Can this really be the gospel of “superabundant grace”?

Can this really be the gospel of “superabundant grace”?

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But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous. God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

• Romans 5:15-21, New Living Translation

• • •

In a recent sermon by Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist in Dallas, he said the following:

Listen to me. When you die, you don’t cease to exist. Your spirit is going to live forever. Everybody’s spirit lives forever. It doesn’t matter what you believe. Jew, atheist, Muslim, Catholic, Baptist. Everybody’s going to live forever.

Some are going to live forever in heaven, with God. Others, the majority of people, will be in hell, separated from God. But we live on, after our bodies fall asleep. That’s what the Bible says.

This post is not a knock on Pastor Jeffress in particular. What he said represents mainstream Christian evangelical and fundamentalist teaching. But when I read those words, I gasped, and the thought came immediately to my mind: “If this is true, then the gospel of Jesus is not good news.”

Here’s the line over which I stumbled: “Some are going to live forever in heaven, with God. Others, the majority of people, will be in hell, separated from God.”

The majority of people.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Can it really be that most people who’ve ever lived will be condemned to hell? That is staggering.

What makes it even more astounding to me is that the preacher said it as a passing phrase on the way to making his main points. As though this is just understood, axiomatic, the clear expectation of anyone who reads the plain teaching of the Bible. A few of us happy with God in heaven, the vast majority in hell.

And what will that place be like? Jeffress describes hell in another message as “a place of eternal physical torment, of excruciating physical torment.”  He puts it this way: “Ladies and gentlemen, the awful truth about hell is this: when you have spent ten billion, trillion years in that excruciating pain, you will not have lessened by one second the time you have left to spend there.” He believes the flames of the fires of hell are literal, but warns us that if the Bible is using figurative language it must actually be even more terrible, because the only comparison Jesus could make to it was of human beings being burned in fire forever and ever.

If that’s what you believe hell is, how can you make a passing remark in a sermon saying that the majority of people in this world are going to go there? Wouldn’t that stick in your throat, make you choke up, utterly devastate you and keep you from saying anything else?

How can that thought not drop you dead in your tracks? How can such an image not force you to question everything you think you know about God? How can the prospect not send you running back to the Bible to scour its pages until you’ve ripped them and torn them to shreds in a desperate effort to find some other way of understanding your “gospel”?

That is not good news, and it stupefies me to think it would be to anyone else.

I also don’t think it matches the vision of “superabounding” grace Paul sets forth in Romans 5 (see above). I can’t tell you how it all works out, but the apostle’s unambiguous point is this: whatever sin has wrought, grace accomplishes much more. Whatever terrible consequences Adam brought upon us are overwhelmed by the results of Jesus’ gracious actions.

“Even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness,” Paul exclaims. Or, as the older versions put it, “much more.” That’s what God’s grace in Jesus does — much more.

The scriptures envision that this triumph of grace will culminate in a new creation, populated by vast multitudes no person can count (Rev. 7:9). This has been the anticipation of the faithful ever since God promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand upon the seashore.

It greatly diminishes the grace of God and the great victory of our Lord Jesus Christ to argue the opposite: that only a remnant will be with God while the majority of humans are lost to him. How can anyone call this victory? How can that offer any hope worth having? It is not good news.

Even John Calvin, infamous for his strict doctrine of predestination, sees Paul’s logic here, saying that the grace of Christ “belongs to a greater number than the condemnation contracted by the first man, for if the fall of Adam had the effect of producing the ruin of many, the grace of God is much more efficacious in benefiting many, since it is granted that Christ is much more powerful to save than Adam was to destroy.”

A later Reformed scholar, C.H. Hodge agreed: “the number of the saved shall doubtless greatly exceed the number of the lost,” he wrote. Hodge suggested we might grasp the proportion by comparing the general population with the much smaller number who are imprisoned.

I suggest, along with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Richard John Neuhaus, that we might even hope (without asserting as doctrine or certainty) that in the end, perhaps all people will be saved. These things we can never know for certain. But if I’m going to place my bets, I will go with the just grace and mercy of God every time.

Ultimately, I think the problem with the standard evangelical/fundamentalist view represented by Jeffress and others is the soterian nature of the gospel they proclaim. As we have argued often, it is a revivalistic gospel for individuals, grounded most deeply in modern notions of individual choice and autonomy rather than in the gracious Kingdom vision of the Bible, which tells of the God who brings all creation under the authority of King Jesus (Eph. 1:10).

Too often we think of hope in too individualistic a manner as merely our personal salvation. But hope essentially bears on the great actions of God concerning the whole of creation. It bears on the destiny of all mankind. It is the salvation of the world that we await. In reality hope bears on the salvation of all men—and it is only in the measure that I am immersed in them that it bears on me.

• Cardinal Jean Daniélou
quoted in Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved

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