Theological challenges to universal salvation

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

This is the tenth post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

In the last post, we looked at the theological case for universal salvation. So now we’re going to consider the theological challenges to this view. Here are the most common questions and challenges I’ve heard in response to a belief in universal reconciliation and restoration.

Then why even get saved now?

This is often the first response to this belief and, in some ways, it’s a logical response. If everyone is going to ultimately be reconciled to God anyway, why not just live my life and let God save me whenever? But this is actually the saddest challenge for a follower of Christ to make. The idea underlying this question is that we’re only saved to escape hell. So if that doesn’t seem as big a motivation, then why get saved? That’s a tragic attitude for a Christian. What’s our motivation for living a life in Christ? It’s living life in Christ! We aren’t just saved to escape hell and go to heaven—although this is true—but for so much more. We begin to know God now, to experience life in his presence now, to live life in the Spirit now, freedom from sin, spiritual growth and maturity, the life of the body, etc. We don’t experience this life in its fullness yet, but we do experience it genuinely here and now. We never want to think lightly of the life Christ brings us into, his life. He sacrificed everything to give us this life. We must never diminish it this way.

But what’s the big deal going to hell if you’re going to get out eventually anyway?

This is often the followup question to the first challenge above. But this doesn’t really make sense either when we think about it. When faced with a 40-year term in a maximum security prison, would we shrug our shoulders and say, “What’s the big deal? I’m going to get out eventually anyway?” If you had a choice between (a) suffering for a very long time fighting cancer, coming close to death over and over again, going through operations and radiation and chemotherapy and losing your hair, but ultimately surviving; or (b) not dealing with cancer at all—would you shrug your shoulders and say what’s the big deal? If you knew your child could either spend much of their life bound in drug addiction and all the destruction that comes with that, but ultimately survive—or never struggle with drugs at all—would that maybe be a big deal to you?

If everyone receives God’s grace, then it’s no longer a gift, it’s something God owes us.

I’m surprised by how often I hear this because this, too, doesn’t make sense if we just stop and think about it. If you have four children and you give them all Christmas gifts, does that mean they’re no longer gifts? Because you gave them to all your kids, do they somehow become something you owe your children? If your boss gives you a bonus of a million dollars, that would be an incredibly gracious gift, wouldn’t it? And if they decided to bless all of their employees with a bonus of a million dollars each, does that make this gift to you any less gracious? Is it now something your boss owed you? Of course not.

Yes, God is loving, but don’t forget he’s also holy.

Robin Parry shares how people will tell him this as if it’s something he hasn’t thought of. Oh, yeah, that’s right! How could I forget that God’s also holy? Yes, we know that God is not only loving, but also holy and just. But we must be careful to never think of his holiness as somehow in conflict with his love, or his mercy as contending against his justice. There is no such conflict within God, no struggle within his character. Everything he does is both holy and loving. Everything he does is both merciful and just.

This view doesn’t take sin or hell seriously.

The person making this claim hasn’t read very many Christian universalist theologians. Because those who believe in universal reconciliation and restoration take sin and hell just as seriously as do other believers. They believe in and emphasize the same vileness of sin, the same wrath of God toward sin, and the same judgment of those who persist in unrepentance. Ironically, it’s some who believe in eternal conscious torment who try to find a way to soften the harshness of hell, saying that hell won’t be all that bad for some of the people there, and they may even be almost happy in hell. 1 The evangelical universalist doesn’t have to jump through these hoops to try to make hell tolerable. We can teach that hell is torment, isolation, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is a “big deal” (see the challenge above). It’s the ultimately harsh judgment of God, more extreme than the other examples of God’s harsh judgment we see in Scripture. And just as the pattern we previously observed in Scripture, God’s judgment has an ultimately loving purpose, however harsh it is, leading to change of heart, repentance, reconciliation and restoration. Those who believe in universal restoration can be downright exclusivist in their understanding of salvation—insisting that people must be saved by knowingly placing their faith in Jesus Christ—because the opportunity for salvation doesn’t somehow disappear after they die.

But God destroyed people in the flood, and in Sodom and Gomorrah.

Some people will bring up examples of judgment in the Bible, such as when God destroyed most of humanity in the flood or his destruction of the entire cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. If God was willing to destroy them, they suggest, then he’ll have no problem destroying people in hell. And these are serious, sobering examples of God’s judgment, no doubt about it. But was this eternal destruction? These people lost their physical lives here on earth, but did they cease to exist completely? Remember, evangelical universalists believe in judgment, even in the extreme judgment of hell. What they don’t believe is that this judgment is never-ending without any hope of reconciliation and restoration. Because these examples deal with judgment in this life only—leading to physical death—this is really comparing apples and oranges. It would be like saying, “Well, our parents disciplined us harshly, so that means they would have no problem killing us.” It’s simply not the same thing. (And don’t forget that God says he will restore Sodom [Ezekiel 16:53-55].)

The wrath of God is necessary for God to be glorified.

In the book Four Views on Hell, Robin Parry wrote the chapter on evangelical universalism. In Denny Burk’s response to Parry’s chapter, Burk takes issue with Parry’s understanding that God’s wrath is a manifestation of his love. To Burk, wrath seems to be a part of God’s character in the same way that love or holiness or justice are. 2 But this isn’t a biblical understanding of God. Is God perpetually angry? Has he always been angry? Will he be angry for all eternity? Burk seems to think so:

God does not love those who are put in hell. On the contrary, his wrath means that he is angry at them forever (Rom. 2:8). 3

Notice that Burk references Romans 2:8 to support the claim that God is angry with the lost forever. Take the time to look up that verse for yourself. Does it say that God is angry with anyone forever? This is a good example of why I always encourage people to look up Scripture references to make sure it says what they’re saying it says! In this case it doesn’t say what Burk is saying at all. So what do we see in Scripture:

For his anger lasts only a moment,
but his favor lasts a lifetime;

Psalm 30:5

You do not stay angry forever
but delight to show mercy.

Micah 7:18

How many places do we read that God is “slow to anger”? How can God be slow to anger if wrath is an essential part of his character? Is he slow to be holy? Is he slow to love? Instead, we read that God’s anger is a temporary response for a specific purpose:

The anger of the LORD will not turn back
until he fully accomplishes
the purposes of his heart.

Jeremiah 23:20

No, Parry’s view of God is much more biblical, and Burk’s is disturbingly similar to the capricious, irritable gods of paganism.

Remember what we saw in the first chapter of Colossians that just as “all things” were created in Christ, these same “all things” God has reconciled to himself through Christ, “making peace through his blood, shed on the cross [1:20].” You don’t remain eternally angry with those whom you have reconciled to yourself, those with whom you have made peace through your own blood. God reconciled us to him through Christ’s death while we were still his enemies (Romans 5:10). This is the God who chose to be crucified in order to reconcile all of his creation to himself. Would it bring him most glory to be unceasingly angry toward much of his creation for all eternity, subjecting them to endless torment to appease his wrath? Does this picture of God really glorify him, or does it actually diminish his glory? Would it not bring much more glory for him to thoroughly defeat his enemies by transforming them into his friends, even bringing them into his family as his children, so he has no more need to be angry toward his creation? Isn’t this much more glorifying of God?

Universal salvation is a man-centered theology.

A sometimes effective way to scare people away from a theological belief is to accuse it of being a “man-centered” idea. But let’s stop and actually compare beliefs. Some claim that God desires to save everyone, but that he is ultimately, eternally stymied by the stubborn rebellion of human beings. He wants to save them, but they say, “No!” Their hearts are simply too hard for God’s love and grace to overcome. This actually seems to be a bit “man-centered,” because it’s fallen humans who have the final word contrary to God’s will.

Now let’s look at the other belief. According to this view, God’s love is unconquerable and can overcome the hardest heart (compare this with Romans 8:38-39). God’s grace is always greater than sin, more powerful than sin, always surpassing sin (Romans 5:15, 20). God will not stop until he has restored to himself everything that was lost to him (Luke 15). 4 God’s truth will overcome everything false; God’s light will drive out all darkness (Revelation 22:5). God will be completely victorious over all of his enemies, even destroying death itself (1 Corinthians 15:26). Show me again how this is “man-centered”?

But what about free will? Does God force people to repent?

This is the most thoughtful challenge to Christian universalism. What if people don’t want to be reconciled and restored? I want us to take some time to really think about this. Let’s begin by assuming—for the sake of discussion—that some people just won’t stop rejecting God. I’ll explain later why I don’t believe this is true, but let’s assume for now that it is. Does this mean that God’s hands are tied, that there’s nothing he can do? Is the free will of humanity somehow the most sacred, inviolate virtue above everything else? And where exactly do we go in Scripture to see that human freedom is the one principle that overrides all others?

If your two-year-old is running headlong straight into a busy street, do you place their free will above all other concerns? Or do you take immediate, decisive action to prevent them from being destroyed? (“No!”) We do allow children to experience the consequences of their actions when it doesn’t actually destroy them. We allow them to pay the price for their free will choices so they can learn what is beneficial and what is dangerous. We may let them touch something that’s hot, for instance, so they learn that hot things burn. But there’s a limit to how much free will we allow them, isn’t there? It’s one thing touching something hot; it’s something else entirely to stick their arm in the fire. From God’s perspective, how much different are we than a two-year-old?

It’s common for evangelical Christians to say things without realizing how contradictory they are. For instance, we frequently say that “God is always a gentleman,” that God won’t force himself onto anyone. And then, virtually in the same breath, we can talk about God as the “Hound of Heaven” who aggressively pursued us unrelentingly until we surrendered. And we never stop to realize that these descriptions of God contradict one another. If God is always a gentleman, someone needs to explain that to Paul who was knocked to the ground and blinded on the road to Damascus. Or to C.S. Lewis, who describes himself as being brought in “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape.” (He goes on to say of God, “His compulsion is our liberation.”) 5 That doesn’t sound like a gentleman to me, but it does sound like a very focused parent intent on doing what is best for their child. The Calvinist understanding of compatibilism is only a problem if God doesn’t compatibilistically save everyone.

(It’s also a little ironic that many of the same people who insist that passages such as Philippians 2:9-11 can’t be voluntary worship—that these people are being forced to acknowledge God—will then turn around and question how God could be forcing people to repent! Apparently it’s okay for God to force people to confess Jesus Christ as Lord as long as he doesn’t actually save them! This also makes me think of debates between Calvinists and non-Calvinists. Arminians and other non-Calvinists are quick to say their problem with Calvinism isn’t the issue of free will but one of honoring the biblical, loving character of God. Some have even said the only way they could be a Calvinist is if they were a universalist. But then, when presented with a biblical, evangelical universalism, they reject it because they think it doesn’t preserve their concept of libertarian free will. Maybe their focus on free will is greater than they thought!)

So am I saying that God doesn’t respect the free will of the lost but forces them to repent? Not at all. But we need to think about what we mean by a “free choice.” As many Arminians will clarify, they don’t so much believe in free will, but in freed will. We were bound in sin and rebellion and our fallen sin nature, but God freed us, enabling us to choose, so that we could embrace him, placing our faith in Christ. For a choice to be free, it has to be . . . free

Let me illustrate. Suppose someone is under the influence of a powerful drug and they attack someone else. Are they responsible for their actions? Maybe, especially if they knew the dangers of the drug before taking it. But what if someone put the drug in their food or drink, and they consumed it without knowing? If they had no control over their behavior, then they would be deemed as not responsible for what happened. Their actions were not done by way of a free choice.

If we walked into a room and saw a young man holding his hand in a fire without pulling it out, 6 even though it was being burned, what’s the first thought that would go through our minds? “There’s something wrong with that guy,” right? Why? Because people don’t do that—not freely. If we’re doing something that painful, that self-destructive, our action itself is evidence that something is wrong with us. This isn’t a choice we’re making freely; there is something else causing us to act in this manner.

Now let’s think about salvation. We were created to live in relationship with God. Even in our fallen state we long for that connection. This is why throughout history humans have been drawn to religion of some kind. As Christians, we know that all of our most intense longings and yearnings, the deepest questions, even the ones we can’t express—all of this only finds satisfaction in Christ.  We only find ultimate fulfillment and purpose in Christ. We even only really come to truly know ourselves in him.

Do people reject God? Of course. (We did ourselves at one time.) Why do people reject God? We could make a list of reasons, couldn’t we? Some don’t believe that God exists; some resist authority; some don’t like religion or have been hurt by Christians; some feel they’d be giving up too much control. So people do have reasons for rejecting God. But are they good reasons? Would we say that any of these are sound, logical reasons why someone should reject God? No, not at all. In fact, we’d try to help the person see that these “reasons” for rejecting God are illusions, they’re fairy tales. God does exist; Jesus is very different from religion; we don’t really have control over our own lives, etc, etc. 

So there is no sound, rational reason for rejecting Christ, and every reason to receive him. Anyone who rejects Christ, especially in hell, is not doing this freely. To refuse what you were created for and what will satisfy every longing and desire put within us by God, but to instead “choose” to remain in a state of torment and ongoing death, is not a free choice. It’s an insane one, one devoid of rational thought, just like the young man holding his hand in the fire. Just as Scripture describes the lost in this life, such a person is bound in deception and darkness. The question is what does God do with this person? Does he bring the young man to the point of clarity so he understands the insanity of holding his hand in the fire and can then make a free choice? Or does he say to the young man who is bound in delusion and completely irrational, “You want to hold your hand in the fire? Fine! I’ll make sure you hold it there forever!”

But some will say, “Yes, it’s insane and they’re deceived, but that’s just their nature! It’s their nature to reject God; that’s why they’re in hell!” But wait a minute. Let’s think about that. Yes, we all have a fallen, sinful nature, but did we choose to have that nature? Did you choose to be born into a sinful, rebellious race? No, the Scriptures are clear about this: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all [Romans 11:32].” Now, we all do subsequently sin by our own volition, so we all stand guilty before God. But we didn’t choose our sinful nature. All of us were subjected to this sinful nature (so that God could have mercy on all of us). God brought each of us to the point of clarity and freedom where we knew the incomparable greatness of knowing Christ our Lord. That’s the only way we could be saved! Otherwise we remain bound in sin, rebellion, darkness and death—not by free choice but because this was part of God’s plan. We were bound in disobedience. God freed us so that we could make a free choice, and we chose life in him. 

The very same thing is still true of the lost person in hell. They’re not able to make a free choice until God brings them to this point of clarity and freedom. Until then, they remain bound in sin, rebellion, darkness and death—not by free choice but because it’s part of God’s plan. He has bound us all in disobedience so that he could have mercy on us all. And, just as with many of us, it can be a long, drawn out process to bring us to that point of clarity, freedom and surrender. God will use anything in our lives to bring us to this point of freedom of choice—even hell.

But isn’t this torturing people until they give in? Isn’t this forcing them to believe? Not at all. Most evangelical Christians are quick to describe hell as the absence of God. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that God can’t be active in hell. People are experiencing ultimate alienation from God in a way that’s analogous to a child experiencing alienation from their parent while on time out. They are strongly experiencing, from their perspective, the absence of their parent.) People insist on an existence without him, and so God complies, giving them what they think they want. The difference is that the Christian universalist doesn’t believe that God unlovingly binds the lost eternally in their state of deception and delusion. He gives them what they think they want in order to show them it’s not really what they want! This isn’t torture, it’s punishment intended to bring clarity leading to repentance.

Anyone who has struggled with addictions, or who has worked with those bound in addiction, has seen that some people have to hit absolute rock bottom before they come to a sense of clarity about their own problem. We see something similar in the story of the prodigal son and his father. The father gives the son his inheritance, strengthening him in his resolve and ability to pursue his self-destructive path, a path that would end in a pigpen—a horrible end that brings perfect clarity to this prodigal son. The universal reconciliation and restoration view is that, for many, hell is the pigpen. Hell is where many will come to that place of clarity and repentance. It’s the tough love of God, allowing his strong-willed, rebellious children to get exactly what they think they want, to show them what they really need and want. God will use anything—even our own rebellion—to bring the very last of his sheep back to him.

So is this just wishful thinking? Are we just making this up? What did we see when we searched the Scriptures (here and here)? God desires to save everyone. We see this clearly in Scripture. We also see in Scripture that some people will be lost when they die and will experience hell. But we also saw passage after passage that tell us that God will ultimately reconcile and restore everyone, all of his creation. And we saw in Revelation that even the evil, rebellious kings of the earth—who were cast into the lake of fire—eventually come into the city, the new Jerusalem, the heaven-on-earth church of God. 7 This is God’s plan. He has bound everyone over to disobedience that he might have mercy on everyone.

The alternative is that either God doesn’t love some people and desire for them to be saved, or that he’s not able to save them. But we don’t see either of these in Scripture. We believe that God desires and intends to save everyone he has created, and that he is well able to accomplish everything he desires and intends. We believe that our perfect God has always had a perfect end for his perfect plan. As Thomas Talbott describes, he is the grandmaster chess player who doesn’t need to control our moves but who is always 12 steps ahead of us—and who is assured to win. 8 And this is a good thing for all of us!

Anyone who believes this won’t be motivated to share the gospel with others.

It’s very ironic to see this challenge come from Calvinists, and we do. This is the very same challenge they receive sometimes! It’s not true of Calvinists (Calvinist believers are very often passionate about evangelism, missions and church-planting), and it’s not true of evangelical universalists either. In fact, many who embrace this truth describe the same change of perspective. It’s amazing when we begin looking at every single person we come into contact with as someone who will eventually come to faith in Christ. No one is a lost cause! Not only does this mean we can’t ever mentally dismiss anyone, but it also gives us great confidence and enthusiasm in evangelism. Everyone with whom we share the faith will eventually repent and believe! Everyone is save-able! This doesn’t make us less interested in evangelism, it makes us much more eager to share the truth and love of Christ with those we know will ultimately embrace this truth!

If this is true, why aren’t the Scriptures more clear and explicit that all will be saved?

This was something I wrestled with at one time. And there are a few things to think about here. First, as others have pointed out, we do see a great many passages that clearly and explicitly tell us everyone will be reconciled to God and restored. There is actually much more clear, explicit biblical support for this belief than there is for many other beliefs we take for granted.

Also remember that the Old Testament only clearly mentions resurrection once. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t true, just that God hadn’t revealed everything to them yet. We also saw in the story of Jonah that God gave him a message of judgment, but didn’t reveal that he would relent from that judgment if they repented. We can never presume to know every detail of what God’s going to do. And—as with Jonah—we should assume that God is loving and merciful, eager to relent from destroying people.

Still, some might say, why don’t the passages that speak of hell also tell us that people won’t be there forever, that they will eventually be saved? But remember, hell is the punishment of God. How many of you when warning your children of punishment include the comforting detail that the punishment won’t last forever? “If you disobey me you’ll sit in your room without any electronic devices—but don’t worry, it won’t last forever! We don’t do that, do we? It’s not that it’s untrue; it’s just not helpful at the moment. It actually wouldn’t make sense for God to add to the passages warning of hell that they’ll still be saved. We find that truth in other passages.

And one other possibility to consider. God shared with Abraham his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33). Abraham responds by contending with God for them: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” And we see in the passage that this is exactly what God intended. He wanted Abraham to respond this way, and almost eggs him on. Later, God tells Moses to get out of the way, that he’s going to destroy the people of Israel and start over again with him. Again we see someone, this time Moses, pleading with God on behalf of the people (Exodus 32:9-14). Either God had lost control and needed to be talked down by Moses, or Moses did what God wanted him to do all along. He stood in the gap for the people. He put himself on the line, pleading with God to forgive and not destroy the people. And, of course, we know that Moses was a type of Christ, pointing forward to the one who would perfectly stand in the gap for all the people, seeking the forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration of all the people—as God had always intended. We then see Paul also standing in the gap for the people, willing to put his own life on the line so his people could be saved. 

If God desired Abraham to have a heart for people that would cause him to appeal to God for them to be saved; if he desired Moses to put his life on the line to plead that God would show mercy to the people and relent from judgment; if we see this heart in Christ himself, in his sacrifice and in his prayer for the very people who were killing him; if we later see this same heart in Paul toward his people who were stubbornly rejecting their own Messiah—maybe this is the heart he wants us to have toward the lost as well. Maybe he’s not as clear as he could be in Scripture in order to see if we will have a heart that longs for each person to be reconciled to God and restored, or if we’ll have a heart that either calls for fire from heaven to destroy our enemies (Luke 9:52-55), or hearts that cause us to simply shrug our shoulders in indifference at the fate of the lost.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that people would struggle with what is, for them, new and very different ideas concerning hell and who will be saved. I would actually discourage anyone from embracing too quickly any change of view. It’s good for us to wrestle with these things, to question and to challenge. What has surprised me, and deeply troubled me, is the anger I sense in many responses to this belief. Why would the thought that God might actually save everyone cause any Christian to respond with anger? Shouldn’t we be moved with compassion for the lost as Christ was? Shouldn’t we desire that all be saved as God does? Aren’t we to love even our enemies? Why are we so often like Jonah, who was angry that God would relent from judging Nineveh, or like the older brother of the prodigal, who was angry that his father would take his lost brother back in and restore him? Why are our hearts too often like these hard-hearted people in Scripture . . . instead of like Christ’s?

If we must come to the conclusion that God won’t actually save everyone, shouldn’t that be a sad realization? And if we do become convinced that God not only wants to save everyone but will, wouldn’t that result in tremendous rejoicing, praise and worship? Isn’t this what we want? And wouldn’t this bring God even more glory, to be a God who doesn’t have to eliminate his enemies or imprison them as they persist in rebellion, but a God who completely triumphs over every enemy by bringing them to the point of perfect clarity where they surrender to him, embrace his truth and love and grace for them, and are transformed from enemies into servants and even children?

I believe that God has always had the perfect end to his perfect plan. I believe that his truth and his love are not only unconquerable, but that nothing in all creation can ultimately and finally stand against God’s truth and God’s love. Nothing.

If you’d like more expansive arguments for and against the differing views of hell, I’d recommend beginning with one of these books:

Four Views on Hell (2nd ed.) by Preston Sprinkle, Denny Burk, John Stackhouse Jr, Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls

All You Want to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin by Steve Gregg

For much deeper and more complete presentations of the evangelical universalist view of hell, I would strongly recommend the two books listed below. I’ve tried to footnote specific ideas I first encountered in the writings of Thomas Talbott and Robin Parry, but there isn’t much in my thinking on this subject that hasn’t been deeply affected by these brothers. I strongly and warmly recommend both of these books:

The Inescapable Love of God (2nd ed.) by Thomas Talbott

The Evangelical Universalist (2nd ed.) by Gregory MacDonald

  1. Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 128.
  2. Denny Burk, “An Eternal Conscious Torment Response” in Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 131.
  3. Burk, Four Views on Hell, 131.
  4. Steve Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 57.
  5. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1955), 279-280.
  6. Thomas B. Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 171-185.
  7. Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2012), 114-120.
  8. Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 170.

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

Considering the theological case for universal salvation

This is the ninth post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

We’ve looked at the background regarding our beliefs about hell, we’ve examined the biblical case for eternal conscious torment, and we’ve considered the theological arguments for an eternal hell. After weighing all of this, I fail to see any convincing scriptural or theological reasons why we should believe in eternal conscious torment. But does this leave us in a state of ignorance about the eternal fate of the lost? We have seen many biblical passages that strongly indicate God will ultimately reconcile and restore all of his creation.  Are there also broader theological arguments for this view? And how convincing are they? We’ll look at the theological case for universal salvation in this post, and consider the theological challenges to this view in the next.

Three propositions

To help us think through how we’re approaching all of this, consider three theological propositions or claims. (I’m paraphrasing something originally written by Thomas Talbott.1) Some Christians believe each of the following statements—but no one believes all three:

  1. God loves everyone and intends for each person to be saved.
  1. God will accomplish everything he intends.
  1. Some people will be eternally lost.

One could find biblical passages that—at least superficially—seem to support each of these claims. But all three propositions can’t be true. So each of us will deny one of these claims. Calvinists will disagree with the first statement. They don’t believe that God loves everyone in the same way and that he intends to save each individual person. Arminians and other non-Calvinists don’t believe statement number 2. They would insist that God desires and does everything he can to save each person, but his ability to accomplish what he intends is limited by the individual’s free will. Christian universalists deny the third claim. They don’t see any biblical or theological reason to accept the idea that some people will be eternally lost. They believe God fully intends to save each person and that he is certainly able to accomplish what he intends. Thus, he will do what he intends and will bring each person to the point of repentance and faith in Christ—even if he has to utilize hell to accomplish this.

So we have a choice between: (a) a God who could save everyone but chooses not to; (b) a God who sincerely wants to save everyone but isn’t able to; or (c) a God who both wants to save everyone and does. Do we have a God who lacks loving intent for those he’s created, a God who lacks the power or ability to accomplish what he desires and intends, or a God who lacks neither love nor power? Has God created people he knew would be lost for eternity—people he either chose to leave damned, or whom he knew he wouldn’t be able to rescue? By creating as he has, did God give himself a problem even he can’t solve? Did he actually create a rock too heavy for him to lift?! Ultimately, we have to examine the scriptural support for each of these three claims. I find the first two biblically certain, and the third to be without much support at all.

The love of God

Let’s think about the character of God as we see described in Scripture. Can God ever be unholy? Is there anyone to whom God would not be holy? Of course not. God is always holy, without fail. Can God ever be untrustworthy? Could God ever call people to trust in him and then not be worthy of that trust. Absolutely not. We have complete confidence in the biblical character of God. So can God ever be unloving? Remember, the Scriptures don’t just tell us God is loving, but that God is love (1 John 4:16). Can God ever be unloving? Is there anyone to whom he would act in a way that isn’t ultimately in their long-term best interest? Because—if love is an essential part of his character and he could choose not to love some—then why should we be confident he’ll always tell us the truth, or be holy, or trustworthy, etc.? If he doesn’t always love others, then why should we believe he’ll always love us? And if we say “because he’s told us he’ll always love us,” why should we trust him if he’s not consistently true to his character?

No, our first instinct here is the biblical one. Of course God is always loving. This means that everything God does is loving, just as everything God does is holy. In the same way he calls us to be loving in everything we do (1 Corinthians 13), he is loving in everything he does. Even if his actions are unpleasant for us or seem harsh, we ultimately find they’re loving. This means that hell must be loving. Whatever view we hold about hell must include this unavoidable truth. If God is love, if God never fails to be loving, if everything that God does is loving—then hell must be loving. Hell must be in the best interest of those who are subjected to it.

We understand that hell is the punishment of God for those who haven’t placed their faith in Christ. So let’s think about punishment. This is something we understand well because human parents must sometimes punish their children. So what is it about punishment that makes it a loving act? It’s the intended outcome, right? Parents punish their children for the sake of their children. There may be other reasons as well (to establish order, to be an example, etc.), but what makes the punishment loving is the motivation, the outcome intended by the parent. What would constitute unloving punishment? Unloving punishment would be punishment that isn’t done for the child at all, but simply to express the rage of the parent.

We see all through Scripture that even God’s harshest judgment has loving purpose. His judgment is intended to bring about change in the hearts and lives of those he judges. Hell is the punishment of the lost by God, and it’s something that must be loving because this is the character of God. He can no more be unloving than he could be unholy. So what makes the punishment of hell loving? The intended outcome. It must be in the best interest of those God is punishing. For hell to be loving it must be remedial. It must be intended to bring about change in those being punished. It must be redemptive.

We see in Scripture the kind of love to which God calls us. We’re to love others as Christ loved us. We’re even required to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). Does the Bible give us an end point to this command? Does it ever describe a point when we’re no longer to love our enemies? No, it doesn’t. So does God love his enemies? Does God ever stop loving his enemies?

We’re commanded to forgive those who sin against us. How many times are we to forgive those who have sinned against us? Not seven times, but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22), right? Does that mean we can count up to the 491st time someone asks for forgiveness, and then we don’t have to forgive anymore? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. Study Bibles and commentaries explain the context of this verse, that Jesus is showing how God’s grace is completely without limit, and that we must follow his example. So how can we then claim that God has a point past which he will no longer forgive those who sin against him? Is God a “do as I say not as I do” kind of God?

And let’s think about God’s love for those of us who are now his, those of us who will experience heaven. Does God love us? Of course he does. We can have complete confidence in God’s love for us. But what if your beloved spouse or son or daughter isn’t a believer when they die? Will God stop loving your spouse or your child? How can he claim to love you, but not love your spouse or your child? 2 How could God claim to love you, to be committed to what is best for you, and not also love the child you love so much, not also be committed to what is best for your child? 

How could God expect us to enjoy the bliss of heaven while those we love are either being consciously tormented for all eternity or completely snuffed out of existence? Some would say God somehow removes the memory of our lost loved ones. But this is horrific. And how would it work anyway? Would he actually remove the memory of a spouse to whom someone’s been married for 60 years? What’s left remaining wouldn’t be your life! This would be deception, and God does not deceive. We’ll gain clarity in the life to come, not lose it. We will know fully even as we are fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Some say we’ll gain a greater appreciation of God’s holiness and judgment and so, somehow, be accepting of the eternal conscious torment of our loved ones. But certainly we will be more loving in the life to come, not less! 3 If we share the heart of God, our hearts will break even more for those who are experiencing hell. And we’ll be even more aware of just how horrible this judgment is. No, this will give us an even greater longing for their salvation. And even if we are somehow unaware of this eternal suffering, God will certainly be aware. Will he stop loving his lost creation? Will he live for eternity in a state of grief and mourning for those either being tormented or who were extinguished? Or will he accomplish what he desires and save all of his creation?

How can heaven be fully heaven—for any of us—while anyone remains in hell? Isn’t our God the one who loved his fallen world so much that he sacrificed himself—taking on our death and condemnation—so that we could all be reconciled to him and receive his life? In Revelation, Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah and he’s also the Lamb who was slain. Jesus will eternally be the God who was crucified, who laid down everything for his creation. Do we really believe he will come to no longer love his lost creation?

The victory of God

We know from Scripture God will ultimately triumph over all his enemies, and that the last enemy to be destroyed will be death (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). In 1 Corinthians 15:55 we have this confident challenge to death:

Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

This is the glorious victory of God over all his enemies! But let’s think this through. If: (a) the consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and (b) the ultimate consequence of sin, the ultimate death is either an eternal, conscious death in hell or death by completely ceasing to exist, and (c) much, or even most, of God’s creation remains eternally in this state of death . . . how exactly is God triumphing over death? How is this victory? How will death have been “destroyed”? Would 1 Corinthians 15:55 above not be an empty challenge? Would not death be able to respond to these questions: “Where is my victory? Right here! In the countless number of your precious creation who will eternally remain dead.”

We use the term “lost” for those who aren’t yet saved, and it’s a biblical word. But when the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep and seeks the one that’s lost (Luke 15:1-7), to whom is the sheep lost? Who is the one in the story who has experienced the loss? It’s the shepherd! And he’s seeking to restore his lost sheep to himself. 4 When the widow loses one of her silver coins (Luke 15:8-10), to whom is the coin lost? To her! And she searches to restore the coin to herself. To whom is the prodigal son lost (Luke 15:11-32)? To his father! And he watches and waits until he can restore his son to himself. So to whom are the lost actually lost? To God. And he longs to restore even the last one who’s lost to himself. Will he experience eternal loss? Or will he be victorious?

Again, imagine you have seven children. And let’s say your children all become victim to a mind-controlling cult that will ultimately destroy them. So you endeavor to do everything you can to rescue each of your children from this cult and bring them to freedom. In the end, you’re able to rescue only two of your children. The other five remain, and take part in the mass suicide of the cult. Would you then exult, “I have been triumphant! I have completely won the victory!”? Is this really the kind of victory for God that Scripture is describing?

We read 1 Thessalonians 4:13 that believers “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” This a wonderful, blessed truth to which we hold tightly when we experience the loss of a loved one. But is this only true for our loved ones who we know have placed their trust in Christ before they died? For the rest, are we back to grieving like the rest of mankind with no hope? Is our hopeless grief actually worse than the rest of mankind because we know so well the consequences of death without faith? Or does Scripture give us hope for all our loved ones who die because our trust is in the unconquerable love of God (Romans 8:38-39) and his sacrifice for all people (1 John 2:2)?

In John 10, Jesus contrasts himself as the Good Shepherd, who comes “that they may have life and have it to the full [v. 10],” with the thief, who comes to steal, kill and destroy. But according to both eternal conscious punishment and annihilationism, what does God do with those who are lost? Does he not kill and destroy them? Is he not doing to them exactly what the enemy desires to do? How, then, is God victorious over Satan? Even if Satan is eternally bound, can’t he go to hell with a smile on his face because he’s taking so many of God’s created beings with him, and even seeing God accomplishing Satan’s intended design for them: their death and destruction? How is this victory for God?

Will evil actually exist for all eternity? Will sin remain in the hearts of those in hell forever? Will God truly be utterly supreme over everything everywhere (1 Corinthians 15:28) . . . except for his rebellious creation in hell who still resist and refuse him as Lord and King? Or does he remove his opponents by killing them—somewhat like ensuring a unanimous vote by killing all those who vote against you? Is this really the complete and glorious victory of God?

Which view best fits the gospel?

While arguing against the universal restoration view, Jerry Walls wrote:

I will also concede that his view [evangelical universalism] represents the end of the biblical story that is most to be desired. The universalist view delivers on the promise of a truly perfect end of the story. 5

But how can the “truly perfect” end of the story not actually be the end of the story? How can we come up with a better end of the story than God did? Could it be that this conclusion isn’t too good to be true, but that it’s too good to not be true? As we’ve seen, this view isn’t based on warm and fuzzy wishful thinking, but on rigorous exegesis of Scripture. And which view best fits the good news of Jesus Christ? Which best fits into the whole biblical story?

In his book examining the different views on hell, Steve Gregg tells us he’s still struggling with this issue, that he hasn’t definitively reached a conclusion yet. I certainly respect that kind of transparency. But we can perhaps see a bit of his process in the headings he chose for the different sections of his book. The 2-chapter section on eternal conscious torment, he titled: “First, the Bad News.” The next section, on annihilationism, he titled: “The Bad News Is Not As Bad As You Thought.” And the final section, on restorationism, he titled: “The Good News Is Better Than You Thought”! 6 Again, how can we think of anything better than God’s good news?

In Robin Parry’s response to another view, he uses playful—but I would say insightful—descriptions of the differing views. He describes those who believe in eternal conscious torment as “tormentors,” and those who believe in annihilation as “terminators.” 7 Those who believe in evangelical universalism would then be “transformers.” As everyone agrees, what we believe about hell reveals what we believe about God. So the question is really: Do we believe in a God who’s ultimately a Tormentor, a Terminator, or a Transformer? Which best fits his character? Which best fits his gospel? Which best fits the biblical story?

What do we see in the gospel, taking it in its whole canonical context? We see God’s creation ruined and then restored. We see his people, Israel, ruined and then restored. We see us ruined by the fall into sin, but then restored. At the heart of his gospel, we see Christ sacrificing himself, taking on the death brought by sin, in order to reconcile and restore his fallen, rebellious creation. We see the mission that comes from the gospel, the mission which we now pursue. And we see the ultimate culmination and final victory of God’s plan, accomplishing what he intends to accomplish, what he accomplished on the cross. So which understanding of hell best fits this gospel, the eternal torment of those lost to God, the termination of those lost to God, or the transformation and restoration of those lost to God? 8

There’s so much more I’d like to write in this post, but much of it would get too involved. Maybe I’ll write a stand-alone post later exploring, for instance, all the ways biblical universalism resolves so many issues debated between Calvinists and Arminians (and other non-Calvinists). There are so many intriguing insights I’d like to include here. For example, Chris Brackett, one of our pastors, pointed out in a group discussion that we believe Christ paid the penalty for our sin. Jesus took on our death so we can receive his life. But if the wages of sin is death, and if that death means either eternal conscious torment or annihilation, then Christ actually didn’t take on our death, the consequence of our sin—because Christ wasn’t eternally tormented or annihilated!

I don’t see sufficient biblical support for eternal conscious torment and I don’t find any of the theological arguments persuasive. But I find many passages of Scripture that show the ultimate reconciliation and restoration of all of God’s creation, and I find the theological arguments for this view profound and compelling. But what of the theological challenges? We’ll look at these next.

If you’d like more expansive arguments for and against the differing views of hell, I’d recommend beginning with one of these books:

Four Views on Hell (2nd ed.) by Preston Sprinkle, Denny Burk, John Stackhouse Jr, Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls

All You Want to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin by Steve Gregg

For much deeper and more complete presentations of the evangelical universalist view of hell, I would strongly recommend the two books listed below. I’ve tried to footnote specific ideas I first encountered in the writings of Thomas Talbott and Robin Parry, but there isn’t much in my thinking on this subject that hasn’t been deeply affected by these brothers. I strongly and warmly recommend both of these books:

The Inescapable Love of God (2nd ed.) by Thomas Talbott

The Evangelical Universalist (2nd ed.) by Gregory MacDonald

  1. Thomas B. Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 38.
  2. Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 126-129.
  3. Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2012), 17.
  4. Steve Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 57.
  5. Jerry L. Walls, “A Hell and Purgatory Response” in Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 141.
  6. Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell.
  7. Robin A. Parry, “A Universalist Response” in Four Views on Hell, 89-92.
  8. Parry, Four Views on Hell, 91.

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

Considering the theological case for eternal conscious torment

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This is the eighth post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

We’ve looked at the background for beliefs regarding hell, and at what can be drawn directly from the explicit wording of Scripture. We’ve seen that the biblical case for eternal conscious torment is much weaker than most of us would have thought, and the biblical case for universal reconciliation and restoration is much stronger than we previously thought. But there’s still more to explore. 

As Christians, we hold to important beliefs that aren’t all spelled out clearly in the explicit wording of Scripture. Our belief in a triune God, for instance, is certainly based on what we learn of God in the Scriptures—what the Bible tells about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, etc. But we can’t point to any passage giving us a detailed explanation of the Trinity. Instead, we draw what we know from studying the various passages that speak to the nature of God, and think carefully about how these passages all fit together. We’re seeking to ultimately arrive at theological conclusions regarding the nature of God that are appropriately built on, and very much in harmony with, the comprehensive teaching of the Bible. Even when Scripture gives us more explicit detail concerning a particular teaching, we still strive to think deeply about what these details mean in their biblical context and how they fit into the larger story of the Bible and the plan of God.

This is what I mean by the “theological case” for these differing views concerning the nature of hell. We didn’t find a very convincing exegetical case for this view in the explicit wording of Scripture, but are there broader theological, “big picture,” reasons why eternal conscious torment is true or even necessary? We’re going to consider and examine the most common theological arguments presented for this view. Everyone who believes in eternal conscious torment may not accept every one of these arguments—and some of these ideas will overlap to some extent—but we’re going to look at the specific claims that are most often made to contend for this traditional (for us) view of hell. 

I do want to emphasize that wonderful brothers and sisters hold to differing views about these issues. We want to vigorously discuss these matters, but we do so in a spirit of mutual love and respect. Having said that, what are the theological arguments for eternal conscious torment? Here are the ones I’ve found to be most common:

The justice of God requires eternal punishment.

This is a claim we hear often, and it can certainly seem compelling. People remind us of the horrors of someone like Adolf Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer, and then add in more common horrors such as those who abuse children or extort the savings of the elderly. Should these people not experience punishment for these heinous sins? After committing such vile, unthinkable atrocities against others, should their suffering be alleviated? Justice demands that they pay the price for these sins, and God cannot be unjust!

Of course, we don’t want to forget that those who hold other views of hell also believe that people will suffer in hell. They just differ on the purpose for this suffering and its final outcome. But there’s a deeper problem with this claim. Why aren’t we subject to eternal judgment? Were our sins somehow not as sinful as these other people? Were we a little less rebellious? Do we “get in” because we were just nicer than they were? We know the answer is emphatically, “no.” Salvation is all about the grace of God, we weren’t saved because of our own righteousness. We were able to enter into relationship with God because Christ took on the penalty of our sin. He died our death so we could receive his life.

And when did he do this? Romans 5:10 tells us he did this “while we were still his enemies.” He did this for us while we still would have fit the descriptions of vile, sinful, rebellious humanity we see in the first three chapters of Romans. Jesus died for the very people who were crucifying him (Luke 23:34). Christ became the sacrifice that not only atoned for our sins “but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

What does this mean? If justice has already been completely satisfied in the sacrifice of Christ, then this is no longer a matter of justice. The punishment for all sin has already been meted out to Christ. He is (John 1:29) “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Everyone must respond to God’s grace in faith, of course, and we all agree with this. The question is: Can people in hell still respond in repentance and faith to God’s grace, and—if not—why not? This claim doesn’t answer that question. The justice of God no more requires eternal punishment for them than it does for us because Jesus bore the penalty for all our sins on the cross.

Sinning against the infinitely glorious God requires infinite punishment.

This is another claim that can resonate with us. It appeals to our sense of devotion to God, our deep worship of God, and our desire to exalt him. But if we take the time to think through this idea, we find it’s also problematic. What exactly is the understanding being argued here? It’s that it’s not what a person does that makes it worthy of eternal punishment, it’s to whom they do it. God is infinitely holy and glorious; so sinning against him results in infinite guilt and punishment.

Of course, this can be merely a more sophisticated and more focused version of the argument we just considered. Christ already suffered the consequences of our sin—infinite or otherwise. But what if someone doesn’t accept his sacrifice for them? Does that mean they’re left unavoidably with infinite punishment because God is infinitely holy and glorious? 

This can sound somewhat persuasive until we actually think through how sin and punishment work. If a child sins against their incredibly loving, patient parent, does that mean it doesn’t matter what they specifically did, it’s all about to whom they did it? If your child sasses back when you make them finish an unpleasant chore (“I don’t want to do that! I hate that chore!”), are they deserving of the same punishment they would be if they screamed obscenities at you, hit you repeatedly in the face and willfully knocked over the TV? Of course not. This isn’t the way punishment works in everyday life, and it’s also not the way it works in the Bible. The Old Testament law shows very different consequences for differing sins—even differing sins against the same person. It’s simply not scripturally true that all sin against our infinitely holy and glorious God results in the same punishment.

It’s ironic that proponents of eternal conscious torment will often reference Luke 12:47-48, which speaks of servants receiving different levels of punishment (some more blows, some less). They’ll use this to speak of different levels of punishment in hell. But you can’t have differing degrees of infinity! It doesn’t make any sense to argue there can be variation in the intensity of the punishment but the duration of the punishment, that must be infinite. This is special pleading. Either sinning against God results in completely limitless punishment or it doesn’t. This idea doesn’t fit what we see in Scripture of punishment or what we know of punishment in everyday life, and it’s not logically consistent with other claims about eternal conscious punishment.

The eternal conscious torment of the lost is required to bring glory to God.

This is another claim we hear fairly often, but I find it very disturbing. Is the eternal torment of the lost required to bring God optimal glory? Everyone in this discussion seems to agree that what we believe about hell tells us a great deal about what we believe about God. Yes, we all agree God is worthy of infinite glory, and that everything in his accomplished plan will result in God being glorified. But are we really to believe in a God whose primary motivation in everything is to bring himself glory? Is God really that self-obsessed? Is this narcissistic picture of God really the God of the Bible, the God who sacrifices himself for his creation because he loves them? Is this the God of the cross? Is this the God we’re supposed to emulate in our own relationships?

And, even if that were so, is God truly most glorified by the suffering and torment of his created beings (even if they’re rebelling against him)? And, according to what many claim, this eternal torment is supposed to demonstrate God’s glory and love to those who are saved. This is the idea: We were all hopelessly bound in sin from which we couldn’t free ourselves; God graciously released us from bondage and saved us, but left the rest to remain bound and condemned; their judgment of torment is then supposed to show us how incredibly gracious and loving God was to us, thus bringing God glory. Does this make any sense? Imagine you have seven children who run away from home. They all end up bound and abandoned in a house that’s been set on fire. So you run in and graciously unbind two of your children and take them to safety, but leave the other five to remain in the burning house. When your two saved children ask why you’re not saving their siblings but allowing them to die, you respond, “Because allowing them to die in the fire shows you how much I love you!” Again, does this make any sense? Does this sound like the God we see in Scripture? Wouldn’t God be much more glorified by transforming all of his enemies, saving all of his creation?

There is no possibility of salvation after death.

The problem with this claim is that we’re not told this anywhere in Scripture. (I previously addressed Hebrews 9:27 in this post.) This is something most of us have assumed, but it’s just that—an assumption. And we never want to base our theology on an assumption. We certainly don’t want to use our assumption as some kind of authoritative basis for making or evaluating other claims (especially when there are so many passages of Scripture that speak of all of God’s creation being restored and worshiping him). If we’re going to hold to this claim as some kind of absolute that makes impossible other views of judgment and restoration, we need to be able to explain why there is no possibility of salvation after death.

We’re often strongly driven to share the gospel with an unsaved friend or family member when they’re close to death. We have no problem with the idea that someone can be saved in the last few seconds of life (even if they’re a Hitler or Dahmer). We even use the possibility of someone repenting in those last few seconds as a possible comfort. Who knows, God may have reached them even in the very final split second before they died. But—as soon as they’re dead—we assume that’s it, that all changes. Why? Does God no longer love the person after they die? Does he no longer desire that they be saved and reconciled to him? Does he no longer have grace for this person? Are they no longer someone for whom he died? Is he no longer able to save them? Can death actually, effectively separate someone from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39)? Why? Scripture never tells us any of this, so why should we believe this is just the way things are?

Let me give you another illustration. Imagine, again, that you have a large family. And, let’s say that you visit the Grand Canyon. You give your kids a very clear warning: “Over there, on the other side of that rock wall, is a huge canyon. If you go past that wall, you’ll fall off the edge and drop for a long, long way with nothing to stop you, and you’ll die!! So stay back from the edge! Don’t go too close!” One of your kids ignores your warning, climbs over the wall and falls off the edge. But they’re able to grab a rock jutting out of the canyon wall, and they’re dangling there within reach of the top. So you go over and stand at the edge, looking down at them, and say: “Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I say that would happen? Now there are you are—past the edge! I can’t do anything for you now! You’re going to fall and die!” Does that sound right to you? Is God like this parent? Why do we assume that God loves the lost so much and desires to save them before they die, but that he can’t or won’t do anything to save them after they die? Why do we assume that everything is about this life when— from a biblical perspective—this life is so fleeting and limited? Why do we think we can draw lines that God has not?

Eternal conscious torment is necessary for evangelism.

This is a bit of a non sequitur, meaning that it doesn’t actually do anything to make belief in eternal conscious torment necessary. Even if we could show that belief in an eternal hell can be somehow useful in evangelism, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. We don’t want to adopt a belief just because it seems to work; we don’t want to slip into “the ends justifies the means” kind of thinking. But this is a common argument, so let’s consider it.

Scripture tells us a great deal about evangelism and gives us many portrayals of those evangelizing, but we don’t see anything showing the necessity of eternal conscious torment in any of these passages. Many of us are so accustomed to hearing fearful descriptions of hell as motivation for people to be saved—or motivation for us to get out there and share the gospel—that it’s a shock to us to realize the Bible doesn’t do this. We see a lot of presentations of the gospel in the New Testament; we don’t see in any of these presentations of the gospel a warning that if people don’t get saved, they’re going to die and go to hell. (I’m not saying this isn’t true, just that we don’t see the Bible including this as a reason—or the reason—to place one’s faith in Christ.) We see a lot of places where we’re encouraged to lovingly share the good news with others. We don’t see anyplace where Peter or Paul motivated people to evangelize because “those people out there are dying and going to hell!” So this claim doesn’t fit what we do see in Scripture.

It’s also not true that this view of hell is necessary, or even helpful, for evangelism. Actually we find just the opposite. We see many examples in history of people who were so repelled by the idea of a God who eternally torments his enemies that they rejected Christianity, people such as Charles Darwin and Bertrand Russell. 1 If you’ve spent much time sharing the faith with others, you’ve doubtlessly experienced the same thing. This has almost aways been an issue with unbelievers with whom I’ve talked. This belief has actually pushed a huge number of people away from the faith, especially when preached in a forceful, aggressive manner. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not true, of course, but we had better be certain of the truth of a claim that others find so repulsive before we insist on it in evangelism!

Those who come to belief because of a fear of hell often end up weak, shallow Christians, or later leave the faith altogether. We refer to this form of evangelism as “fire insurance.” This way of sharing the “good news” actually confuses both unbelievers and believers. Just think of how the gospel is frequently presented: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. And if you don’t accept him, you’ll burn in hell forever.” We don’t see the necessity of eternal conscious torment in the many passages in Scripture on evangelism, and we don’t see it in the actual responses of countless unbelievers. If anything, the emphasis of this view of hell may have actually done great harm.

The doors of hell are locked on the inside.

This isn’t really an argument for eternal conscious torment, but it’s frequently offered as a way of making an eternal hell more understandable or even more tolerable (at least as a concept). This common description of hell comes from a well-known quote of C.S. Lewis from The Problem of Pain. I confess, I’ve referred to this picture of hell many times over the years myself. It does make the idea of torment in hell seem easier to accept. But there’s one real problem with this familiar description. The Bible doesn’t actually describe hell this way . . . ever. There isn’t one place in Scripture where it describes judgment in hell as something that people are actively choosing and which they would resist ever leaving. Instead, this postmortem torment is always seen as something imposed on people, something to which they’re subjected. So this description may comfort us in some ways—and I understand the appeal. But it’s not at all in harmony with what we see of hell in Scripture. No we have to deal with the actual reality of the torment of hell as described in the New Testament. (We’ll look more closely at the issue of free will when we consider challenges to universal salvation.)

I don’t see any theological argument that would require belief in eternal conscious torment. But are there any compelling arguments for universal reconciliation and restoration? We’ll look at that in the next post.

If you’d like more expansive arguments for and against the differing views of hell, I’d recommend beginning with one of these books:

Four Views on Hell (2nd ed.) by Preston Sprinkle, Denny Burk, John Stackhouse Jr, Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls

All You Want to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin by Steve Gregg

  1. Steve Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 17-18.

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation?: New Testament passages

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This is the seventh post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

In the last post we looked at the Old Testament. We saw that God desires to relent from judging people, that we should expect for his judgment to always be followed by restoration, and that biblical passages speak of a future time when all of God’s creation will submit to and worship him. According to the Scriptures we examined, all of this is grounded in God’s love. If we’re seeing this correctly, we should discover the New Testament expanding on this and making it even more clear. Some might point out—rightly—that the passages we looked at in the Old Testament are poetic in nature, drawn from the Psalms and prophetic books. We need for these poetic references to be confirmed in more direct, didactic [intending to teach] scriptural books such as the letters to the churches. Let’s see what we find in the New Testament.

Romans 5:18-19 all “will be made righteous”

As we study through Romans, we see in 5:10 that “while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.” This is a wonderful truth, but it prompts some questions. Who would be included in “God’s enemies”? Who are those in need of reconciliation? Wouldn’t that be everyone? Does that mean God has reconciled everyone to himself through Christ’s death? This leaves a question that needs to be resolved.

Moving on in this chapter, we come to verse 15:

But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! [emphasis added]

We should clarify a couple of things in this verse. First, we see here a use of the word “many” with which most of you are probably already familiar. It wasn’t uncommon for them to use “many” in an understated way to actually refer to “all.” It says first that “many” died by the trespass of the one man (Adam). Who would this include? All of us, right? Paul has made this clear in previous chapters of Romans. Since the first “many” is referring to all, the second “many” must also refer to all. Paul shows this in the chapter by going back and forth between using “many” and using “all.” So death came to all of us because of Adam, and grace overflows to all of us because of Christ.

But also notice this isn’t a simple comparison of equally significant phenomena. Grace isn’t merely the positive equivalent of the death that comes because of sin. No, notice the “how much more” speaking of God’s grace. I like the way the REB brings this out:

But God’s act of grace is out of all proportion to Adam’s wrongdoing. For if the wrongdoing of that one man brought death upon so many, its effect is vastly exceeded by the grace of God and the gift that came to so many by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ [emphasis added].

Verse 17 gives us another “how much more” contrasting the death through Adam and reigning in life through Christ. In verse 20, we read the familiar line: “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” Again, I think the REB gives us the vivid sense of the Greek: “where sin was multiplied, grace immeasurably exceeded it.” Do you see the significance of this? God’s grace and life are immeasurably more powerful than sin and death. Grace always exceeds sin; grace always abounds much more than sin. So, in the context of all of this, Paul tells us this in verses 18-19:

Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

Notice again the interchangeable use in this chapter of the words “all” and “many.” Who are the “many” who were made sinners through the disobedience of Adam? That’s everyone, right? Then the very same word is used again: “so through the obedience of one man the many will be made righteous.” If the many who were made sinners includes everyone, then the many who will be made righteous has to include everyone. There’s nothing in the text that would cause us to interpret the second “many” to have a different meaning than the first—especially considering the intentionally repeated and emphasized comparisons of the all and the many throughout this section, each referring to all humanity. If I was teaching this in a classroom setting, and drew a circle on the whiteboard to show those who were made sinners, and then drew a circle showing those who will be made righteous—it would be the very same circle. I don’t see any way around this without doing violence to the text.

But—some will say—there’s only one way to “be made righteous.” Paul has made it clear in chapters 3 and 4 that only those who have the same faith that Abraham had will be justified or considered righteous. The only way for us to be made righteous is through faith in Christ! To this, the evangelical universalist will respond, “Amen!” And since Paul says here that all will be made righteous, we must understand that all will come to faith in Christ. Notice he doesn’t say throughout this chapter that all were potentially made sinners. No, all were made sinners, because of the sin of one man, Adam. So, he’s not saying that all will potentially be made righteous. No, all “will be made righteous,” “through the obedience of one man [Christ].” Isn’t this saying the same thing we saw in the Old Testament, that all will come to submit to God and worship him? But now we see more clearly that this happens in Christ.

And let’s not forget the contrast in verse 20, that grace always immeasurably exceeds sin. But, wait a minute. We need to think about this. If sin results in death for everyone in God’s vast creation, but the grace of God only saves from death a certain number of those condemned to death—possibly even a relatively small number—how is grace increasing even more than sin? How is the salvation greater than the curse? If Adam’s sin affects everyone without exception, but Christ’s grace affects only some . . . how is God’s grace greater than Adam’s sin?

Romans 8:38-39 Nothing can separate us from God’s love

Romans 8:35 asks the question: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” And Romans 8:38-39 answers the question:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It’s hard to imagine how Paul could have been more all-inclusive. The message seems clear: Absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love. God’s love triumphs over anything that might try to separate us from that love. Even death can’t separate us from God’s love. And, if the wages of sin is death, is not hell the ultimate experience of death? Even hell can’t separate us from God’s love. Some might ask, “Yes, but can I separate myself from God’s love?” Well, am I saying that I am greater than God’s love? And are we not included in “all creation”? Then, according to this text, we can’t even separate ourselves from God’s love!

1 Corinthians 15:20-21 “in Christ all will be made alive”

The passage we just examined in Romans 5 compares very well to this one in 1 Corinthians 15:20-21:

For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.

Who dies “in Adam”? Everyone. So who will be made alive in Christ? Everyone. “But,” some will say, “it’s only those who are ‘in Christ’ who will be made alive.” Yes. All of us agree on this. But unless we have any place in Scripture where it clearly says that some will never come to faith in Christ—either in this life or the life to come—we have no reason to assume there are some of the “all” who die in Adam who are not in the “all” who will be made alive in Christ. Notice again what it says: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” Just as all die because of Adam, so also all will be made alive in Christ.

And then we read what it says later in this chapter, in verse 55:

Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

If a great many of God’s created beings, possibly even the vast majority, remain locked in an eternal death or are extinguished and completely cease to exist, wouldn’t this be an empty boast? Wouldn’t death be able to respond: “Where’s my victory? Right here! Right here in the countless number of your precious created people who I will hold eternally with no one to take them away from me.”

Philippians 2:9-11 & Revelation 5:13 every knee will bow, every tongue will confess, every creature will worship

In Philippians 2:9-11, we read these familiar words:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

So let’s clarify something right away. Some will pick up on the wording in the NIV above that “every knee should bow,” and say: “Oh, this is just what everyone should do.” But this is simply an older way of saying that every knee will bow. This is why many other translations clearly say that “every knee will bow” (even the NASB). 

This passage is drawing from Isaiah 45:22-24, which we looked at in the last post. So is this describing people being forced against their will to bow to Christ and confess him as Lord? Are these people bowing to Jesus under the boots of his angels? Do we see anywhere in Scripture where God requires or even accepts insincere, forced worship? (Again, read Isaiah 29:13 and 1:11-18.) How could a forced, insincere confession of Christ as Lord be “to the glory of God the Father”? Or is this exactly what it sounds like, every knee bowing to Jesus and every tongue confessing Christ as Lord. And this will be every knee “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” It’s hard to get much more all-inclusive than that. And don’t forget that Romans 10:9 tells us that those who confess or acknowledge Jesus as Lord will be saved.

If we still want to see this as some kind of forced acknowledgment, we have a bigger problem when we get to Revelation 5:13:

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

This is inarguably not a forced acknowledgment, but heartfelt, exuberant praise and worship. And who is doing this praising and worshiping? The text says it’s “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them.” Again, this is going to great lengths to describe everyone without exception. This description even includes those on and in “the sea.” This is particularly meaningful here because throughout Revelation the sea indicates rebellious humanity. It’s hard not to see here all of God’s creation—including those who were previously sinful and rebellious—pouring out to God lavish praises and worship. And who could deny that this would be profoundly to the glory of God the Father?! It’s hard to imagine an ending that would bring God more glory than to have all of his previous enemies now pouring out his praises in heartfelt, thankful worship!

Colossians 1:20 all creation is reconciled to God through Christ

Colossians 1:15-23 is a section focusing on the supremacy of Christ, the Son. Verse 16 says: 

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.

That doesn’t leave out much of anything! The Greek word translated “all things” in this verse is used seven times in six verses (sometimes translated “everything” or “all”). This is a noticeable pattern, something Paul is strongly emphasizing. In verses 19-20 we read the final reference to “all things” in this section, the conclusion of this pattern of obvious, specific references to “all things”:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

As we read through these verses, it’s very apparent that “all things” means just that: everything that was created (just as in verse 16). So who does God reconcile to himself through Christ? Everyone who was created. Who does that leave out? No one.

So let’s make sure we understand what this is saying. What does it mean to be reconciled? For people to be reconciled means their relationship is restored. If we have a family member who is estranged from us, and then we’re reconciled, our relationship with this loved one is restored. So, if a married couple is going through a difficult time, and even seek counseling, but end up divorced and going their separate ways—are they reconciled? No, they’re not. The relationship is not restored. In fact, the term often used in these situations is “irreconcilable differences,” right? If two Christians have been openly hostile to one another, but now come into the place where the church meets, intentionally never speak to each other, go to opposite corners of the room and try to not even look at the other person—are they reconciled? No, of course not. There is no restored relationship here.

So what does it mean for us to be reconciled to God? It means we’re no longer estranged, no longer separated. Our relationship has been restored. We’re reunited, brought back together again. And this passage tells us God reconciles everyone to him, he reunites everyone to him, he restores everyone’s relationship with him, not leaving anyone estranged or separated from him. We’re so used to reading things like this and assuming this can’t mean everyone, that it’s hard for us to just see what the text of Scripture is actually saying, that “all things” means all things.

Revelation the kings of the earth

So is there any place in Scripture that indicates people in hell actually coming to faith in Christ? The book of Revelation includes the most graphic descriptions of the torment of hell. But let’s see something even more fascinating we discover in this unusual (to us) book. 1 Let’s start with Revelation 6:15-17:

Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”

So are “the kings of the earth” good guys or bad guys? They seem to be part of sinful, rebellious humanity, now subject to the wrath of God, right? Let’s look at what else we see about these “kings of the earth” in 16:14-16:

They are demonic spirits that perform signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty. . . . Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.

So, the kings of the world—good guys or bad guys? Well, since they’re gathering to fight Christ at Armageddon, I think it’s safe to say they’re bad guys, right? Let’s look at 17:2 (speaking of the great prostitute):

With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.

Good guys? No, definitely bad guys. And we have another reference in verse 18:

The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.

Again in 18:3:

For all the nations have drunk
the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
and the merchants of the earth grew rich from here excessive luxuries.

And in verse 9:

When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning they will weep and mourn for her.

And then we see in 19:19:

Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army.

Is there any question which side these guys are on, or to whom they give their allegiance? And we see this repeated emphasis of these kings of the earth all through the book of Revelation. They’re never mentioned in a positive or even neutral context from the beginning of Revelation to this ultimate rebellion in chapter 19. And we know what happens to those who submit to the beast, don’t we? Remember what we read previously in Revelation 14:9-11:

If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever [Greek unto the ages of ages]. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.

And we see this fate mentioned also in 20:14-15:

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Continuing immediately into the beginning of chapter 21, we have the new heaven and the new earth. In verse 2 and following we see the new Jerusalem. The descriptions make clear that the new Jerusalem is the church, after the resurrection and the judgment. But along with these wonderful images, we see some conflicting descriptions that can be confusing. 

In verse 1, we’re told that “there was no longer any sea.” This makes sense because throughout Revelation the sea has represented sinful, rebellious humanity. We’re also told in verse 4 that there will be no more death. This compares well with 1 Corinthians 15:26 that says the last enemy Christ will destroy will be death. And in verse 5, God says that he is making everything new! But then in verses 7-8 we read this:

Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters, and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.

How can it indicate there is no more sinful, rebellious humanity (no sea) and then describe sinful, rebellious humanity? How can there be no more death—with death completely, finally defeated and destroyed—when there remains a second death? Is God making everything new . . . except for all of this? But then we read something really shocking in verses 23-27:

The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever into it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life [emphasis added].

So the city is the church, the covenant people of God, with God in their midst, heaven on earth. And nothing impure can be in the church, in this city, nothing shameful, only those whose names are written in the book of life. And into this city come the kings of the earth . . . but . . . these are the bad guys! All through Revelation they were obviously and consistently the enemies of God, submitted to the beast. We know what happened to them—they’re in the lake of fire! But here they are, coming into the city. To come into the city they can no longer be impure, their names must now be written in the Lamb’s book of life. How can this be . . . unless there remains an opportunity for repentance and salvation even after judgment. What this passage describes is impossible, unless God has also reconciled these enemies of his, these kings of the earth, to himself. And—if all of these kings of the earth and “the nations” with them repent, place their faith in Christ, and then come into the city, into the church, submit themselves to Christ, bow their knees to him and confess that he is Lord—if all of this happens, what would be the result? There would eventually be no more “sea,” no more sinful, rebellious humanity. There would be no more death. Death would be finally conquered—by emptying it. All creation would be reconciled to God and would be restored. “No longer will there be any curse [22:3].” God would have made everything new!

We have another description of this in 22:14-15:

Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

So the city is the church, and outside are all the lost, sinful people. This fits well with the references of Jesus to those who are “cast into outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12, etc.). We have those on the inside and those on the outside. This passage speaks of those who wash their robes and then have the right to enter the city through the gates and partake of the tree of life. But, wait a minute—we’re already the city. We’re already inside. How—after the resurrection and after the judgment—can anyone else come into the city, into the church? There’s only one way to become part of Christ’s church, and that’s through faith in Christ. But this passage—showing how vile are the people on the outside—still describes people washing their robes (which must be in the blood of Christ, Revelation 7:14) and entering the city! And remember what it said in 21:25, the gates of the city are never closed! Putting this all together, doesn’t it mean there always remains the opportunity to repent and place our faith in Christ, and that eventually all will, in fact, be reconciled and restored? No wonder it says almost immediately after this in 22:17:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the ones who hear say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

So who are we and the Spirit inviting? I can’t see any way, in context, to say this doesn’t include an invitation to those outside the city, to those in outer darkness, experiencing the second death of judgment in hell.

When I was a teenager, a friend from work invited me home to have dinner with her family. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses, so it wasn’t a surprise when they invited me to join them for a study after dinner. The conversation quickly became focused on the issue of the deity of Christ, and they had some challenges I hadn’t heard before. So I went home and dragged out my “research library” consisting of three translations of Scripture, a Strong’s Concordance and a Halley’s Bible Handbook. I spent much of the next few days searching the Scriptures to make sure they really did teach that Jesus is God. When I was done, not only was my confidence in this belief confirmed, but I saw the deity of Jesus everywhere in the Bible. I couldn’t avoid it!

The more I’ve searched the Scriptures regarding universal reconciliation and restoration, the more I’ve had a similar experience. The passages I’ve listed above are by no means all of the texts that speak of universal salvation. And the more I’ve studied this, the more I’ve come to see this hope woven all through the Bible. Just recently, I was researching a completely different subject. I was using the REB translation at the time, and looked up Acts 3:21. My jaw dropped open when I read:

He must be received into heaven until the time comes for the universal restoration of which God has spoken through his holy prophets from the beginning.

I checked the Greek and, sure enough, the word here is apokatastasis, the same word the early Greek-speaking church leaders used for this belief. The ISV, NRSV and Phillips translate it similarly, while other translations speak of ‘everything being restored’ or ‘the restoration of all things.’ It was amazing to see the phrase right there in the text of Scripture in black and white. When people espouse belief in “universal restoration,” they’re using an expression right from Scripture.

In the book of Romans, Paul takes three chapters, 9-11, to answer the question of why so many of the Jewish people weren’t coming to faith in Christ. He brings all of this to his conclusions in chapter 11, and in 11:26 states boldly that “all Israel will be saved.” We’ve typically tried to qualify that to mean all Israel who remain on earth when Christ returns or something similar—but that’s not what the Scripture says, and it doesn’t do justice to the flow of Paul’s thought. Ephesians 1:10 tells us the end result of God’s plan that he always intended: “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” Over and over again we encounter passages in Scripture that seem to be universal in scope, but which we assume can’t mean that. But what if we stop explaining away the clear wording of these texts? What if we take these Scriptures to actually mean what they say? What if the universal restoration that Scripture speaks of actually is universal?

We’ve seen in the last few posts that the biblical case for eternal conscious torment almost completely rests on what everyone seems to agree is a mistranslation of one Greek word. If we understand this word correctly, we have little exegetical support for eternal conscious torment. On the other hand, we’ve now seen extensive scriptural support for belief in universal reconciliation and restoration. But we still need to consider the broader theological arguments for and against these views. In the next post, we’ll think through the theological case for eternal conscious torment.

  1. I’m indebted to Robin Parry for describing this pattern in Revelation. For more on this, see:

    Bradley Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009)

    And for more in-depth exegesis of all the biblical passages, see:

    Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist: The Biblical Hope that God’s Love Will Save Us All, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2012), particularly (in regards to the reference above) chapter 5: “A Universalist Interpretation of the Book of Revelation.”

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation?: The Old Testament pattern

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

This is the sixth post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

In the last two posts, we looked at the biblical case for eternal conscious torment. We found that the case for this view rests almost wholly on the traditional (for us) understanding of the Greek word aionios as “eternal,” an understanding we found to be in conflict with what most evangelical scholars actually tell us about this word and how the early Greek-speaking teachers and leaders used this word. Once we acknowledge that aionios does not mean “eternal,” this leaves us with essentially no explicit biblical case for the eternal conscious torment view. (We still need to examine the broader theological case.) But what about the universal reconciliation and restoration view? Is there a case to be made from the explicit wording of Scripture for this view? In this post, we’ll look at the pattern we find in the Old Testament, and in the next post we’ll consider some New Testament passages.

Not surprisingly, the Old Testament is not as clear about these things as the New Testament. This is to be expected. Remember, as I mentioned in the last post, we have only one explicit, unambiguous reference to bodily resurrection in the whole Old Testament. So we shouldn’t expect any belief such as this to be as fully understood and discussed in the Old Testament. God revealed much more of the clarity of his plan to the apostles in the New Testament. Still, there are some very compelling passages in the Old Testament that we need to consider, beginning with those that speak to the nature of God’s judgment.

Jonah

Some time after I became aware of evangelical Christians who believe in universal salvation (although I still remained unconvinced exegetically), I began to teach through the book of Jonah. I found this Old Testament prophetic book compelling in ways that surprised me. Many of us are mostly familiar with the first part of Jonah’s story, when he runs away from God’s call, is eventually swallowed by a great fish and then put back on the right course. What happens in Nineveh is often thought of as almost a postscript to this well-known story. But I think we’re in danger of missing an incredibly meaningful part of this account.

As you’ll recall, God sent Jonah to the pagan, enemy city of Nineveh to deliver a very simple message of impending judgment (Jonah 3:4):

“Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!”

That was it. No conditions, no clauses, no ifs, ands or buts. In forty days Nineveh would be destroyed—period. If someone were to suggest that maybe there was a chance God would relent and not actually destroy Nineveh, others could point to the unambiguous wording of God’s message. God had been very clear that in forty days he would destroy Nineveh, and he didn’t say anything about a possible relenting.

Of course, we know what happened. We know that everyone in Nineveh, from the king down, repented, humbling themselves before God. And God did relent from destroying Nineveh. And then Jonah responded to God in words that are amusing, troubling and insightful (Jonah 4:2):

“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, LORD? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.”

Isn’t that amazing? Jonah is telling God: “I knew you would do this! You’re so merciful, compassionate, eager to turn back from destroying people—I knew you would relent and not actually destroy Nineveh as you said you would!” And he makes clear that this is the very reason he ran away from God’s calling—because he knew that God would relent and show mercy! There’s a lot we could say about Jonah’s attitude (and we’ll return to this in a later post), but his strong certainty about the character of God and what God would do is something we must note. Jonah’s compelling example didn’t make me embrace universalism, but it did challenge my thinking in a few ways:

  • It showed me that I need to be careful to never think I know completely what God is going to do, especially if I’m assuming any limit to his grace or love. We need to always accept that we don’t know the whole story, that even God’s Word to us doesn’t tell us everything he’s going to do.
  • Jonah’s certainty that God would relent and show mercy was very compelling to me. Did my perception of God include less of his grace and love than this angry Old Testament prophet? Did Jonah have a more clear understanding that God is “eager to turn back from destroying people”? Why was I so sure that there’s a point beyond which God will no longer show mercy and forgive?
  • This actually fits a consistent pattern in the Old Testament. It’s almost as if a warning of judgment automatically includes an option (whether spoken or unspoken) that if people will respond with repentance, God will relent. It seems that this is such a strong pattern, that God has to make it very clear when he will not relent, as we see in passages such as Jeremiah 7:16; 11:14; and chapters 15-18.

But even in the places where we see that God doesn’t relent in bringing judgment, this is always part of a larger pattern we see in the Old Testament:

The pattern of judgment and restoration

There are some fascinating passages in the Old Testament that show a compelling pattern. We know that God severely judged the nation of Judah for their idolatry and sin, but then later restored them. What’s fascinating is there’s a much broader pattern of God’s judgment followed by restoration. Look at some of these examples:

“Moab will no longer be a nation [NIV: “will be destroyed as a nation”],
for it has boasted against the LORD.”

Jeremiah 48:42

“But I will restore the fortunes of Moab
in days to come.
I, the LORD, have spoken!”

Jeremiah 48:47

“I myself will go with Elam’s enemies to shatter it.
In my fierce anger, I will bring great disaster
upon the people of Elam,” says the LORD.
“Their enemies will chase them with the sword
until I have destroyed them completely.”

Jeremiah 49:37

“But I will restore the fortunes of Elam
in days to come.
I, the LORD, have spoken!”

Jeremiah 49:39

Consider what the prophet Isaiah had to say, from the Lord, about Egypt and Assyria:

The LORD will make himself know to the Egyptians. Yes, they will know the LORD and will give their sacrifices and offerings to him. They will make a vow to the LORD and will keep it. The LORD will strike Egypt, and then he will bring healing. For the Egyptians will turn to the LORD, and he will listen to their pleas and will heal them.

In that day Egypt and Assyria will be connected by a highway. The Egyptians and Assyrians will move freely between their lands, and they will both worship God. In that day, Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth. For the LORD of Heaven’s Armies will say, “Blessed be Egypt, my people. Blessed be Assyria, the land I have made. Blessed be Israel, my special possession!”

Isaiah 19:21-25

This might prompt some in-depth discussion as to exactly how this prophecy will be fulfilled, but it certainly shows nations who were previously enemies of God’s people, and thus of God—and who were judged by God—but who will both become people of God themselves!

In Ezekiel 16:46-63, God compares the nation of Judah unfavorably with the sin of Samaria (the northern kingdom of Israel) and of Sodom, both of which had been severely judged by God. Then God says this:

But someday I will restore the fortunes of Sodom and Samaria, and I will restore you, too. Then you will be truly ashamed of everything you have done, for your sins make them feel good in comparison. Yes, your sisters, Sodom and Samaria, and all their people will be restored, and at that time you also will be restored.

Ezekiel 16:53-55

Yes, even wicked Sodom will be restored! Judah will be restored just as God restores Sodom! This compelling pattern seems to show that whatever God judges, he also restores. This doesn’t say anything directly about hell because the Old Testament doesn’t say anything about hell per se. But it does tell us quite a bit about God’s judgment, and hell is the ultimate example of God’s judgment. This pattern in the Old Testament would cause us to expect, by default, that God’s judgment will always be followed by restoration. We’ve already seen there are no passages in Scripture that explicitly describe hell as eternal with no chance of restoration. But are there passages that show restoration after God’s final judgment? We’ll look closely at the New Testament in the next post, but there are some other passages in the Old Testament we need to consider.

Other Old Testament passages

For no one is abandoned
by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he also shows compassion
because of the greatness of his unfailing love.
For he does not enjoy hurting people
or causing them sorrow.

Lamentations 3:31-33

It’s hard to imagine a more clear statement. No one is abandoned by the Lord forever (or indefinitely). Why not? We’re told the reason why not: “because of the greatness of his unfailing love.” God doesn’t enjoy hurting people or causing them sorrow. Jonah tells us God is eager to turn back from destroying people because he is filled with unfailing love. And here Jeremiah tells us that no one will remain abandoned by God. And they both ground this in the character of God. So God has a necessary purpose in bringing judgment, a purpose that is in harmony with his love, and this necessary judgment does not mean irrevocable abandonment with no ultimate restoration. In light of this, consider what Jeremiah writes in other places:

The anger of the LORD will not diminish
until it has finished all he has planned.

Jeremiah 23:20

The fierce anger of the LORD will not diminish
until it has finished all he has planned.

Jeremiah 30:24

It’s not about God’s anger, and God’s anger is not unending; this is about God’s anger fulfilling its purpose, accomplishing what God intends. And underlying all of this is the love of God. We get this from these Old Testament prophets. And then we compare this to passages such as this one:

For his anger lasts only a moment,
but his favor lasts a lifetime!
Weeping may last through the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

Psalm 30:5

Now let’s think about what we see described in the following passages:

The whole earth will acknowledge the LORD and return to him.
All the families of the nations will bow down before him.

Psalm 22:27

It’s hard to deny that this at least sounds like God ultimately reconciling everyone to himself.

Everything on earth will worship you;
they will sing your praises,
shouting your name in glorious songs.

Psalm 66:4

All the nations you made
will come and bow before you, Lord;
they will praise your holy name.

Psalm 86:9

“Let all the world look to me for salvation!
For I am God; there is no other.
I have sworn by my own name;
I have spoken the truth,
and I will never go back on my word:
every knee will bend to me,
and every tongue will declare allegiance to me.”
The people will declare,
“The LORD is the source of all my righteousness and strength.”
And all who were angry with him
will come to him and be ashamed.

Isaiah 45:22-24

As you consider these passages, ask yourself: Is there anyplace in Scripture where God demands—or even accepts—worship that is not sincere, from the heart? Isn’t that specifically what God rejects in passages such as Isaiah 29:13 and 1:11-18? Do verses such as Psalm 66:4 (above) sound like the forcibly imposed “worship” of God through clenched teeth by those who remain defiant and rebellious? Or does it sound like the exuberant praise and adoration of those who have been freed from their bondage to sin and enmity against God and now pour out heartfelt worship and praise to God “because of the greatness of his unfailing love,” a God who—through his love—turns his enemies into his friends and even adopts them as his children?!

I am, admittedly, now drawing from the New Testament, and it’s to the New Testament we must now go. The pattern and passages we’ve seen in the Old Testament are surprisingly clear and compelling on their own. We’ve seen in the Old Testament a pattern of God’s judgment always being followed by his restoration. And we’ve seen in these Old Testament passages that no one will remain abandoned by God, but that everyone he has created will eventually come to worship him, giving him their allegiance. But we expect the New Testament to be even more clear and explicit, so we turn there next with great interest in what it has to say about these things.

For a deeper exploration of the Old Testament in regards to universal salvation, I recommend The Evangelical Universalist: The Biblical Hope that God’s Love Will Save Us All (second edition) by Gregory MacDonald (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2012).

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

Do other passages teach eternal conscious torment?

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This is the fifth post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

As I wrote in my last post, whenever I had cause to explain or defend the idea of eternal conscious torment, I always relied on two foundational claims:

  1. that the unequivocal wording of Scripture teaches the eternal conscious torment of the lost.
  2. that this belief has been consistently held by the vast majority of the church throughout our history.

As we’ve seen in the last two posts, both of these claims are weak, if not outrightly incorrect. We don’t have any evidence of an overwhelming consensus regarding the nature of hell in the first 600 years of church history. (And a claim that the eternal conscious torment view was predominant in the early church is particularly suspect.) Significant, soundly orthodox Christian leaders have held other views of hell throughout the history of the church. In the last post, we took a closer look at the Greek word aionios and found that it does not mean “eternal,” but “pertaining to the age” or—in the context of the hell passages—“of the age to come.” So the hell passages that speak of “eternal fire” or “eternal punishment” are more accurately referring to the fire of the age to come or the punishment of the age to come (and the life of the age to come). It’s obvious that this strongly diminishes the biblical case for eternal conscious torment. But are there any other passages that might explicitly teach this view? Let’s look at some Scriptures:

Luke 16:19-31 Lazarus and the rich man

In discussions of hell, someone will almost always bring up this familiar story. So let’s take some time to think about it. First of all, we should note that the story Jesus tells has to do with Hades or “the grave.” This isn’t talking about the fate of the lost after the resurrection and judgment, so this actually tells us nothing about hell. But let’s consider it anyway.

Many would accept this story as either describing something that literally happened or at least a faithful explanation of the nature of the afterlife. But a great many Bible scholars would caution us about being too quick in how we interpret this story. Why? Because they understand the historical context. The story that Jesus tells is noticeably similar to a folk story that was common in the Jewish culture at that time, but with some striking differences. The way the story was commonly told, the rich man was invariably the hero. The Jewish people of that time typically associated wealth with the blessing and favor of God. So this was a moral tale intended to contrast the responsible, godly rich man with the lazy, sinful beggar. Jesus tells this familiar story but he turns it on its head. It’s Lazarus, the poor beggar, who enjoys the blessing of paradise after he dies, and it’s the rich man who experiences the anguish of judgment! This would have been a shocking reversal to the people hearing Jesus’ story—especially to the Pharisees.

Some would understand all of this, but yet insist that Jesus is still describing something that actually occurred. Why? Because he gives us the name of Lazarus. We don’t see any other place where Jesus includes someone’s name in a parable, so, the thinking goes, this must not be a parable. But, while it’s true that Jesus does name Lazarus, and this is unusual, this interpretation also misses the actual significance of Jesus giving us this name. What was the rich man’s name? Jesus never tells us. Think about that. This rich man would have occupied a place of prominence in his community and in the life of the Jewish people. But in this story the man dies nameless, just some generic rich guy, with no identity or legacy. But the person they would have thought of as a nameless, faceless, generic poor beggar—he is given a name, an identity. The contrast is dramatic and would have added to the shocking impact to those hearing the story.

But—others might say—surely Jesus wouldn’t tell a story that doesn’t correspond to reality, even if it was intended to be a parable. Yet Jesus often included elements of parables that, though understandable, differed somewhat from actual reality. (Sowers wouldn’t have scattered their seed everywhere indiscriminately; no one would actually begin plowing and then not look where they were going, etc.) And it’s quite common for teachers to utilize folk tales that aren’t literally true as illustrations, as long as the people they’re teaching know they’re folk tales. Imagine a pastor in a church beginning a story with: “So, these three people die, and they each go to Saint Peter at the pearly gates . . .” Would anyone listening to this assume that this evangelical pastor is affirming the theological truth that when we die we’re each interviewed at the pearly gates by Saint Peter?! Of course not. They would understand the pastor was using a familiar scenario as an illustration to make a point. And Jesus was doing much the same thing.

If we’re supposed to understand this story as giving an accurate depiction of the afterlife, then we have more problems than the torment it describes. Let’s look at a couple of other details in the passage:

  • According to the story, heaven or paradise is characterized primarily by association with Abraham, and Abraham is somehow the key figure of authority there. Ask yourself this question: Does this emphasis of Abraham as the key figure best fit a biblical understanding of heaven or paradise, or does it fit much better with a first century Jewish folk understanding of heaven or paradise?
  • In this story, what determines who ends up on which side of the chasm? Jesus hasn’t died yet or been resurrected. So it has nothing to do with that. In fact, nothing is said about faith at all. Is this story teaching us that poor beggars all go to “heaven” and rich people all go to “hell”? Someone might respond: no, it has to do with the way they treated others. Okay, so that means their works determine whether they go to heaven or hell? Lazarus was saved because of his own righteousness?

No, if we try to understand this story as a literal depiction of hell for the purpose of preserving belief in eternal conscious torment, we end up with some very problematic theological baggage. It makes much more sense that Jesus was using a common folk story of the time to challenge the moral and spiritual assumptions of the people, just as a great many Bible scholars tell us. Regardless, as we observed above, this story is about Hades, not hell, so it doesn’t tell us anything directly about the fate of the lost after judgment.

Mark 9:43-48 “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched”

In a passage where Jesus is speaking of Gehenna [for more background regarding Gehenna, see my previous post], Jesus quotes this reference from Isaiah. Strangely—even though there’s no other place in Scripture where “worm” is a metaphor for one’s soul or spirit—some would assume this worm is speaking of the immortal soul of the lost. This is even less plausible when we take the time to look at the verse Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 66:24, where the passage is poetically describing the fate of those who would be judged, and what happens to their physical bodies. This passage in Isaiah is describing the decay and consumption of physical, mortal corpses, not spirits or souls. This is even more clear when we read this verse in Mark from a more current translation. For instance, the NLT renders this phrase: “where the maggots never die and the fire never goes out.” When we look at this in context—especially going back to the section in Isaiah that Jesus is quoting—it’s difficult to read into this anyone’s immortal soul. It actually strengthens the interpretation that Jesus is following the same understanding of Gehenna we see consistently in the Old Testament, and using this to warn of the coming judgment of Jerusalem in AD 70 (see this post). For a Jewish person to not be buried after death, but to have their corpse subjected to such a shameful end, would have been horrific.

But what of this unquenchable fire? The NASB translation of this in Isaiah 66:24 gives the sense of the Hebrew here: “And their fire will not be extinguished.” Let’s make sure we’re thinking about this according to the original context (to which Jesus was referring). Isaiah is speaking of the destruction of literal corpses that will horrify those who see what happens to these rebellious people. So are these corpses still being eaten by maggots somewhere today? Is this fire still consuming their bodies? No, it’s not. So, what is this saying? Simply that this is the judgment of God, and no one else can extinguish the fire of God’s judgment. It will burn until it accomplishes God’s will. It is “unquenchable,” not meaning that it will never go out, but that no one else can quench it. (If Captain Kirk begins an “unstoppable” auto-destruct sequence, that doesn’t mean it will go on forever, just that no one else can stop it!)

Daniel 12:2 “shame and everlasting disgrace”

Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting disgrace.

This is a significant passage because it’s the only place in the Old Testament where we see an unambiguous reference to resurrection, bodies that were lying dead and buried being raised up. But it’s also often brought into the discussion of the nature of hell because of the mention of “everlasting disgrace” or contempt. That’s not quite a description of eternal conscious torment, but it is a distinction between “everlasting life” and “everlasting disgrace.” What are we to make of this?

I was interested to see that the Hebrew word translated “everlasting” here is the word olam. This caught my attention because I was already very familiar with this word. Long before I was doing serious study regarding the nature of hell, I wrote a blog post on Christians and the Old Covenant law. In the ensuing comment thread, the issue of the Sabbath became a point of contention. Some would quote a verse such as Exodus 31:16 (ESV):

Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever.

You can see why some people would cite this verse. It clearly seems to be saying the observation of the Sabbath is a covenant that lasts forever. But I had to explain that the word olam—in a way that’s similar but not identical to the Greek word aionios—can be used to convey the meaning of “forever” but it’s primary meaning is closer to “lasting” or “perpetual.” This can be confirmed by referring to a Hebrew dictionary such as the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, or one could just compare translations. For instance, the NIV translates Exodus 31:16 this way:

The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant.

The NET and NRSV read “perpetual covenant,” and the NASB and CSB render it “permanent covenant.”

This isn’t an isolated example. There are many references in the Old Testament law that were traditionally rendered “This shall be a statute forever,” that more current translations now more accurately clarify as a “perpetual law” or “permanent law.” We can see why the traditional rendering doesn’t make sense in passages such as Exodus 21:5-6 where a slave can decide he doesn’t want to be freed from his master but he “shall be his slave forever” (ESV). Will this slave actually be a slave to his master forever? Of course not. That’s why most current translations render this more accurately that this slave will serve his master “for life.” Another example is Genesis 49:26 where it speaks—depending on the translation—of either “the eternal hills” (are any hills eternal?), or of the “age-old” or “ancient” hills. This is also why we need to be careful with such passages as Isaiah 34:10 that says the smoke of Edom “shall go up forever” (ESV). Can we see the smoke of Edom still going up? No, we can’t. And translations such as the NET translate this word more accurately as the smoke “will ascend continually.”

The very most that could be said of this passage is that the context of the verse has to determine whether olam means eternal in that context. This would mean we can’t just assume a meaning of “eternal” or “everlasting” in Daniel 12:2—when the word most often means something else—and then use the passage to somehow prove that hell is eternal. That would be circular reasoning, assuming our understanding in the text to use the text to prove our understanding! It seems much more accurate to understand this verse as speaking of lasting or continual disgrace without specifying any final outcome.

Hebrews 9:27 “destined to die once and after that comes judgment”

When we’ve had group studies and discussions about the differing views of hell, someone will always bring up passages that explicitly mention hell or judgment—as if this disproves all other views and settles the issue. But we can’t forget that all of the views that evangelicals hold regarding the nature of hell include the judgment of God and a very real hell. Showing references to hell or judgment in Scripture doesn’t do anything to disprove any of the other views. (Just as showing that personal faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation doesn’t do anything to disprove the view of universal salvation, because evangelical universalists also insist that we must all be saved through faith in Christ.)

Some will use Hebrews 9:27 to argue that there’s no possible opportunity to be saved after death. Let’s look carefully at what the text actually says (and what it doesn’t say):

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment . . . 

Hopefully you can see the problem. This verse says that we’ll all die once. So this could be a good verse to counter something like reincarnation. And it also tells us that after death will come judgment. So far, so good. We all agree on this. But what happens after judgment? Is there any chance of repentance and restoration? The text doesn’t say. It doesn’t address at all what happens after judgment. So if we try to use this passage to argue what happens—or can’t happen—after judgment, we’re reading this into the text. (This is what Bible scholars call “eisegesis,” reading our meaning into the text of Scripture rather than drawing it out from the text of Scripture, which is “exegesis.”) We’re so locked into the idea there’s no chance of salvation after death, that we’re shocked when we realize the Scriptures never clearly tell us this at all. To use this passage to teach one particular view of hell would be like saying that after conception comes the birth of the child—and this somehow confirms my views about parenting!

After looking at each of these Scripture passages, we have to conclude that none of them clearly teach the eternal conscious torment of the lost. So, is there anywhere the Bible explicitly and unambiguously articulates the idea of eternal conscious torment? I can’t find anyplace. Does this mean that hell is not eternal? Not necessarily. We still need to look at the broader theological arguments. But it does mean that my previous understanding that eternal conscious torment is an inescapable teaching from the clear and unequivocal wording of Scripture is simply not true. The case supporting eternal conscious torment from the explicit texts of Scripture is decidedly lacking. But is there actually a biblical case to be made that no one will be eternally lost, but that all will be reconciled to God and restored? We’ll begin looking at this next.

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

Understanding the “eternal fire” of hell

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This is the fourth post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

As an evangelical pastor, there have been times I’ve had to explain, or even defend, hell. More precisely, I was explaining what I understood to be the biblical teaching of eternal conscious torment in hell. I didn’t do this because I loved the idea of endless punishment or because I was a “hellfire-and-brimstone preacher.” I did it because I felt I had to in order to be biblically faithful. On these occasions, I always fell back on what I saw as the two solid foundations of belief in an endless hell:

  1. the unequivocal wording of Scripture.
  2. the historical consensus of the church.

As we saw in the last post, it’s not really appropriate to speak of a consensus regarding the nature of hell in the first 500 years of the life of the church. While, over time, universal salvation became a distinctly minority view, there continued to be Christian leaders and pastors who held this view throughout the history of the church. We didn’t have time to explore later Christian universalists such as the 17th century Puritan universalist Peter Sterry, men who were associated with George Whitefield who came to embrace universalism such as James Relly and John Murray, 18th century Baptist universalist Elhanan Winchester, or universalist authors such as Hannah Whitall Smith and George MacDonald.1 Again, these are just a sampling, but it seems clear the second point above is, at the very best, inconclusive.

But the wording of Scripture does seem to be unequivocal and inescapable. When addressing this issue, I always relied on the three passages I felt speak most clearly about the nature of hell. I would begin with Matthew 25:41-46, which uses the phrases “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” (contrasted with “eternal life”):

Then he will also say to those on his left, “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.

I would go from this passage to 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 (CSB):

They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from his glorious strength . . .

And finally I would turn to the description in Revelation 14:9-11:

A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

It was hard to see how these passages could be even more clear. So when I first began hearing about an evangelical Christian form of universalism, I was curious how they would deal with such verses. When I heard the suggestion that the words “eternal” or “forever and ever” in these passages don’t actually mean eternal or forever and ever, I was immediately suspicious. That can be a way of skirting around the clear meaning of a text: Oh, what this really means is . . . My initial thought was that the people who believed this weren’t able to deal with these passages, so they were grasping at straws to explain them away.

But there were two things that didn’t let me dismiss this claim so easily. The first was my awareness that tradition does sometimes influence the choices of scholars translating the Bible. For instance, in Ephesians 4:11 there’s no reason why the word poimenas (the plural form of poimen) is translated “pastors” except for tradition. Variations of this word are found 18 times in the New Testament; 17 of those times the word is translated “shepherd(s).” It’s only this one verse where the word “pastors” is used. The word ekklesia wasn’t a religious word at all in the first century, but a common one connoting an assembly or association of people, yet it’s usually translated “church.” Again, this is due to tradition. There are many other examples we could list. So it wouldn’t be unprecedented for tradition to influence the translation of certain words in these hell passages.

Along with this realization, I began to run across (without looking for them) comments by trusted, solidly conservative, evangelical scholars admitting that the Greek word for “eternal” or “forever” in these passages doesn’t actually mean eternal or forever. For instance, no less an authority than Greg Beale, in his monumental commentary on the book of Revelation, has this to say:

Strictly speaking, even the expression “they will be tormented forever and ever” is figurative: eis tous aionas ton aionon literally can be rendered “unto the ages of the ages”; at the least, the phrase figuratively connotes a very long time. The context here and in the whole Apocalypse must determine whether this is a limited time or an unending period . . . 2

New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce consistently understood the word aionios in Scripture, usually translated “eternal,” to mean, not eternal, but “of the age (aion) to come.” 3 Our church is part of a conservative evangelical denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America. In the official theological exposition of our Statement of Faith, commenting on Matthew 25:41, 46, our theological leaders wrote: “It is true that the word translated ‘eternal’ here (aiōnios) means ‘pertaining to the age to come.’” 4 Both Beale and our denominational leaders go on to argue why the word should be understood as eternal in these contexts, and we’ll consider that argument later in this post. But you can understand why I was surprised to find theologically conservative stalwarts treating this seemingly unequivocal wording as . . . well . . . equivocal. And these were certainly not exceptions. It’s hard to find any reputable scholar arguing that the word in these passages unambiguously means “eternal.” Disturbingly, though, many then interpret the passage as if the meaning of “eternal” is certain. I needed to know more about the meaning of this word.

There’s a Greek word used in the New Testament (and in first century literature) that consistently connotes the meaning of “eternal.” That word is aidios. This word isn’t used in any of our hell passages above or anywhere the Scriptures are referring to the judgment of humanity. The word in question for us is aionios (and grammatical variations). The core of this word is the word aion, which is where we get our word eon. The essential meaning of the word in the first century was similar, typically translated “age.” Here are some familiar passages that use the word aion:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age . . .

Galatians 1:4

. . . when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

Ephesians 1:20-21

. . . in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 2:7

The word aionios is the adjective form of aion. As the evangelical scholars above acknowledge, the basic meaning of the adjective aionios is “of the age” or “pertaining to the age.” It can also be used descriptively to connote “age-long.” We see the word aionios translated this way in passages such as Romans 16:25:

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past . . .

The mystery wasn’t hidden for “eternities” past, but for long ages past. We also see the word translated similarly in 2 Timothy 1:9, which says: “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” The ESV and NRSV both translate this as “before the ages began.”

Most evangelical scholars acknowledge that this word doesn’t mean eternal, but means “pertaining to the age” or “age-long.” Many, though, hedge this by saying this word doesn’t necessarily mean eternal or it may be translated differently. As part of her exhaustive study of early Christian leaders and their views of universal salvation, Ilaria Ramelli needed to determine precisely what this word meant to the people at that time. So she and David Konstan completed the most extensive and detailed study of this word to date. They published this research in a separate book, in which they conclude:

What emerges from the present analysis is that, apart from the Platonic philosophical vocabulary, which is specific to few authors, aionios does not mean “eternal”; it acquires this meaning only when it refers to God, and only because the notion of eternity was included in the conception of God: for the rest, it has a wide range of meanings and its possible renderings are multiple, but it does not mean “eternal.” In particular, when it is associated with life or punishment, in the Bible and in Christian authors who keep themselves close to Bible usage, it denotes their belonging to the world to come [emphasis in original]. 5

I’m not aware of any major challenges to this incredibly comprehensive research. Ramelli and Konstan do show that the word aionios can acquire the meaning of eternal when, for instance, it’s used to describe God. This is much the same as we see when teachers use words such as “lasting” or “enduring” to refer to something that’s eternal. If I were to say: “Do you want to invest your life in what is temporary or what is lasting?” the word “lasting” here doesn’t mean eternal but, in the context of a specific sentence, it can be used to convey the meaning of eternal. We don’t take this meaning from the word itself, but from what it’s describing. So, when used for God, we can understand aionios as conveying the meaning of eternal in that specific context even if that’s not part of the definition of the word. But Ramelli and Konstan make clear that aionios does not mean “eternal.”

So explaining that the word aionios, used in the hell passages in Scripture, doesn’t actually mean eternal but instead means “pertaining to the age to come” isn’t some fringe view, but in harmony with the most current and most complete research into the meaning of the word. It also reflects what Greek-speaking Christians were specifically clarifying to their Latin-speaking brethren in the early church.6 This understanding is confirmed by current research, by ancient observation and by the reticence of non-universalist scholars to insist on eternal conscious torment in the hell passages based strictly on the meaning of this word. 

Drawing from all of this, it seems clear we should understand passages such as Matthew 25 to be referring to the life of the age to come and the fire or punishment of the age to come. This fits the meaning of the word as we’ve confirmed, and it fits the context. This means it would be inappropriate to use these passages to teach eternal conscious torment. But some might say (and I’ve said): “Wait a minute. Matthew 25 is speaking of both the punishment of the lost and the life we receive as believers in Christ. If the life is eternal, then the punishment must be as well. And if the punishment isn’t eternal, then neither is the life.”

At first this sounds very logical and convincing. But let’s consider this a bit more carefully. This verse is referring to both punishment and life, and it uses the same word to describe both. So whatever this word is saying about one it’s also saying about the other. It doesn’t mean that everything that’s true of one is also true of the other; it just means that whatever aionios means about punishment it also means about life. If aionios meant that the punishment is torment, then it would also be saying the life is torment; if aionios meant the punishment is eternal, it would also be saying the life is eternal. The question is what does the word mean. Since—as virtually everyone seems to be acknowledging—the word aionios in this verse means “of the age to come,” then this verse isn’t addressing the duration of either the punishment or the life at all. It’s not saying anything about how long either last; it’s saying something else entirely about both. This means that to insist that the punishment mentioned must be eternal because the life is eternal is simply erroneous, in the same way that to insist that the life mentioned must be torment because the punishment is torment would be erroneous. This verse is no more addressing the duration of either the punishment or life than it is their temperature

It’s completely understandable that non-scholars would make the kind of challenge we just considered. (By the way, we have many other passages that tell us the life to come is, in fact, never-ending. We don’t need this passage to establish this truth.) What’s alarming is to see respected scholars make the same kind of argument when they should recognize what poor reasoning this is and how specious is the argument. The word aionios doesn’t mean eternal (as most seem to agree). So it’s completely improper to import this meaning of “eternal” into this verse when it’s not what the Scripture is saying in this verse about either punishment or life. We want to humbly hear what the Word is saying to us.

What about the Revelation 14 passage? As Beale pointed out above, this would literally be rendered unto or into “the ages of ages.” This kind of phrase should be familiar to us from similar ones such as “the Holy of holies,” “King of kings and Lord of lords,” etc. This was a familiar Hebrew way of indicating the ultimate example of something, not the duration of anything. (Remember, aionios doesn’t mean eternal, so repeating it in this phrase doesn’t somehow make it mean eternal or forever.) [I’m curious why the ESV includes a footnote for “forever and ever” in 1 Timothy 1:17 noting “Greek to the ages of ages” but not for this verse.] We also need to be careful in basing too much on the description of this verse because it is, as Beale also reminded us, highly figurative.

So what does all this mean? It means the passages in Scripture that are referring to “eternal” fire, punishment, etc., are actually speaking of the fire of the age to come or the punishment of the age to come. This is what the word means, and I don’t find anyone really contesting that. It also means these verses aren’t telling us anything about the duration or final outcome of hell. Does this disprove the idea of eternal conscious torment? No, it doesn’t. Having a more clear understanding of these passages doesn’t necessarily mean the eternal conscious torment view of hell is wrong. But it does weaken the biblical case for this view considerably. What we’ve understood to be the unequivocal wording of Scripture is, at the very best, highly debatable, and, much more likely, it’s decidedly incorrect. This makes better sense of the number of Greek-speaking scholars and leaders in the early church who held views of hell other than eternal conscious torment (see the previous post). It’s difficult to understand how they could have done so if aionios meant “eternal.” So does this leave any biblical reasons for believing in an eternal hell? We’ll consider some other passages used to support this view in the next post.

  1. Robin A. Parry with Ilaria E. Ramelli, A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from the Reformation to the Nineteenth Century (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).
  2. G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), Revelation 14:11.
  3. F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983), 89; “Age” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988), 1:67.
  4. Evangelical Free Church of America, Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America (Minneapolis, MN: Free Church Publications, 2011), 250. Greg Strand, “Eternal Conscious Punishment,” Strands of Thought, August 11, 2015, accessed October 15, 2021.
  5. Ilaria E. Ramelli and David Konstan, Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2013), 238.
  6. Ilaria E. Ramelli, A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019), 105.

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

Hell in the early church: What did early church leaders believe about hell?

This is the third post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

Most evangelical Christians aren’t that familiar with early church writers and teachers, and that’s unfortunate (for many reasons). Because of our lack of historical awareness, we tend to assume the early Christians worshiped pretty much the same way we do every Sunday, and that they believed all the same things we do. When we’re thinking of hell, for instance, even many pastors assume that the vast majority of early church pastors and leaders believed in eternal conscious torment as do the majority of evangelicals today. Is this true?

If pressed, some of us may have some vague recollection that the early Christian scholar Origen held to some form of universalism. And we might even be aware that annihilationists or conditionalists claim Irenaeus as an early proponent of their view. But we would usually consider these people to be outliers in the early history of the church, brilliant theologians who may have been a bit eccentric in some of their beliefs, but overall were exceptions that prove the rule in an otherwise consistently held—and familiar—view of hell. But is this actually the case? It might be good to make sure the early consensus to which we refer did, in fact, exist.

The desire by many to go back and see what these early Christians actually wrote about their beliefs regarding hell has proved a challenge to this common assumption. It’s not that this has never been done before, but there is definitely a renewed—and growing—interest in understanding with greater clarity who believed what about final judgment. Ilaria Ramelli is a respected scholar of historical theology (among other things). In 2013, she published the results of 16 years of painstaking research of early Christian views concerning universal salvation and restoration (apokatastasis in the Greek). [She later published a more affordable, more accessible book covering much of the same material: A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).] 

Ramelli’s work was widely hailed not only for its impressive span and depth, but also for the great care she took in evaluating these ancient authors’ statements in the context of their larger bodies of work, in light of Scripture, and in their historical contexts. Many of her fellow scholars now view her book as a new benchmark on the subject of universal salvation in the early church. (She handily dispatched the challenges of one scholar who attempted an extensive critique of her work, showing his conclusions to be unsupported by the actual historical data.) Ramelli corrected the overreach of some earlier universalists who had tried to show universalism to have been the standard view in the early church. But she also surprised almost everyone by documenting just how extensive belief in universal salvation actually was. Christian universalism was not merely the extreme minority view of one or two isolated thinkers; it was widely held, and taught by many of the people we consider to be great heroes of the early Christian faith.

Origen was by no means the first Christian universalist. Before him were Bardaisan of Edessa and Clement of Alexandria. (There are also indications of belief in universal salvation in Christian writings preceding these teachers. We don’t know the view of many early church leaders because they either didn’t address the issue or didn’t make clear their view.) We shouldn’t move too quickly past Origen himself, though. Possessing an imposing intellect, he’s the only Christian thinker in the first centuries who produced more writing on theology and biblical exposition than did Augustine.

It would take far too long to go through all of the early Christian leaders who believed in universal salvation, but we should comment on a few highly significant examples. Some may be aware that Gregory of Nyssa firmly held a belief in universal salvation and restoration. This is clear in his writings and has been well-documented. Again, this is worth noting because Gregory of Nyssa was one of the most respected theologians of the 4th century, one of the famous “Cappadocian fathers” [the early church leaders are often referred to as the “church fathers”], and honored by the Second Council of Nicea as “father of fathers.” Gregory’s views on universal salvation were well-known, running through virtually all of his writings, and apparently did nothing to hamper the respect or acclaim he garnered. 

Ramelli shows that, while not as clear or outspoken as Gregory of Nyssa, we should include the other Cappadocians, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory Nazianzen, as revered theologians in the early church who evidenced belief in universal salvation. We even see good reason to include the great champion of the Trinity Athanasius among the universalists! Even Augustine believed in universal salvation until later in life (as was also true of Jerome), and he later commented on how prevalent the belief still was at that time. This is just a sampling of a much longer list of prominent Christian theologians in the first 500 years of the history of the church whose theological work incorporated belief in universal reconciliation and restoration.

It’s telling that none of the early creeds include anything at all concerning eternal damnation in hell. And, until the time of Augustine, the fact that Christian leaders and theologians held differing views regarding hell didn’t seem to them cause for debate. Even Augustine didn’t condemn those who disagreed with the view of hell he had come to adopt (eternal conscious torment). We should also note the large number of early church leaders and thinkers who spoke and wrote in Greek who believed in and taught universalism, and the fact that those who advocated for eternal conscious torment tended to be those who spoke and wrote in Latin. This is important because the meaning of the Greek in Scripture became one of the distinguishing points between the views, and the understanding of the early Greek-speaking scholars would have carried much more weight than those who weren’t as conversant in Greek. We’ll look at this in much greater depth in the next post.

So does any of this tell us which view is right and which is wrong? No, it doesn’t. We still have a lot of examining to do linguistically, exegetically and theologically. But looking at this background does keep us from falsely claiming any one view as the overwhelmingly dominant view in the early church. Some overeager proponents of universalism have tried to make it the virtually universal view of early Christians. There’s simply not enough evidence to back up this claim. But we have even less to suggest that eternal conscious torment was the predominant view in the early church, especially among the Greek-speaking believers. However we may debate the specific view of any particular scholar of the early church (and these debates will continue), it seems incontrovertible that the early church of the first five centuries included varying understandings of hell and final judgment. This means we can’t just assume one view as the Christian view, and it makes our continuing study even more necessary if we want to understand what the Bible actually teaches us about hell.

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

Hell in the Bible: Understanding the biblical words

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This is the second post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

We use words in church life that are familiar to us in English, but some of these words actually come to us from the original Greek. When it’s time to “baptize” someone, we take our name for this practice from the Greek word baptizo. When we speak of a “deacon” in the church, this comes from the Greek word diakonos. While this is true of many of the words we use, it’s not the case when we talk about hell. There are three different words in the original languages that have often been translated as “hell,” and they don’t all mean the same thing. It’s helpful for us to know what these words are, and what they mean.

Sheol

In early English translations of the Bible such as the King James Version, the Hebrew word Sheol was often translated as “hell.” But now in most current translations you won’t find the word hell at all in the Old Testament. Instead Sheol is usually translated as “the grave,” but it can also descriptively refer to “the pit” or “the depths.” Sheol was a vague concept. It referred to the state of being physically dead (hence “the grave”), but it’s unclear whether this was meant to be a location or even a conscious state. Whatever it was precisely, everyone went to Sheol after they died; the righteous and the unrighteous alike—it didn’t matter—everyone went to the grave in the Old Testament. This is all very interesting, but the Old Testament concept of Sheol doesn’t tell us anything about the fate of those who fail to place their faith in Christ before they die.

Hades

In the 400 years between the end of the Old Testament period and the birth of Christ (what we refer to as the “intertestamental period”), Jewish understanding of the grave was influenced by other cultures in ways that went beyond the Old Testament Scriptures. These influences on early Jewish culture came from Egyptian, Persian and Greek ideas of the afterlife, and it became common for first century Jews to use the Greek word Hades in place of the Hebrew Sheol. Hades had much the same meaning as Sheol, it was the grave or the “place of the dead.” And, as with Sheol, Hades was the fate of everyone who died, righteous or unrighteous (although there was now often the idea of some kind of separation within Hades). 

Hades is used 10 times in the New Testament: Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14. Notice that neither of these words (Sheol or Hades) refer to what happens to the lost after judgment, or to where someone might spend eternity. So these words in Scripture (and these passages) don’t tell us anything about the eternal fate of the unsaved. These words refer only to the grave—the state of being dead—not to what we think of in Christian theology as hell.

Gehenna

We often hear the observation that Jesus mentioned hell more than anyone else in the Bible. Of course, as we saw above, Hades is more accurately translated “the grave” or “the place of the dead” rather than “hell,” so none of these verses should be considered as references to hell. Another word Jesus used that is often translated “hell” is Gehenna. What do we know about Gehenna?

The first thing we should be aware of is that Gehenna was, and still is, a literal place. It’s a valley just southwest of the old city of Jerusalem. The Greek word Gehenna comes from the Hebrew ge Hinnom. We see this place in the Old Testament as the “Valley of Hinnom” or sometimes the “Valley of the Sons of Hinnom.” So what significance do we see in the Old Testament and in history for the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna? There were four events that Gehenna was known for, all having to do with fire:

  1. Gehenna was the valley outside Jerusalem where the people of Israel sacrificed their children, burning them in fire on altars to the pagan god Molech. (See 2 Chronicles 28:1-3; 33:6.)
  1. These idolatrous altars were later defiled and broken up, and the valley, Gehenna, was cleansed with fire. (See 2 Kings 23:10-16.)
  1. God spoke through the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah of a coming judgment of fire that would be carried out in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). (See Jeremiah 7:28-34; 19:1-15; 32:32-35.)
  1. In AD 70, Titus—responding to the Jewish rebellion—destroyed the city of Jerusalem, killed all the inhabitants and burned their bodies in Gehenna.

The word Gehenna began taking on different connotations with some Jewish teachers prior to the ministry of Jesus. Some merged the fire associated with Gehenna with their developing concept of Hades, with the righteous going to Paradise and the unrighteous to Gehenna, a fiery place of torment. There was widespread disagreement among these Jewish teachers concerning the nature and duration of Gehenna. In fact, it seems they debated just about everything having to do with Gehenna (who would go there, how long they would be there, what would be the final outcome, etc.). 1

As I mentioned earlier, some Christians make the claim that Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in the Bible. As we’ve seen, the places where he speaks of Hades would be about the grave, not hell. But it’s very true that Jesus used the word Gehenna more than anyone else in Scripture. The word is found 12 times in the New Testament (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6), and all but one of these are in the words of Christ in the Gospels (and these only in the synoptic Gospels). So what did Jesus mean by Gehenna? Biblical scholars have different views. (I should note that many of these references are of parallel accounts in the Gospels, and that Jesus actually only spoke of Gehenna on 4 different occasions.)

Some think when Jesus used the word Gehenna he meant hell, much like these other Jewish teachers. Others aren’t so convinced. In the Old Testament ge Hinnom never refers to anything like hell. It’s always speaking of the literal Valley of Hinnom. Was Jesus following these contemporary Jewish teachers in their understanding of Gehenna, or was he using Gehenna in a way that would be consistent with Jeremiah and every other Old Testament reference? This question is especially meaningful when we consider that Jesus was always challenging their common assumptions and understandings regarding what were, to them, familiar concepts such as Messiah, kingdom, etc. Many scholars have concluded that when Jesus used the word Gehenna, he was following the understanding of Jeremiah, and applying this to the coming judgment of Israel, particularly Jerusalem, in AD 70.

There’s another aspect of this we need to consider. If this was their common word for “hell,” it’s curious that—other than one passing reference by James—Jesus is the only one in the New Testament who uses this word. Why is that? Paul never uses this word; Peter never uses this word; John never uses this word (even in his Gospel); the author of Hebrews doesn’t use this word. This word is only used by Jesus when ministering in a distinctly Jewish setting, and by James in a very early letter, also in a predominantly Jewish context (note James 1:1). Paul often uses other Jewish words and concepts in his letters—but not this one. It’s hard not to see this divergence as lending credence to the idea that Jesus is intentionally referring to the judgment of Jerusalem to come, which would be so vividly, literally and historically fulfilled in the actual Gehenna. This would follow the strong pattern of John the Baptist and Jesus warning of this very judgment: Matthew 3:10; 23:37-38; 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 3:9; 19:41-44; 21:5-6, 20-24. If Gehenna was the common word for hell, why didn’t Peter, John or Paul ever use it?

So, when we begin to look to what Scripture tells us about hell, we need to first recognize that the Old Testament doesn’t say anything explicitly about hell per se. (It does have a lot to say about judgment, of course, and we’ll look at this in a future post.) Many of the New Testament passages we may have thought speak of hell (the references to Hades) are actually speaking of death or the grave, not hell. And even the Gehenna passages are likely referring, not to hell, but to the judgment of Israel in AD 70. This still leaves many other passages that are relevant to our study of hell. For instance, the “lake of fire” is referenced in a 2-verse section in Revelation, and Jesus spoke of both “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment.” We’ll look at these verses in context very soon.

1. Bradley Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), “Chapter 3: The Gehenna Tradition(s)”

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

The question of hell

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Most evangelical Christians have believed in a never-ending hell. We’ve believed this because it’s what we’ve been taught from Scripture. But regardless of how much we trust what we’ve been taught about hell, when we think of people actually experiencing endless torment, with no possibility of relief, we wrestle with this as reality. Some Christians deal with this unpleasantness by just thinking about it as little as possible. One could even suggest that if someone hasn’t been deeply troubled by the concept of hell, they probably haven’t thought much about it. But, sooner or later, most of us struggle with making some sense emotionally and theologically of hell. And we’re not alone. John Stott once wrote of the idea of eternal, conscious hell:

Emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain. 1

J. I. Packer expressed his own struggle with hell: 

Who can take pleasure in the thought of people being eternally lost? If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you! 2

C. S. Lewis wrote of hell: 

There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. 3

Few Christians relish the thought of unsaved people being subjected to eternal conscious torment (or completely ceasing to exist), but we’re committed to biblical truth and willing to faithfully believe what the Scriptures teach us. Some have shown just how challenging this issue is, though. For instance, read what Denny Burk has to say about the never-ending punishment of hell:

This view of God’s judgment is not a cause for embarrassment for Christians, but will ultimately become a source of joy and praise for the saints as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God. 4

Even many who believe in an eternal hell will recoil from this picture, but it challenges us to reflect on our own response to hell. After all, hell is a part of God’s plan, something that God himself made part of his ultimate solution for the problem of sin and rebellion. How could we be embarrassed by part of his plan? Are we more loving and merciful than God? But yet, how could we not struggle with the idea of eternal conscious torment? So we need to be very clear about what the Scriptures actually teach, to either be firmly convinced in our mind that this is the teaching of Scripture or to see that maybe this is not what the Bible teaches.

How should we approach this kind of study?

So, how do we approach studying this kind of issue? There are a few things I’d suggest:

First, begin with any necessary background. There’s some information we need to understand before trying to compare different views. So, in the next post, we’ll go over the different words used in Scripture for hell, and what they meant in their original context. After that, we’ll look at some of the history of how the earliest Christians understood hell.

Next, we need to spend some time delving into the exegetical [drawing from the explicit reading of Scripture] case for our traditional view and for any other view. We’ll look at the foundational claims supporting the eternal conscious punishment view. We’ll also carefully, biblically examine the core question: Will some people be eternally lost? The eternal conscious torment view and the annihilation view both say, “Yes, some people will be eternally lost.” The universal reconciliation and restoration view says, “No, no one will be eternally lost. God will ultimately reconcile and restore all of his creation.” We’ll see which scriptural case is the strongest.

After making sure we understand relevant background information and have studied the key biblical passages, we’ll look at broader theological arguments. How does the character of God affect how we understand this issue? Which view best fits what Scripture teaches about the gospel of Christ? Which best fits into the whole span of the biblical story? How do we deal with scriptural themes such as judgment, love, forgiveness, justice, mercy, death, reconciliation, punishment, restoration and victory?

When I compare differing theological views, I’m not looking for merely the one that can marshal the most impressive list of Scripture passages and arguments.  Most views can be presented in a rhetorically effective way, especially if we consider one view by itself. No, what I’m looking for are proponents of one side who can do an even better job explaining the other side’s passages. I’m looking for the view that makes the best sense of all of Scripture, not just a narrow list of proof texts. When observing an exchange between a Calvinist and an Arminian, I want to see if the Arminian can give a better understanding of Romans 9, and if the Calvinist can give a better understanding of Romans 11, and which one can make the best sense of the flow of Romans and the rest of Scripture. So in considering differing views of hell, I want to see who can best explain all of the relevant passages and who can present the most biblically and theologically comprehensive and coherent view.

We want to make sure we’re not basing any belief on our emotional preferences. However, we also can’t divorce our emotions from a study that includes concepts such as the love of God, restoration of relationships, and the suffering of judgment. If we were to remove all the passages in Scripture that speak of emotion or intentionally affect our emotions, we’d be cutting out a huge chunk of the Bible! So we recognize this kind of issue will touch us emotionally, but we don’t make our emotions the court of final appeal.

How does this work? Let me give you one example. I hesitate to use this particular example because I don’t want to alienate any readers, but I think it’s helpful to show the approach I’m describing. So if you happen to disagree with me regarding the issue I’m about to use, please be patient with me, hear my heart and see past the issue itself to the point I’m trying to make.

Before I was able to serve vocationally in pastoral ministry, I worked for years in business management. I worked with female peers and worked for female supervisors. I’ve seen wonderful managers—men and women, and I’ve seen horrible managers—men and women. The effectiveness of any manager never had anything to do with their gender. So I was inclined to accept a more egalitarian view of gender roles in church ministry [with no distinction at all in church leadership roles for men and women]. Especially considering my views on church polity (church leadership by a team of coequal pastoral elders without one senior pastor), it would have been so easy to simply include women in our team of pastoral elders.

And so I’ve read all the major books and articles from the different views on this issue, being perfectly willing to be convinced of the egalitarian view. But I’m not just looking for a view that’s plausible, one that’s convincing enough. For me as a pastor, it not only has to be a view I can accept, it has to be a view I can teach consistently and faithfully from Scripture. And if it’s a view I’d like to believe, I’m even more careful to make sure I’m not simply seeing what I want to see. No, any view has to stand up to the scrutiny through which I know our people will put it when I teach it to them interactively! The more I studied the books and articles presenting the egalitarian view, the more convinced I became of the soundness of the complementarian view [men and women are equal but with different roles in church leadership].

Now, some will strongly agree with me, and others will just as strongly disagree with me. But the issue itself is not my point (and I’m always willing to reconsider any viewpoint). I’m also not holding myself up as some perfect standard of balance, implying that you can trust my conclusions. I’m only saying this is the way I try to process different claims of biblical truth—even to the point of rejecting views I’d like to embrace—and this is the kind of approach I think we all need to take in examining these kinds of issues.

If we’re not willing to consider an alternative viewpoint concerning a belief such as hell, then we’re dangerously close to assuming our own omniscience, that we already have all knowledge and perfectly understand all truth. Of course, that would make us God, and we know that’s not true! We like to say that we “just go by the Bible,” but we always study the Bible from the perspective of our traditions, our preconceptions, and often our lack of knowledge regarding the original context of what’s been written. Nobody “just goes by the Bible,” and it’s actually kind of arrogant for us to think that—in 2,000 years of church history—we’re the ones who automatically have the untainted, unobstructed view of what the Bible is actually saying. This doesn’t mean we can’t come to real, confident conclusions, but we need to make sure we’ve done our homework. That also means we’ve taken the time to truly understand alternative viewpoints before we disagree with them or dismiss them. Ultimately, we may not be convinced of a new view (new to us, that is); that’s fine. But we need to be wiling to change our views if that’s where a careful study of God’s Word leads us. I love the old saying:

If you never have to change your mind,
you’re probably not using it.

So, we’re willing to change our mind, but we’re first going to rigorously examine the differing views—including our own. We’re going to push up our sleeves and do our homework. Amen?

  1. John Stott and David L. Edwards, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 314-315.
  2. J. I. Packer, “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation” in Evangelical Affirmations, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 117.
  3. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1940), 94.
  4. Denny Burk, “Eternal Conscious Torment” in Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 19.

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]