Thursday, July 19, 2018

What's the Deal with Hell? (Part 1 of 4): Universalism

Note: This piece is the first part of a theology paper discussing various views of the nature of hell in the orthodox and evangelical Christian traditions. This article provides an overview of the position known as universalism, together with arguments for and against it. Next week's piece will assess the position known as annihilationism, and the following week will examine several variations of the traditionalist position. The final week will offer some general conclusions on the evangelical theology of hell. After that, the ongoing series on foreshadowings of Christ in the Old Testament will resume.

(Painting: The Harrowing of Hell, by Jacob van Swanenburgh, c.1600)

Introduction: What is the nature of hell? This question has been debated among Christians since the first centuries of the church, and it continues to be a topic of great interest today. It has deep ramifications on how the church conceives of its mission to unbelievers and on the shape its message takes. There are also profound personal and pastoral implications here. How can we rejoice in God’s final triumph over evil if it means that people whom we love will be tortured without end? What do we say to the grieving mother whose unrepentant son has just died? Hell is a difficult topic, but a necessary one—one that we ought to approach with humble caution and with trembling.

Generally, the “traditionalist” position—that hell is marked by the eternal, conscious torment of the damned—has been opposed by various “conditionalist” positions—that the severity of hell ought to be tempered or reinterpreted based on certain conditions. The traditionalists argue primarily from Scripture; and the conditionalists, while defending their ideas on the grounds of alternative interpretations of Scripture, rely largely on theology and philosophy. This paper will examine some of the major theories of hell, offering arguments for and against each position.[1] The positions covered will be (1) universalism, (2) annihilationism, and (3) several theories of eternal conscious punishment.

1.) The Cases for and Against Universalism

Historical Basis: Universalism, the belief that God will ultimately redeem every part of his creation—including every human being who ever lived—has a very ancient pedigree within Christianity. It occurs in two main forms: the idea that all human beings, upon seeing God in his glory on the Last Day, will immediately repent and be saved; or the idea that hell exists as a purgational, corrective punishment that will eventually guide all people to salvation. As is commonly known, Origen was one of the first teachers of this system of thought. However, Origen, though admittedly brilliant, was full of bizarre ideas and was ultimately declared heterodox by both the Eastern and Western Church, and so the doctrine of universalism often receives a quick dismissal by its association with him.

However, the story of universalism in the early church does not begin and end with Origen. It was also supported by the Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa, one of the seminal fountainheads of Orthodox Christianity and a fierce defender of the Nicene faith. (A second of the three Cappadocian Fathers, Gregory of Nazianzus, while not making his views on the subject clearly known, at times seemed to wonder whether everlasting punishment is an idea worthy of God).[2] And while Gregory was fond of Origen’s work, he rejected almost everything of Origen’s universalist thought that went beyond Scripture (such as his disdain for the corporeal, the idea of repeated cycles of existence, and the transmigration of the soul). Nevertheless, he retained the basic core of the universalist hope, conceiving of hell as purgatorial, restorative punishment in order to guide the unrepentant to salvation. In his Soul and Resurrection, he puts it thus:

"Not in hatred or revenge for a wicked life, to my thinking, does God bring upon sinners those painful dispensations. He is only claiming and drawing to Himself whatever, to please Him, came into existence….His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last—some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by Fire, others having in their life here been unconscious equally of good and evil—to offer to every one of us participation in the blessings which are in Him."[3]

The Eastern Orthodox tradition, however, followed the theology of Gregory’s brother Basil of Caesarea (the third Cappadocian Father), who advocated hell as literal, unending torment for the damned. The same idea gained prominence in the West through the work of Augustine, particularly as laid out in his City of God. It is instructive to note that the suggestion is explicitly made in both Basil’s and Augustine’s work, as well as in John Chrysostom’s, that in their day a great many Christians held to ideas of hell quite different from the doctrine they were propounding. Thus, while the “traditionalist” view of hell was certainly the majority view of the early church fathers, we cannot quite so easily claim that it was the majority view of early Christianity as a whole.

The traditionalist perspective came to dominate Christian theology until the rise of the Enlightenment in Western Europe. Then several heterodox Christian sects developed around the idea of universalism and became the groups we now know as Unitarian/Universalists. Universalism was also embraced by many leading lights of the German Protestant schools of theology, including Friedrich Schleiermacher and, perhaps to some degree, Karl Barth. In more recent days it has been championed by C. F. D. Moule, C. H. Dodd, and John A. T. Robinson.[4]

Scriptural Basis: Universalist teaching draws extensively (though selectively) on Scripture, especially from the Pauline and Johannine literature. In fact, considered quantitatively, there are more passages in the New Testament that hint at the possibility of universalism than those that support the conscious eternal torment of the damned.[5] Take, for example, Paul’s argument in Romans 5, in which he compares the effect of Adam’s sin on all humankind to Christ’s “gift” and its effect: “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). A similar note is sounded by Romans 11:32—“For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” Indeed, Pauline literature is replete with references to God’s saving intent toward “all”: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22); “[God] wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4); “…we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10). It is interesting to note that Paul does not use the word “Gehenna” for hell, and the only time he uses “Hades,” it is in an exultant doxology about Jesus’ victory over death (1 Cor. 15:54-55).[6] Compared to the Synoptic writers, Paul seems unusually hesitant to describe the fate of the wicked as “eternal” or “everlasting,” preferring to speak about it in terms of the “wrath” of God.

A second thread of Pauline teaching refers to the expectation that everything will ultimately be restored under the authority of Christ. Two representative passages in this line of thought are 1 Cor. 15:24-28, which ends with the vision of God being “all in all” (or, as Bernstein puts it, “everything to everyone”),[7] and Eph. 1:10, which designates the ultimate purpose of God as being “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”

Theological Basis: Despite the arguments listed above, most of the impetus for the universalist position comes from theological grounds rather than Scriptural grounds. The premise is simple, and appeals to common sense: If God is love—indeed, if God so loved the world that he gave up his only Son for its redemption—would he ever stop loving the world? If he earnestly desires that all people be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), will he at some point in the future give up on that desire? The logical answer would seem to be “No.” Love is not merely an attribute of God, but the very essence of his character, and classical theology teaches us that God is immutable in his essence—that is, he does not change. If he ever did change in essence, he would cease to be God. Therefore, he cannot stop being Love. We know from Scripture that his love has been expressed through Christ to all humanity, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). And, at least on the surface of it, it seems that actively subjecting the objects of his love to an eternity of conscious torment would be an unloving thing to do. In no way can it be conceived as an act which has in mind the good of the person being punished.

Further, it can be argued that because God is a good and sovereign God, the final outcome of history will be the best possible outcome—in the famous words of Julian of Norwich, “all things will be well.” That outcome would not include the eternal torment of men and women created in the image of God, but rather the full restoration of that image in each and every human being. The best possible outcome would be the full salvation of all humankind, so that sin, Satan, and death would be able to claim victory over no one. There would be nothing for which Satan could claim a “win” against God. One could easily imagine that all humans, who were created for relationship with God and who retain some of the original goodness of their creation, would recognize the glory and beauty of their Creator at the Last Day, and would turn from their sin and embrace him.

Most of the supporting arguments appeal to human sensibilities. Foremost is the idea that eternal, conscious torment is a punishment unbefitting the crime. No temporal act, however great, could merit unending punishment. According to the traditionalist view, a child who was above the age of accountability and committed a single sin (say, a prideful thought), would be punished everlastingly for that sin alone. To most people, even those well-acquainted with the doctrine of sin, such a possibility is repulsive. Opponents of universalism often argue against this that because God is an eternal God, a single crime against him merits eternal punishment (an argument that seems to have begun with Anselm, who was thinking in medieval terms of gradations of crime based on the honor of the victim).[8] However, this appeal to logic seems misplaced. If biblical teaching on the eternality of hell were absent, it is difficult to believe that anyone would devise such a system and defend it as a logical necessity.

We regard physical torture, even of the most evil people, as a horrendous deed here on earth. The earthly leaders who practice ongoing torture as a means of punishment are regarded not as particularly awesome, but rather as villains and despots. If we magnify this to an eternal scale (with God as the authority), would the values actually reverse to the point that physical torture becomes a good rather than an evil? Further, those Christians who walk most closely with God are also those who show great revulsion against the practice of torture, preferring mercy instead of torment for criminals here on earth. Are eternal values so different from the redeemed values of earthly believers that they would end up being diametrically opposed? In short, can we believe that while Jesus asked us to “turn the other cheek” and to “not repay evil for evil,” God will not hold himself to the same high standard of mercy?

The Case Against Universalism: There are numerous problems with the case for universalism as outlined above. While compelling on a logical and emotional level, is does not do justice to the Scriptural teaching about the nature of hell and the fate of unbelievers. In short, universalism favors the proof-texting of passages which rely on a much-debated interpretation of what “all men” means, while ignoring the far clearer and more explicit teaching of hell as eternal punishment. As Oden notes, “The words ‘eternal punishment’ and ‘eternal fire’ have withstood numerous attempts at generous reinterpretation, but they remain obstinately in the received text. The text remains resilient against our attempts to soften it.”[9] In the Scriptural teaching about the Last Day, there is almost always a clear indication of a division of humanity into the righteous and unrighteous, the believers and the unbelievers, the saved and the damned. And nearly as often, there is a parallelism of eternality that is demonstrated—just as the righteous receive eternal life, so the unrighteous receive eternal punishment.[10]

It is difficult in the extreme to get away from the implications of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, which speaks of his judgment of humanity on the last day: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels….Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matt. 25:41, 46). In fact, much of the clearest teaching on hell as eternal punishment comes from Jesus himself. As W. G. T. Shedd notes, “Jesus Christ is the person who is responsible for the doctrine of eternal perdition.”[11]

Universalists try to explain away such passages as metaphoric/hyperbolic rhetoric used to move people to repentance (for instance, in Mark 9:43-48, just as we interpret cutting off one’s hand hyperbolically, so we could interpret “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” similarly). However, there is little indication that all of the examples in question are merely hyperbolic. If Jesus had intended them as such, then he failed as a communicator, because the vast majority of Christians have interpreted them rather straightforwardly.

Often in response to universalism, advocates of the traditionalist view object on the grounds that universalism leaves no place for divine justice. They claim that men like Hitler or Stalin would escape punishment without getting what they deserved. However, this objection is misplaced. According to universalist doctrine (and here I am dealing with evangelical Christian universalism, not the various pluralistic forms) everyone is indeed saved, but everyone is saved through Jesus Christ. So in the same way that we “escape” divine justice by believing in Christ, so all of the future redeemed would also be saved. The outpouring of divine justice on the eternal Son of God is broad enough to encompass everyone.

A better objection is that universalism assumes the possibility of a second chance after death, but there is little indication in Scripture that this will be the case. Rather, the biblical picture is that the life to come does not afford any chance to repent (for example, consider the fate of the rich man in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31). Universalism also cancels out the impetus for evangelization and missions, thus nullifying any compelling motive behind the evangelistic ministry of the church (and leaving Jesus’ Great Commission begging the question “Why?”). If all people will eventually be saved anyway, why risk danger to ourselves and offense to others by trying to convert people now?

Finally, universalism does not give enough place to the God-given authority of human free will. It is difficult to imagine that everyone will ultimately repent. Rather, as in the case of Satan, it seems likely that there will be humans who are so twisted by sin, so “turned in upon themselves” that they will be incapable of repenting. A final point on this objection comes from Basil of Caesarea, who reminds us that hell will be a place devoid of the activity of the Holy Spirit—and if there is no Holy Spirit, there can be no prevenient grace and no inward conviction, and therefore sinners would presumably have no capacity to bring themselves to repentance.[12]


[1] It should be noted at the outset that the arguments here are generally limited to the nature of hell and the eternal fate of unbelievers, not touching on the tangential topics of the nature of the intermediate state, the possibility of various “third options” between heaven and hell (such as limbo or purgatory), or the question of the salvation of infants or those who have never heard the Gospel.

[2] J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 4th Edition (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1968), 483.

[3] Quoted in David Powys, ‘Hell’: A Hard Look at a Hard Question—The Fate of the Unrighteous in New Testament Thought (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 1997), 6.

[4] Stephen H. Travis, The Christian Hope & the Future (Downers Grove: IVP, 1980), 124-125.

[5] Ibid., 128.

[6] Alan E. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993), 207.

[7] Ibid., 212

[8] Clark H. Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” in Four Views on Hell, edited by William Crockett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 152.

[9] Thomas C. Oden, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3: Life in the Spirit (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006), 450.

[10] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 1149.

[11] Quoted in J. I. Packer, “Universalism: Will Everyone Ultimately Be Saved?” in Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 184.

[12] Kelly, 483.