The third (and supposedly final) exit from a Biblical paradox is theological.
Here at last is where most find their exit from the contradictory teachings of eternal hell and universal restoration. The problem is, there are two exits. The traditionalists find one, the universalists find the other. Then they each go back to re-exegete the critical passages, reinterpreting them in light of their preferred exit - their theological grounding. Suddenly one set of passages becomes much clearer than the other. And, one way or another, the other set is (even if with some difficulty) re-explained in light of some other overriding theological precept.
So what theological issues are really in contention here? There are several I think, but the overriding one is the nature of God’s love (or mercy) and God’s righteousness (or justice). How will these two (seemingly conflicting) attributes of God ultimately influence what God will actually do with all us sinners - believers and unbelievers? And then secondarily (or perhaps primarily) what does Christ’s death and resurrection have to do with it all?
Now we find ourselves at the very soul of Christianity. And this explains why the question of universal restoration pushes people’s buttons and stirs the emotions to the boiling point. It is why some have to use pseudonyms when they write about it.
There are many who believe that Christianity has no meaning without an eternal hell. To them, a temporary hell - regardless of how severe - is no hell at all. Being saved from such a hell depreciates Christ’s atonement, compromises God’s justice and makes being a Christian meaningless. What’s the point, after all, if everyone will be saved in the end? Why not eat, drink and be merry and believe whatever you want? Nothing matters anyway.
On the other hand, universalist theology believes that Christianity has no meaning with an eternal hell. An eternal hell represents the ultimate failure of God and a permanent victory for sin, death and Satan. It makes man’s will sovereign over God’s will, compromises God’s power, love and mercy, and ultimately turns Christianity into a self-centered, exclusive, highly judgmental religion based on fear. It is, in the end, no different from any other religion - where we are ultimately responsible for saving ourselves and others.
To those of us Lutherans who take a high view of Scripture, the question becomes - which of these two theological exits is the most consistent with the overarching message of Scripture?
When Law and Gospel collide, what is trump? Does love prevail or does it fail? When God appears to be defeated by man's rebellion, is he really?
Does Scripture portray God’s wrath and judgment as disciplinary and redemptive? Or is it portrayed as purely punitive - something God is required to do because of his righteous nature?
What are we to make of Jesus’ teachings to forgive seventy times seven and love our enemies? Does God ask this of us without requiring it of himself?
Are the chosen of God (Israel and the church) portrayed as the “frozen chosen” or are they the first-fruits, the part that represents the whole, the visible pledge of God’s promise to the whole world?
Does the Bible ever portray God’s attributes of mercy and righteousness to be in conflict, so that sometimes one wins out over the other? Or are they essentially the same, always in harmony - so that God’s mercy is righteous, and God’s righteousness is merciful? And if that is so, is it possible to reconcile this nature of God with the concept of an eternal hell?
Theologically, it seems to me that a Lutheran can believe in a universal restoration without being in conflict with any other of Dr. Luther’s teachings. In fact, it seems to me that all Lutheran doctrines fall much more neatly into place with universal restoration than without it. So (to me) it is quite remarkable that there is not much more interest, study and discussion of it within Lutheranism.
That brings me to my final point - Luther’s mysterious fourth exit from a Biblical paradox.