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.]

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