Dr. Larry Chapp and Universalism – Part One

I find myself in the strange place of at the same time having considerable distaste for the Roman Catholic Church while admiring a number of their very public speakers.  In the forefront of my admiration is Dr. Larry Chapp.  Being a writer myself, I am deeply appreciative of Dr. Chapp as a man who is both a wordsmith of a high degree as well as a destroyer of verbal buffoonery.  Dr. Chapp excels at both with legendary use of the English language.

In a recent post on the Internet, Dr. Chapp expresses his standing on Apokatastasis (Universal Reconciliation of all things) as being “a creative tension” between the eternal hell of torment and universal salvation precisely because, as he sees it, the Bible clearly teaches them both.  In reading his post, I can sense a certain frustration because an answer is not readily or clearly available.  To try to hold to both sides of utterly opposed arguments is an exercise in frustration.  It is like my friends who are both Roman Catholic and Orthodox and put me in an ambivalent position because I am a Byzantine Catholic – which is to say, from their point of view, neither particularly Catholic nor particularly Orthodox.  I have endured many uncomfortable nights trying to sort this out.  A few good shots of Jim Beam might have helped my mental excursus and lessened my discomfort, except that having cirrhosis of the liver, such imbibing is off the table.

I do believe, however, that I have an answer for Dr. Chapp’s quandary regarding the Sacred Scriptures appearing to teach conflicting ideas. The problem lies not in the scriptures themselves, but rather in human interpretation – or perhaps I should say, misinterpretation – of them.

A dedicated hellist, who at one time rented a room in our house and who, upon finding out, much to her horror, that I actually believe that God truly is love and that love would never torture human beings without end, wrote me a forty page declaration of why hell is both real and eternal. It was quite a piece of work, including my feeling a sense of reproach that I could actually believe something so heretical. In preparing my response to her, I wound up writing a small book of Universalist apologia.  This work required a considerable amount of research in order that I factually prove my points in order to not sound as one who dallies about in theological tinfoil hats. During my digging into the Bible, certain parts of the salvific puzzle came together for me, along with an overview of the scriptures which stands in stark contrast to the normal overview of scripture.

The problem Dr. Chapp and others have trying to reconcile the damnation passages with the universalist passages is that they have failed to see that there are two salvations being spoken of.  One event from which Christ urged His listeners to avoid is found laid out in Matthew 23 – 25.  It is the coming horrendous judgment which will fall upon national Israel for the perfidy of killing their Messiah/King.  My understanding of Christ’s ministry is found in Matthew 15:24: 

“But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Jesus is sent to one place, one people, with one mission.  He goes to Israel to offer the Kingdom.  He is the offered and long-awaited for Messiah of the prophets. The promise is given to national Israel alone, and in this context He speaks.

Matthew begins with the genealogy of the Messiah.  Such a list would make no sense to anyone hearing it in the first century but a Jew.  The Gospel of Matthew has been long identified as the “Jewish Gospel.” In the opening chapters, we see Jewish prophecies being fulfilled. We see the announcement of the Messiah by John the Baptizer.  We find Christ preaching “the gospel of the kingdom,”  and inviting people into it.  The famous Sermon on the Mount is directed to His Jewish listeners, with moral application to the whole world by extension. [1]

From the Sermon on the Mount, Christ goes out into the world to show His power and authority over sickness and death. This is when the cookies begin to hit the fan. The religious leaders find in Him a threat and it is not long into Matthew’s Gospel that we find them engaging Christ in their hatred.  He is not welcome by them, and the problem with this is that those who were plotting to put Him to death were the covenant heads over Israel.  As priests, they acted in behalf of the nation, especially the high priest.

In Matthew 23, Christ begins to prophesy what is going to happen. The die is now cast and Christ speaks in that reference.  In Matthew 23,  He tells those listening that the Pharisees are a “den of vipers” and “whitewashed sepulchers.”  Within this and the chapters that follow are dreadful mistranslations of the Greek which have caused Dr. Chapp and others to misunderstand what Christ was talking about, and to make assumptions based in error.

Matthew 23:33  Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

Except this is not what Jesus said.  In order to see the proper translation, we need to go to Young’s Literal Translation of the NT:

Matthew 23:33 ‘Serpents! brood of vipers! how may ye escape from the judgment of the Gehenna?

Damnation (the idea of an eternal, fiery hell) does not belong in this verse. The Greek word is κρίσις (krisis), from which we get our English word “crisis” and carries the meaning of “a separation, a sundering, an opinion, a judgment.”  It in no way conveys the idea of damnation, especially in the idea of an eternal hell.

Of what was Christ speaking here?  The answer is given a few verses later:

Matthew 23:36  verily I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation.

The warning is for the generation of the Jews listening to Him. The event is further clarified in Matthew 24 where the disciples ask in  Matthew 24:3  “And when he is sitting on the mount of the Olives, the disciples came near to him by himself, saying, ‘Tell us, when shall these be? and what is the sign of thy presence, and of the full end of the age?'”

The end of the age!  How did translators of the NT do such a completely wretched and botched job of translating this verse? [2]  In the popular KJV and most Western Bible translations, this verse says “end of the world,” as if what Jesus describes after 24:3 has to do with the end of all things. The Greek word αἰών (aion) has one meaning only – age.  Matthew 23 -25 is describing the end of the covenant age.  It was coming to an end, as mentioned in Hebrews 8:13, because the Jewish hierarchy, in killing thei offered Messiah, would destroy their covenant with God and bring down upon the covenant curses found in Deuteronomy.

It is my belief, therefore, that any mention of being “saved” in the Gospels has to do with this upcoming event and not the end of the world and the condemnation of sinners.  We have no idea how many times Christ mentioned this outside of Matthew 23 – 25.  We do know that the scriptures state “He went and preached to them the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.” What was in that preaching? Did He warn people of the wrath to come, eliciting the kind of response from men like that of the Rich Young Ruler, where he asks Christ “What must I do to be saved?”  Saved from what?  From eternal, fiery hell, whcih Christ never spoke of? Or from the coming destruction of Jerusalem.  Thinking as a first century Jew, it must be the second. The understanding of Sheol by the Jews did not turn to eternal fire until Jewish soteriology was influenced by Grecian thought towards the end of that century.

“Well, what of Gehenna?” I hear someone ask. “What of being thrown into the fire of Gehenna as Christ spoke of.  Surely, you are wrong on this.”  No, not at all. Not if you understand what happened in AD 70.  Destruction of JerusalemWhen the Roman armies of Titus finally breached the walls of Jerusalem and roared through the city in an orgy of death and destruction, the bodies of the slain were thrown into the Valley of Hinnom – the garbage dump of Jerusalem. It was there that the “worm dieth not” and the “unquenchable fire,” fueled by trash and corpses, existed. But if you have read Matthew 23 – 25 as having to do with some fatuous “rapture of the Church” some 2,000 years later, rather than being the end of the age and the covenant curse coming upon Israel, then of course you will be confused. If you do not foresee in His speech the coming destruction of Jerusalem, then Gehenna in Christ’s warnings becomes the fiery hell rather than the end for all who would reject the Messiah and suffer in the destruction of that city.

Every warning about Gehenna in the Gospels is about this coming destruction of Jerusalem – NOT about some future eternal fire in the next life. This confusion, coming from bad Bible translations, lazy interpreters, and presuppositions about what they were reading, has created the idea of an eternal hell which A.) conflicts with the 73 verses in scripture which state that God will save all and have mercy on all, and thus B.) confuses good men like Dr. Chapp because he is trying to be faithful to what he has discovered in his studies, and at the same time believe what his church teaches.

As long as we do not understand the proper context of Christ’s discourses when He was warning people to be saved, this tension, and the confusion that goes with it, will continue.

In Part Two of this blog piece, I will show from scripture that the Bible is a completed book. At the end of the Book of Apocalypse the narrative ends.  With the end of the age and the entrance into the next age, the age in which we live now.

[1]  Remember that the Law given to Israel was broken into three parts:  the Jewish civil law, which regulated interactions within the nation and was limited to Jews, such as the forbidding of eating shellfish,  the Jewish religious law, which outlined and defined the various religious ceremonies, and the moral law. This last law was applicable not just to Jews, but to the whole world.  It was the Ten Commandments.  In like manner, the moral teachings of Christ exceed just Judaism and are applicable to all mankind. The problem comes when we do not make a distinction between that which applied to Israel only and the wider world outside Jerusalem.

[2] This is probably the greatest bête noire in my life. When you are called to serve  God, to describe Him to others, and to show us the truth so that we can mold our lives around it, there is simply no excuse for such laziness, sloppiness, and carelessness in handling that which has been given to us to aid us in our understanding of the Lord. I have nothing but contempt for those who have so mishandled the texts of scripture. If I can do the research and discover these things, being a mere untrained laymen, they, with their education, are without excuse!!

4 comments

  1. Well said – good counter-arguments to the rather ambiguous position Dr. Chapp evidently offers.
    To his credit – at least he seems to grasp that scripture does in fact teach Christian Universalism.
    I must say that I share your keen frustration over mis-translations of aion and aionios. I would prefer that they simply transliterate the word and force the reader to literally “come to terms” with these words and their meaning. It is true that a simple conferring of Young’s or Strong’s should immediately (and ironically) “clarify” the ambiguity of the aion with respect to time. I know you are probably aware of Hart’s notes on this word group in his NT translation – as well and Ramelli’s in “A Larger Hope”. They both seem to allow for the possibility of the word(s) meaning “eternity” – but only in reference to God (e.g. the Life of God).
    What can possibly explain this persistent and awful error? The ONLY thing I can think of is money: if they were more faithful to the true meaning of these words the Evangelical world would be up in arms and sales drastically boycotted (and adacemic positions jeopardized)!
    I honestly know of no other possible explanation…
    Thank you again for stubbornly defending the Truth that God IS Love!

    Like

    • Don’t be too hard on Dr.Chapp. Remember, he has spent his whole life being threatened with Dante’s Infernal Barbeque with Romish Sauce. That is not easy to overcome, and I speak from experience here. In addition, the Roman Church has made it clear to its practitioners that any sort of deviance from loyalty to them is an immediate revocation of your Eternal Fire Insurance Policy. (Clause One, Paragraph Two, Subsection Three – Lines 4 and 5!) That kind of threat is not easy to overcome. I still find myself from time to time looking over my shoulder at eternal hell. It goes that deep, brother.

      This would also explain the issue of refusing to accept the idea of “aionios” not meaning eternal. Brainwashing is both subtle and deadly, and takes a lot to over come. Look at the German people after WWII, wandering around the ruins of their country, seeing the horrors of the concentration camps, and muttering to themselves. “HOW could we have been so stupid as to listen to this maniac?”

      I would love for you to be one of my endorsers of my book. If you want to do so, please shoot me your email over on Facebook. I sent you a PM.

      And thanks for the reblog! You make me feel like I am writing something worthwhile!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed you are, Ed! I am honored that you would ask for my endorsement! I did respond just a few minutes ago to your FB message –
        BTW – having been raised by a hell-fire preacher/pastor (in Alabama, Southern Baptist) – and later becoming a Calvinist pastor, I completely understand how deep it goes! I
        t is interesting (regarding the RC Church) that Bishop Barron would at least advocate Von Balthasar’s position of a kind of “hopeful universalism” 🙂 But the latter, being so influenced by Maximus, could hardly escape the inevitable implications of his “Cosmic” Christology..
        Thanks again, Ed!

        Like

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