First things first, I guess. I dislike being told to just have faith. In effect, I'm pretty much being told to suspend my reason. That is something I simply cannot do. I respect and understand that there may be levels and planes of knowledge beyond what can be observed and tested, but I do require some degree of certainty. Faith can be used to justify anything, no matter how bizarre, absurd, or blatantly nonsensical. I could claim that I have faith in invisible pink elephants that live in my ear canal and they are the reason why I know Pi to 353 decimal places ("an elephant never forgets"), and you can't see them nor detect them on x-ray but I fervently believe they are there. However, in contrast, there is the faith that I was born in Wellington to the people I call my parents; I have my birth certificate and the testimony of a number of witnesses who I consider reliable. It is that sort of evidence that I require. I dislike the attitude that faith functions outside of evidence. I am quite ready to accept faith if I see the evidence that my faith is well-placed; I am unwilling to have faith if the evidence is lacking. Before you tell me to just believe, open my heart, and trust in God, first show me the evidence that provides me with a reasonable basis to consider such action preferable to all other options.
Now, at this stage, I think I will stay within Christianity, albeit on a "liberal", somewhat unorthodox edge (though not yet so unorthodox that I reject orthodox tenets of faith such as the Nicene Creed, I think). Those of you who have known me well may be surprised or shocked by some of the revelations below and in my next entry regarding my religious opinions. Let me assure you that I have been given this very deep contemplation, and my current positions are by no means definite but reveal the options I currently consider to be the most viable and reasonable. And before anyone tells me that I am relying on human reason and logic rather than God's, of course I am. Plug me into God and I'll use his reason; for now, I will rely on the best I have, my own brain. I may not be perfect, but if you believe humans were made in the image of God, then our capacities of reason and logic are in his image and should be employed to their fullest extent.
I'll state it up front: I am a universalist. This means that I believe all will ultimately go to Heaven; there is no eternal torment. I do not wish to provide any kind of extensive Biblical explanation of this concept as there are plenty of websites online that do just that; rather, I would like to outline the pattern of thought that led me to this belief. I would first like to provide a brief explanation of theories regarding the afterlife: eternal damnation, annihilationism, and universalism. Eternal damnation is probably the most well-known theory and quite self-explanatory: those who are saved through Christ will go to Heaven and those who are not will be tormented for all eternity in Hell (or suffer some other kind of eternal punishment such as separation from God). Annihilationism states that those who are saved through Christ will go to Heaven, while those who are saved will, after the final Judgement, be thoroughly removed from existence (i.e. annihilated); schools of thought differ over whether the annihilation will be preceded by finite judgement in Hell, meted out according to the person's wrongdoings, or if the unsaved person will simply cease to exist after Judgement. Universalism stands in stark contrast to these two theories: Christ's sacrifice was sufficient for all and provides a means of reconciliation between God and humankind, and therefore all shall be received in Heaven. Some characterise this doctrine as meaning all go straight to Heaven, but that is not what I believe; there will be punishment for wrongdoing, but all will ultimately enter Heaven. In other words, it is more like a Heaven-and-Purgatory system rather than Heaven-and-Hell.
So what led me to universalism? I simply find eternal damnation and, to a lesser extent, annihilationism inconsistent and irreconcilable with the idea of a just, loving, almighty God. The idea of souls being tormented forever and ever is not justice, it is brutal, bloodthirsty, and sadistic. If we are to understand God as just, then it logically follows that any punishment he gives for wrongdoing will be in proportion to the wrongdoing. As we are finite, limited humans, we are only capable of committing finite, limited crimes and transgressions, and thus punishment must be finite and limited. Eternal torment is an infinite answer to a finite problem and clearly out of proportion; annihilation may be a little less offensive to the senses, but is also an infinite solution - it may not last forever, but it is nonetheless an infinite punishment in that the wrongdoer ceases to exist in a form of divine capital punishment. In both cases, justice is not performed. This is why I believe punishment must be finite and limited, and ultimately result in all souls reaching Heaven. These souls may be completely unworthy and undeserving of Heaven, but God is not bloodthirsty and sadistic but merciful and full of grace. We read in the Bible that as all died through Adam, all are saved through Christ, and that God's desire is to draw all people to him; as God's desire is God's will, and as God is almighty, God's will is always realised, thus his desire to draw people to him cannot be opposed or thwarted.
Furthermore, Christians understand God as a Father, though more to the point, God should be understood as a parent as the Bible clearly reveals strong "motherly" qualities as well as "fatherly" ones. Now, how does a parent treat their child when their child does wrong? They seek to administer a punishment in proportion to the wrongdoing, but all punishment is constructive, not destructive; it is to teach the child not to do the wrongdoing again and to encourage the growth of the child into a better, more mature person. The parent may send their child to their room without dessert, but the parent does not leave the child in their room forever! The parent seeks to use punishment as a tool to nurture and teach rather than to harm and destroy as eternal damnation and annihilationism present God's punishment. Only universalism, I feel, adequately reflects God's parently qualities. Furthermore, in terms of general society, law is enforced and criminals punished not for the sake of destruction, but for rehabilitation; we seek to reform a person into a functioning member of society. In the same way, I believe God's punishment is not to destroy, but to rehabilitate wrongdoers and transgressers into functioning members of Heaven. And finally, regarding Heaven, the Bible tells us there will be no sorrow and no pain in Heaven. Now, be honest; if your parents or children were to burn for all eternity, or were permanently annihilated from existence, would you not feel sorrow and pain over this? All explanations to justify "no sorrow or pain" under eternal damnation or annihilation models have been so convoluted and extra-Biblical that I simply cannot accept them. I do not have such qualms with universalism.
Yikes, I only intended to write a paragraph on universalism, and look where I got! I probably haven't done too much of a spectacular job either as I have been alternating between writing this and writing an essay on the Reformation's impact upon European and world politics, but I'm open to questions.