I couldn’t be more pleased about this month’s blog post, brought to us by one of NazToo’s many resident theologians, Thomas Jay Oord. Tom is also a philosopher and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies, as well as a best-selling and award-winning author, having written or edited more than twenty-five books. A twelve-time Faculty Award winning professor, Oord teaches at institutions around the globe. He is the director of the Center for Open and Relational Theology. Oord is known for his contributions to research on love, open and relational theology, science and religion, and the implications of freedom and relationships for transformation.
“The finally impenitent are hopelessly and eternally lost.”
The Manual of the Church of the Nazarene includes these ominous words. The phrase “the finally impenitent” precedes the denomination, however. And other Christian groups currently include these words in their belief statements.
“Impenitent” refers to those who do not repent from sin to embrace God’s ways of love. “Hopeless and eternally lost” can be interpreted variously. Many consider the phrase a reference to eternal conscious torment in hell. But being “lost” can mean other things, and biblical writers use the word in various ways.
I’ve been thinking about the word “finally.” How and when are the impenitent “finally” unrepentant?
I suspect most people think “finally” comes at a person’s death. But this raises many questions.
Do those who have near-death experiences have more than one “finally?” Are those pronounced dead but are later revived spared of “finally?”
Might “finally” come before our bodies die? Can one become finally impenitent at age 5? 12? 25? 55? 99?
Do we get another chance in the afterlife? Is purgatory the process of coming to a “finally impenitent” moment?
Does God Give Up?
Even more important is this question: Would an everlastingly loving God decide some people are “finally impenitent?”
Does God say, “Well, I’ve given her 44,837 chances to repent? This next one is the final chance?”
Does God say, “He’s done so many unrighteous acts that I will not resurrect him?” Or “I’ll resurrect her but then annihilate after judging her?”
I have come to believe the God who “gives up” on anyone cannot be a God of steadfast love. This God does not always forgive. This God does not always turn the other cheek.
A God who annihilates or sends some to eternal conscious torment is not a God of perfect love.
The phrase “finally impenitent are hopelessly and eternally lost” does not rule out universalism or the ultimate redemption of all things.
“Universalism” comes in many forms. Most think of it in terms of a sovereign God accepting all creatures (and all creation?) into eternal bliss/ heaven. This accepting God annihilates no one and sends no one to hell. No matter what we’ve done, the universalist view says God forgives, and we enjoy everlasting life beyond bodily death.
(For an accessible defense of universalism, see Jesus Undefeated, by Keith Giles. For a much less accessible case for universalism, see That All Shall Be Saved, by David Bently Hart. For a strong biblical appraisal, see Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, by Brad Jersak.)
The usual views of universalism have major problems.
First, they ignore the freedom of those who do not want to be with God for eternity. The common view of universalism says, “You may want something else, but you have to embrace the ways of heaven and love… even if you don’t want to.”
Second, if God has the power to force some into eternal bliss against their will, this God would have the power to prevent evil. The God who can control later has the power to control now and thereby prevent the genuine evil we experience. And yet we endure genuine evil.
Third, if eternal life in heaven is inevitable for all – no matter what we do – how does what we do matter? Our lives and choices have no ultimate significance if God will rescue us all despite ourselves.
Fourth, what real incentive might we have for avoiding evil, fighting corruption, fighting climate change, etc. if none of these efforts ultimately matter? If God sends everyone to eternal bliss, what’s the point of self-sacrifice in the present?
A Better Way
I think there’s a better way to interpret “the finally impenitent will be hopelessly and eternally lost.”
This better way says God never gives up calling us to love. God never gives up while we live in these bodies. And God never gives up in the afterlife. God’s steadfast love endures forever!
It also says, therefore, that God does not annihilate or send anyone to hell. God never acts to kill or torment.
This better way also says God doesn’t force anyone into a relationship of loving bliss. God always calls, empowers, and inspires us to love. But we can resist, refuse, or not cooperate. And God won’t – in fact, can’t – force us to accept and express love.
Natural negative consequences come from saying no to love. Those natural negative consequences aren’t divinely imposed, as if God spanks us from time to time. Instead, natural negative consequences are simply the destruction that comes from failing to cooperate with God’s life-giving love.
Relentless Love Eschatology
I call the better way I’ve briefly laid out, “Relentless Love Eschatology.” I’ve explained it in various academic presentations. Find an accessible presentation of it in the final chapter of my book God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils (SacraSage 2019).
Relentless Love Eschatology says God steadfastly loves now and after we die. God’s love always empowers and calls us to respond in love. God literally loves everyone and everything forever!
Those who cooperate with God enjoy the abundant life that loving God, others, and self provides. Those who don’t cooperate experience the natural negative consequences of saying no to love.
Our mode of existence in the afterlife will differ from our existence now. The Bible and theologians offer diverse speculations about the nature of this existence. But they agree that our future state of existence will not endure the evils, death and destruction that affect our present bodies.
Will Anyone Be “Finally Impenitent?”
Relentless Love Eschatology says God never forces anyone to salvation. So theoretically at least, some may never repent. And God won’t force them.
This isn’t classic universalism.
Because God never gives up on anyone, however, it’s also possible everyone will eventually repent. Resisting may be possible, but God’s relentless love may finally persuade all to embrace love. We have hope but not a guarantee all will be saved.
Is it likely everyone and every choosing creature — the whole world — will eventually cooperate with God? Or should we assume at least one chooser — if not more — will be finally impenitent?
John Wesley seemed to think the whole world would repent. I close with Wesley’s words:
“In the same manner as God has converted so many to himself, without destroying their liberty, he can undoubtedly convert whole natures or the whole world. And it is as easy for him to convert a whole as one individual soul.” (General Spread of the Gospel)