One Helluva Problem

Some Afterthoughts

Abjan van Meerten
3 min readDec 28, 2022


This is the epilogue to an article series on Hell: see my first article (on election), second article (on merit), and third article (on embodiment and the ending of evil).

Throughout the previous articles, the reader could detect a clash between two fundamentally different theological systems, [1] the key question being: what is God’s posture toward a sinful humanity captive to Sin, now and at the end of the age?

In the retributive ECT-system, God says to sinners:

‘You have not obeyed me and fulfilled my conditions, so you don’t get a reward. You deserve punishment and that’s what you can get. All you have done is reject me, so I will reject you too.

In the unconditional liberative system, God says:

‘In spite of your constant sinning against me, I will never give up on our relationship and do everything I can to liberate and restore you, because I love you still, always have and always will.’

On the one hand, God is depicted as a sovereign figure, relating to humans through a conditional system of retribution.

On the other hand, God is portrayed as a father who relates to humanity through an unconditional relationality.

In the former system, God is a God who does good to those who do him good and evil to those who do him evil, and who can only accept perfect obedience.

In the latter system, God is a God who ‘overcomes evil with good’, who ‘delivers the ungodly’, and who forgives freely.

Now, in our churches and through our upbringing, we have been socialised into a certain view of God.

Maybe we have learnt to lower the bar about just how ‘good’ the good news might be.

Maybe we have always felt the pressure to ‘counterbalance’ the good news with the ‘bad’ news, gospel with law, love with justice, mercy with retribution, compassion with punishment, forgiveness with wrath.

Maybe conditional love feels more palatable, less scandalous, as it appeals to our sense of justice, to our view of who God should be.

It might be hard to let go of such long-held assumptions. But in the end, we have to let Christ teach us who God really is. And Christ is the one who loved the world by giving himself for us while we were still sinners.

Does that sound too good to be true?

Maybe all this time we have been the older brother, shocked by the generosity of the Father toward prodigal children.

May we find our way back again to the open arms of God. A feast is waiting.

‘With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.’ (Eph 1:8b–10)


[1] To see that these systems really are incompatible, see Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans 2013), ch. 3, ‘Systematic Difficulties’, where these two systems are compared. See also Pauline Dogmatics (Eerdmans 2020), for a positive account of Paul in terms of the latter system.



Abjan van Meerten

Thoughts on the liberating theology of Paul and the universal love of God