In my ongoing research for my work-in-progress book about human and divine justice, I’m reading a book titled Raising Hell: Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire by an author named Julie Ferwerda. The book presents arguments in favour of Christian universalism — that is, the belief that all people who have ever lived will ultimately be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.
The book is interesting and well-written. A consistent theme throughout is that the author compares the relationship between God and human beings with that of a parent and a child. The thrust of her argument is that because Earthly parents want what’s best for their children, God must be the same and must want the best for all human beings (or ‘children of God’).
The author writes about how if you are a parent, even when your children go astray, mess up, are rebellious, or do something very evil, the instinct of a parent is always to seek reconciliation and what’s in the best interests of the wayward child. She suggests that a sustained punishment is never what an Earthly parent wants for their children, and her belief is that the same thing must therefore be true of God.
While the Bible does refer to the idea that believers are God’s children, my personal view is that it’s problematic in some respects to equate Earthly parents with God. God is wholly other than anything that He has created. Just because a human being has certain feelings and instincts, this does not mean that the God who created the Universe is the same. God is transcendent.
In the Qur’an, we find the following statement addressed by God to the prophet Muhammad:
Say, ‘He is God the One, God the eternal. He begot no one nor was He begotten. No one is comparable to Him.’Surah 112:1-4
The ‘otherness’ of God is also expressed in the Bible in the following quotation:
“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.”Numbers 23:19 (ESV)
I do actually believe it is possible for God to lie and change His mind, indeed it would be absurd if the Creator of the Universe could not do so, but that’s a discussion for another time. The purpose of this article is to highlight the ‘otherness’ of God (as the above two quotations do), and the reason why the comparison between Earthly parents and God is lacking.
It is emphasised in the Abrahamic religions that God is just, and the Qur’an in particular presents a very clear picture of the distinction between the destinies of believers and unbelievers. Believers will find they are awarded the bliss of paradise, and unbelievers will be subject to the fires of hell. We cannot escape the severity of what God has revealed in the Qur’an.
There is no statement in the Qur’an (to the best of my knowledge) that indicates all human beings will eventually be reconciled to God. There is the idea that unbelievers will be subject to a ‘lasting torment’ (see surahs 5:37; 39:40; 42:45) though what happens after that torment is not altogether obvious — the suffering of the damned is not described as eternal. It is possible that eventually God could reconcile even the worst of offenders to Himself after a prolonged punishment in the fire.
There may be something in the Hadith literature which clarifies what the Prophet Muhummad said about the ultimate destiny of the damned, but I have not yet read very much of the Hadith literature, so such teaching, if it exists, has not yet made its way into my awareness. You are welcome to comment if you have any insights pertaining to this.
God is described in both the Qur’an and the Bible as ‘all-sufficient’, and this leads me to believe that God has no attribute which by necessity compels Him to torture any human beings in an unjust way. And yes, we are created in the image of God (according to the book of Genesis) and there is a scripture in the Bible which succinctly states ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16). God is also described at the beginning of nearly every surah in the Qur’an as ‘the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy’. So there is reason for optimism.
God does whatever He will and is beholden to no one — this should always be acknowledged as we discuss these things. Due reverence for God will lead to caution when comparing His divine attributes to the attributes of human beings, including the parent/child comparison.