As of late I have been pondering a couple of questions that I thought I had safely stacked away on the shelf of “mysteries I don’t understand but choose to believe in”. If you are a bit like me then you also consider and discern certain believes and doctrines to the point where we choose to accept them or reject them according to our consciousness, then we kind of “lay them to rest”. In the current position I find myself on this journey called life I find myself thinking a lot about the nature of freedom. I am starting to accept that there are a couple of more layers concerning freedom that I chose to ignore before because I could glimpse the uncomfortable consequences of what investigating it further would bring.
In the post-modern, western paradigm that I have grown up in we tend to define freedom as the opportunity and possibility to do whatever we want, whenever we want, as long as it does not infringe on someone else freedom. We have freedom of speech and expression. We enjoy freedom of thought, religion and conscience. The democratic idea is built upon the notion that free citizens will contribute their vote (will) to form the governing/stewarding body for the general benefit of the citizens. In many countries in the West we have enjoyed these freedoms to the point where we believe that freedom is the same as no borders, no limits and no restrictions. The individualistic “thought of rights” have pushed us to the brink of taking our freedom of choice for granted. Let me suggest that as a result of this we witness all kinds of developments in society where man tries to “bend” the natural order of creation into what he wants and believes. When I was younger I used to hold a notion of freedom very close to this but as of late, something in me has changed. I’ve come to accept what I knew deep down all along, we are not free in the ultimate sense of that word. We use to be, we are not any longer. We will always strive to be free because we know; deep down, this is our purpose.
Now, if we take a couple of steps back from the narrative of “progress” and humble ourselves, if turn to Scriptures and let ourselves be read by Scriptures rather than the reverse, we will see that the freedom we enjoy today is far from what it was before the fall. If we allow ourselves to be guided by the established patterns in the universe we soon realize that this notion of freedom being the same as “unlimited” freedom just isn’t true. Truth is that we are created free, in the image of God, but that our freedom is limited because we are not God. Even if we wanted to we can’t create something out of nothing. Hey, we would have a really hard time just altering the course of the earth around the sun. If I put all my will power and choice into the process of becoming Superman, I would not succeed. I do not have the power to “will” myself into existence. We are free to explore and steward the world but we are not free to create it or even permanently destroy anything in it. Hence it might be possible to draw the conclusion that our freedom is limited by the borders that God has set up for our existence. He wills us into existence and He takes us out of it (even though this seems highly unlikely since He loves us. Why would He have created us in the first place just to eradicate us?). In our hubris after the fall we have come to believe that we are the “owners/masters” of our lives and that we are in control of these borders. We have come to believe that we have the power to destroy the world by either nuclear disaster or pollution (or both) but this is not so. God is in charge of the final destiny of the world. In Exodus (and many more places in Scriptures) we read, “All the earth is Mine.” It is God Who is in ultimate control. As it is only He that has all knowledge it is only He that enjoys ultimate freedom (and even He is bound by Himself). It is He that is the Author of our ability and faculties of freedom and choice, the most important choice being, us trusting or rejecting God for our healing.
Why is our understanding of the nature freedom so important? Why is it important to designate between Gods unrestricted freedom and our limited freedom? It is important because since freedom is an attribute of a loving God, in Who’s image we are created our understanding of this attribute will shape the core of our person. It is important because this is to state the truth of our circumstance and the Truth will set us free.
For the longest time I believed that unless I am totally free (unrestricted freedom) I can’t truly love. I still believe this to be true but this statement is framed in the wrong way. It is not about if love requires freedom to be true love, it does. It is about us accepting that we are not the Masters of our lives so that we may open the door of our hearts to the one Who is. I thought that I could truly love because I was truly free. Truth is that we are the fruit of Gods true love and freedom and it is because of this that we can love each other in freedom even though this love in freedom is not perfected like God’s. We are not the authors or sustainers of true love and freedom and until we realize this we will not be able to join and enjoy Him Who is. It is not about us first; it is about Him first and then us becoming a member of His body. (Rom 5:18, 8:19-20, 11:32)
A proper understanding of limited and ultimate freedom also opens the door to the eventual reconciliation of all people to God. How you might wonder? One of the greatest obstacles for the idea of universal reconciliation to God the Father through Jesus is the notion that God will never violate our freedom of choice. If He does, well then we are just robots in some super advanced board game that God has created for His own amusement and we don’t have the choice to reject Him. Since we can’t reject Him, there is no true choice or freedom hence He can’t be a God of love. On one hand we know that God is love (and Love never fails). On the other hand we know we are free and so we wonder if the triumph of love is inevitable, what room is there for free will? And on in circles it goes. What if our salvation is more based on God choosing us in His unlimited freedom rather than us choosing Him with our limited freedom? “If we are faithless, He remains faithful because He can not deny Himself. (2 Tim: 2 – 13) The argument is framed in the wrong way. It is not freedom or love, it is freedom in love and that freedom can only be found when we realize that we are bound to God by His love for us, He is Love. We have an eternally valid connection with Him because He created us in Love.
I am somewhat confounded by people who say: “If God violates our freedom He can’t be a God of love.” (If a father puts his son in house arrest to protect him, he cannot love His son…) The same people also often proclaims that “This same God of love will condemn many people to eternal damnation and conscious torment.” (If the son of the father refuses to say yes to his father the father will eternally punish him).
Some questions that I have thought about this last year are: How can a God of love let His children suffer eternal damnation and torture? How can a just and loving God allow for any presence of evil to last forever and ever, even if it is restrained in hell? How is God’s victory complete if evil is allowed to remain? Why does a loving God require a permanent punishment for temporary violations against His will? This is not just. This does not make any sense. These are questions many churches and pastors dare not touch because the current hermeneutic and paradigms of many denominations does not provide the tools to answer these questions. How is this good news for all people? How is this gospel? People in the West are leaving the church in droves because of the Church failing to answer these questions and I can’t really blame them. If this is the case then the Gospel is not good news, it is bad news for most people.
If God has a plan for reconciling everything to Himself, to the same good state that was before the fall, as Scriptures seem to imply in several places: (Psalm 86:9, Isaiah 49:6, 54:8 – 10, 16, Matt 18:13, Acts 3:20 – 21, 1 Cor 15 :20 – 29, Eph 1:10 – 11, 1 Tim 4:10, Philippians 2:9 – 11, Col 1:19 – 20, Rev 21:4 – 5 and many more) how does that work without Him violating the freedom He has given to us? This question can only be answered if we understand our freedom as limited. Our limited freedom was never meant to decide the eternal destiny of our person or anything/anyone else. It is only God Who can decide what our eternal destiny and purpose is. Our limited freedom was only meant to acknowledge what (Who) truly Is, to come in under the wings of a loving Father. If we follow the patterns in Scriptures it seems like Gods children are always given a second, or a third or a forth chance to turn to Him. There is always a remnant left, God does not desire to eternally destroy any one of us, He desires to eternally destroy sin. He want’s to eternally restore us into His likeness by transforming the work of death and sin in our person into new life. God’s justice can only be satisfied by the restoration of all things, not the eradication of the things He created. God eradicates sin by restoring its enablers (all of us) from a fallen state, not by punishing us forever and ever but by holy transformation. He has already given a second chance once. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden God said that they would die and died they did, but not as we usually understand death. God had prepared another way. He is in control, motivated by His great love for His children. He did it again with Noah, saving mankind from permanent damnation and eradication. He did it time and time again with the Israelites. If we reject God in this life, just like Adam and Eve, the people in the days of Noah or the Israelites, what makes you think that He would not give us at least the same opportunity as they got to repent and turn towards Him? Jesus even went down to preach to the captives in hell so that they would repent. At least, what makes us so sure and convinced about “certain” peoples eternal damnation? Could it be that the protestant hermeneutic have been shaped by a desire to distinguish itself from the Roman Catholic doctrines of indulgences and purgatory to the degree of that we now read Scriptures to confirm a doctrine (the assurance of eternal damnation for some people) that is not really there? Personally I believe that the doctrine of the assurance of eternal damnation and torment in hell is just a “hang over” response to the already flawed doctrine of indulgences combined with a heavy handed interpretation of St Augustine. I mean, if we can’t “buy ourselves or our relatives out of hell, well then what alternative is there other than that they have to stay there forever? It’s a flawed belief built upon political and monetary motivated propaganda (it was expensive to build the St Peter basilica in Rome). So, once in hell always in hell, you had your chance in this life.
If we take the time to study the passages in Scriptures in original languages and in literal translations (OSB, Young’s, Strong’s) that seem to imply eternal damnation (Mark 9:43, 47 – 48, Matt 25:41, Luke 16:26), we will discover that Gods love is much greater than what some other translations might suggest. The word “aionios” (in say Matt 25:41) have often been translated into “eternal” or “everlasting” but actually is more properly translated into “an age lasting” or “an age after an age”. According to this word, the time for God’s punishment is limited, a limited chastisement for offenses done in limited freedom. If our freedom of choice were limited and therefor also our sin, it would seem more just if a potential remedial punishment also is limited. Even earthly fathers know the punishment for a crime should not go beyond the severity of the offense unless it must do so for redemptive purposes. Few people take the time to do the work of proper translation and tracing the consequences of their beliefs like this, I wonder why? Maybe it is because we realize what implications this would have. We would have to focus on peoples potential rather than their sin. We would have to behave in a Christian Way, letting God be the judge. We would have to help people for their benefit not ours. We would have to change our paradigm into a paradigm of love. Personally I believe that Scriptures have more evidence pointing to everyone eventually being reconciled to God than evidence that even one person will be eternally damned and tormented in hell. I can’t know for sure but the evidence seem to point to a more positive outlook for many more people and that is good news! Within the history of the Church there are examples of people believing in universal reconciliation, St Gregory of Nyssa being the most prominent one. However the church has never made it an official doctrine. Maybe that is because the how, when and where God saves His people should not be defined by fallen humans (sine we are the objects of this very salvation, how can we hope to know the exact process of it), or it could also be that the political powers in the church realized that they wanted to decide who’s in and who’s out in the Kingdom of God.
Is limited freedom, freedom? Yes, because limited freedom makes us aware of our dependence on God and to be dependent on Him is to be free in the ultimate sense, paradoxical as it sounds… Will God violate our choice and enforce His will? No. Can God change or prolong the context in where we make our choices until His desire (everyone’s salvation) is fulfilled? Yes. If He wants to, and I choose to believe in a loving Father that want’s to. Where does that leave us? Is it divine manipulation or is it perfect love. Is it manipulation if a father leaves the door to his house open for eternity or is it love? As fallen beings we must refrain from making it an either or question. If we make one of the two a “required belief” we risk doing the very thing we want to avoid (passing judgment on everyone who does not believe exactly like I do). A true personal conviction in the reconciliation of all does not have to force that belief on any other person because it trust’s that God will eventually take care of that person. The belief in the reconciliation of all can only be shared by the testimony of one’s life, universal reconciliation can’t be defined by us because God alone defines salvation. We can’t judge it because it trusts that God will do that. It cannot push itself into the doctrines of the Church because when it does, it looses its mysterious power, and it becomes another legislation that might tempt people to control or judge others. We are left with a question. Are we being most true to our God given identity by being concerned with who is “in” or “out” or are we being most true by believing that God loves everyone with an everlasting love and act upon that belief? The Truth will set us free.