some kind of wall of defence. But that wall can be scaled. The truth is on our side. It really is.
We provide for the church of Jesus Christ a valuable asset. We are a voice of dissent, speaking out against an unjust system of thought. In the end, our words of dissent will vindicate God. He is being charged with impotence, with wanting to put an end to sin, but not being able. He is not guilty of that charge, any more than he is guilty of planning to torture people forever for his own enjoyment.
It also makes sense for conditionalists to be pro-life. We should stand up for the cause of protecting the innocent unborn from dying as a result of someone else’s choice.
We see all human life as a gift from God. We do not deem this present life as some kind of rehearsal for a more important life in heaven. God created human beings to breathe the earth’s air, and fill the earth’s land, and have dominion over the earth’s fields, skies and seas. No one should be deprived of that life.
We also see every human life as having the potential to be an immortal one. No, we are not immortal now, but the gospel promises that we can be. To accept God’s gospel of grace, you have to hear it. To hear it, you have to live. Abortionists claim to be pro-choice, but they are not. No one should be deprived of that right to choose eternal life.
But the term “pro-life” is often used to protect the lives of some who are far from innocent. I can remember being at a state legislature building in Florida, where I grew up. Some protestors were picketing the building because lawmakers were planning to reinstitute the death penalty for multiple murderers. The protestors waved flags and were shouting “Thou shalt not kill.” They were quoting one of the ten commandments, and doing it out of context. I know this, because the same God who commanded us not to kill each other, commanded properly instituted governments to execute murderers. So, as a conditionalist, I consider myself pro-life, but that does not mean I agree with everything someone else says because they also use the term.
We are quite possibly seeing the last generation or two of the Christendom that we were all born into. Churches and denominations are dying. While faith in Christ lives on, it is quite clear that the church, ministry and theological systems that once held sway in many cultures is on its way out. It is tempting to be nothing but pessimistic about this. But perhaps we conditionalists are not looking at the picture clearly. I think this is our chance to remake Christianity into what it was meant to be.
For too long, the gospel message that most people has heard has been mixed with fairy tales and half-truths. The gospel message the world has heard is not radical enough. It is not counter-culture enough. As long as Christianity continues to present a gospel with a picture of a mythological afterlife for both the saved and the lost, we will continue to reach only those who are satisfied with that story. The vast majority of those in today’s culture who have rejected popular Christianity have done so because they cannot accept those kinds of lies.
We are failing them because we are not showing them that the Bible contains truth that counters both the old myths and the new ones. Yes, turning to Christ means a radical change, and yes, it means rejecting much about our modern worldview. But if we simply cut and paste the worldview of the middle ages, with its images of demons in red pyjamas and forked tails tormenting the souls of the un-dead forever, we have immediately branded our gospel as irrelevant to the world we are trying to reach. Likewise, if we cut and paste the other picture from the middle ages – of a heaven far beyond the blue where disembodied souls of the saved escape at death – we are painting another picture of unreality. We are at once denying the reality of death and contradicting the message of the gospel. Because Jesus did not offer a disembodied place in the clouds as his solution for death. He offered an empty tomb. He offered a resurrection. And as long as we keep telling this world that God wants them in heaven, we are separating ourselves from the biblical message we claim to preach.
The biblical message is that death is not a release, but a prison. The good news is that our Saviour is coming, and he has the keys to that prison. The biblical message is not that death is our friend, but that death is the enemy. The good news is that destroying death is on God’s list of things to do. Granted, it is the last item on his list, but God always accomplishes the things on his “to do” list. The biblical message is not that death is a blessing, or a graduation or a promotion. It is a curse, a consequence of the fall, a direct result of the sin of our ancestors in the garden of Eden. We did not cause this curse. We inherited it. It is present in our DNA. Each of us comes complete with our own self-destruct code. The sequence has started, and there is nothing anyone can say to abort it. The countdown begins with our first breath, and – so far – it always ends the same. Death is a reality, and we are not doing anyone any favours by denying that reality.
What I am suggesting is nothing short of a new Christianity based on the real gospel: the gospel of life only in Christ. I suggest we strip ourselves of the trappings of the old mythological cosmology. There is an even older story. It is the story of a promised new creation. Now, living like a conditionalist means living as if we are going to inherit that new creation. I invite you all to help me do some thinking about what that kind of life entails.