Universalism and the spirit of the age

“I can’t believe a loving God would actually inflict eternal judgement on sinners.”

I heard that remark the other day, the like of which you’ll also have heard frequently in Christian circles, even extending to leading Evangelicals. Somebody responded with a remark about “hellfire preachers,” prompting me to realise that the only “hellfire preachers” most of us have ever encountered are the fictional ones criticised in remarks like that, or manufactured by woke activists to get usually moderate street preachers arrested. A teenage neighbour of mine was actually disciplined by the youth leaders at Spring Harvest once, for telling the non-Christian friend she had brought with her that she couldn’t bear to think that the friend might end up in hell.

Contrast that with the proverbial focus on final judgement in mediaeval times, which is of course nowadays attributed to a cynical attempt by the church to rule hearts by fear. If one reads mediaeval secular literature, though, one might rather conclude that the images of hell’s mouth and pitchforked devils were actually a justified attempt to shake the people out of widespread complacency about sin. After all, don’t we also hold an image of those times as involving widespread random brutality and injustice? Nevertheless, the teaching on eternal judgement was taken, virtually universally, as the doctrine of Christianity, to be accepted by the penitent, rejected by the reprobate … or rationalised as non-urgent by the complacent.

But when, as now, the dire warnings of the Bible (almost entirely New Testament teaching, and primarily on the lips of Jesus himself) are taken to be God’s use of SpyB fear tactics without a basis in reality, then the effect is to encourage us to sin with impunity. The primordial instance of that was, of course, the garden of Eden, where the serpent convinced Adam and Eve that God’s warning was just such a tactical bluff. They found to their, and our, cost, that God does not lie.

The total change in popular attitude, even among Christians, to eternal judgement is best attributed to the spirit of the age, rather than tender-heartedness. For it can easily be shown to be characteristic of our times that we believe actions can be freed from their consequences.

The clearest long-term example of this is the sad story of modern sexuality. The pill freed women from the consequences of pregnancy, and condemned them to emotional abuse by far-more radically liberated men. Then there was always the backstop of abortion, which (everyone has insisted) is free from physical or emotional (or spiritual) consequences. Sexually transmitted disease increased exponentially, but doctors kept quiet about their increasing resistance to antibiotics because that might scare people. Now even the process has led to the abolition of the sexes altogether in mainstream eyes. Those in charge of compulsory sex education still talk about increasing “sexual health,” but it now sounds about as convincing as claims that the NHS is the envy of the world, when UK life-expectancy is the lowest in Europe.

The most up-to-date example, though, of the consequence-free folly is the response to the failures of banks across the world. In 2008, the time of the last major bank failure, I was in the process of retiring, which involved selling our house, my share in a medical practice, and father-in-law’s retirement flat, as well as receiving my pension lump-sum. At the time the Government was guaranteeing savings in each bank to the tune of £50,000, so our very first thought was to spread our temporary cash-glut widely so we didn’t lose it all.

I’ll leave to one side the folly of a banking system that produces such crises, and the way that government cash-guarantees, combined with the tax-payer bail-outs of corrupt institutions “too big to fail,” have impoverished the mass of the population to the point where most have little surplus to save in banks, let alone spend on houses. But the effect of the “cushion” was to prove to the bankers that they could get rich by dodgy practices, stay rich when the inevitable bubble-burst occurred, and then get richer still as poor taxpayers were forced to pour good money after bad.

It is well known by everyone with even the vaguest awareness of economics that the very same problems that led to the 2008 crash have now escalated, largely because of the impunity of the bankers. The failure to change the system (ie “repent”) was the root cause of austerity, the inflationary spiral, the cost of living crisis and economic polarisation even before COVID, Net Zero and NATO’s War tipped the scales to disaster. The last three, incidentally, involve very similar processes of doing evil to get rich without fear of personal consequences, by those with power.

But that this is a societal failure, rather than just the work of the Mafiosi controlling the economy, is shown by the sheer stupidity of, we are told, a majority of investors in Silicon Valley Bank. The state guarantee on accounts in the US is now $250,000, which is no paltry sum. But we’re told that the technocrats and companies making up a majority of SVB’s customers had far more in their accounts than that. So, despite being savvy rich people rather than financially naive workers, and despite knowing that everybody has been expecting the banking bubble to burst sooner or later, these idiots failed to spread their money across different banks, and so richly deserved to lose their cash.

Only they weren’t idiots, because they reckoned correctly that a bigger idiot, in the form of the US government, would bail them out anyway, which of course will eventually increase the poverty of all Americans through inflation, if nothing else. This will speed the inevitable collapse of the whole economy, because like Jesus’s warnings of judgement, the wheels of economics will grind as they always have to their consequences. Because the spirit of the age includes a lemming-like attitude of compliance, we see the same short-sightedness in Europe regarding Credit Suisse.

Meanwhile, though, the only lesson learned by the people is that “the banking system is safe,” so that they are taking all their savings out of smaller banks (thus hastening their demise) and putting them all in a big bank, knowing it’s too big to fail. But in real life even big banks fail (remember Black Rock and RBS after 2008), and the backstop the bankers have now quietly put in place involves bail-ins by savers rather than bail-outs by the taxpayers, who will by then have nothing left to bail with apart from their digital social security dole.

We saw it all happen only 15 years ago, and have been suffering the consequences ever since, though we have somehow convinced ourselves that there is no connection between the cause and the effect. We have no excuse, then, for making light of the warnings of divine, eternal, judgement in Scripture, for there is a wealth of instances of divine, temporal, judgement in this world, which only a particularly foolish kind of people can, by willful blindness, hide from themselves.

“Righteousness exalts a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people” Proverbs 14:34. History is replete with salutary examples of nations that God has reproached.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in History, Politics and sociology, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Universalism and the spirit of the age

  1. shopwindows says:

    Is the threat of nightmares, eternal damnation, necessary for humanity to act morally? Is the threat of penury necessary to counteract sloth? Should adults be expected to shoulder responsibility for their own actions? Are the symbols of forbidden fruit intentionally taunting everyone of us whenever we use an iPhone?

    In a contemporary context despite an occasional short lived scare is property irrefutably the best investment? Is the state rather than individually rational behaviour our saviour? Did governments around the world save us powerless individuals from plague?

    IMO modern man’s trust in the state rather than investment in the fabric of society and selfishness dressed as freedom rather than keen grasping of personal responsibility largely account for our collective moral turpitude.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Whether threats are necessary is one question. But in the case of the biblical narrative it’s a question of history rather than future threat. The theologian Claus Westermann argued that the command to Adam (and secondarily Eve) in Eden was the very basis of genuine relationship with God:

      The freedom of this relationship arises only from the command;
      without the command there would be no freedom.

      It’s actually a profound insight, that I reflect on in my book Generations of Heaven and Earth. The command was broken, and the penalty of death commenced, way back then. In fact, the matter of final judgement was a deferment of penalty, granted to Noah and the whole race in the covenant of Genesis 8. We have been given plenty of time to mull over our personal responsibility and mend the fences with God. From another aspect, the grace of God has had a long time to overcome our stubbornness.

      To maintain the Adamic connection to your post, there seems a parallel between our passing the buck to governments and Adam passing it on to Eve (and so to the serpent). Now, as then, it won’t wash.

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