The second exit from a Biblical contradiction is hermeneutical - the art of interpretation.
Here, if we are good Lutherans, we lean not on our own understanding (or tradition), but we “let Scripture interpret Scripture.” And anyone can do this, since we believe in the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture. Thus hermeneutics in not some magic art performed by professionals. It centers on the process of letting the clearer passages of Scripture shed light on those that are less clear.
How this plays out in actual practice, of course, is not so simple. Lots of things get in the way, not the least of which is our own preconceived ideas (or the ideas of others whom we respect). So the paradox is this. Although Scripture is clear, there is no guarantee that it will be clear to me.
This in itself is an odd doctrine, and one which tends to drive me just a little crazy. It can also stop me from reading the Bible entirely, which is unfortunate. Nevertheless, I have found that - when confronted with a Biblical paradox - examining the Scriptures which create the paradox has always been a profitable exercise.
In the case of the universalist and never-ending punishment views of God’s judgment, the critical issue is not the reality or nature of a literal hell, the wrath of God, the seriousness of sin, the role of faith in salvation, salvation through Christ alone, or any such matters. It is a very narrow question. Is God’s judgment on the lost the final word? Yes or No?
There are some passages that seem to say yes, others say no. But which are actually the the clearer passages? Which ones are so clear that they are very difficult (impossible?) to “interpret away” or ignore?
Because this is a blog and not an essay (although I fear it could turn into one), I’ll just select ten passages at random that seem to speak to this question - five on one side, five on the other. There are obviously many more.
Five “Eternal Punishment” Passages
1.) Matthew 25:31-46, (Jesus foretells His return and the Day of Judgment) especially the words “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels’ “ and also “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
2.) Luke 16:19-31, (Jesus parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus) especially the words “Between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.”
3.) II Thessalonians 1:6-10, especially the words “these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”
4.) Mark 9:43-48, especially the words “unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”
5.) Revelations 20:10-15, especially the words “and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
Five “Universal Restoration” Passages
1.) Lamentations 3:22-23, 31-33, especially the words “His compassions never fail” and “Men are not cast off by the Lord forever.”
2.) I Corinthians 15:12-28 especially the words “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.” and also, “When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, that God may be all in all.”
3.) Matthew 16:15-19 especially the words “upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”
4.) I Peter 3:18-4-6 especially the words “For Christ also died for sins once for all” and “He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient” and “the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.”
5.) Phillipians 2:8-11 especially the words “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ I Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
So which of these sets of passages is the clearer?
Should the universalist passages be used to shed light on the supposed never-endedness of God’s wrath? Or should the eternal punishment passages be used to shed light on the supposed never-endedness of God’s mercy?
The “orthodox” view has treated the eternal punishment passages so crystal clear that it required all the universalist passages to be interpreted away.
The question for the inquiring Lutheran is this, “Are not the universalist passages just as clear?” If they are, then we are still mired in a Biblical contradiction.
Hermeneutics doesn’t seem to help us. (Or I should say, it doesn't seem to help me.)
Where’s the next exit?