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 eternal conscious torment

Photo by airfocus on Unsplash

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.]