Some closing thoughts on the nature of hell

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This is part of a series on the nature of hell. See below for the rest of the series.

This has been a long series, and this will be my last post for a while on this subject. But I do want to end with some closing thoughts. First, thank you to everyone who emailed me questions, challenges and encouragement. For some reason responses to my blog posts now seem to be more in the form of emails than online comments. I’m not sure if that’s a general trend or more unique to this blog, but thank you all regardless. Thank you also to those who “liked” posts in this series.

Some have asked how I came to hold the view I now do. It wasn’t because I was seeking out a new and different view, that’s for sure! When, a few years ago, a good friend shared with me he was a “Christian universalist,” my first thought (unexpressed) was: “I don’t think you can be that!” He gave me a couple of books to read, and I wasn’t overly impressed at the time. But the idea was now on my radar, and I had at least a theological curiosity.

I won’t go through the whole story, but I continued to periodically encounter various books on the nature of hell in general and on universal restoration in particular. (I’ll list some of the books I found especially compelling below.) This happened somewhat in waves, over time, with each succeeding wave causing me to think more seriously about these ideas. In late 2017, I was teaching a leadership training class for our church (The Orchard), and they wanted to take a detour to better understand both Calvinism and Arminianism. I had been doing some more reading at that time on evangelical universalism—reading I found to be increasingly compelling—but I had no desire to introduce to this class any new ideas about hell or judgment. Quite the opposite, I endeavored to not even mention the subject. But as our last discussion in this detour on Calvinism ended, someone—out of the blue—asked about universalism. I answered briefly about the differing views of hell that evangelical Christians hold. The people were interested in understanding these different views of hell and why evangelicals believe them, so we took another detour to examine the various understandings of hell. 

Whenever I lead these kinds of studies comparing different theological views, I seek to present each view as effectively as I can, as if it were my own. If the people can’t figure out which view I actually hold, I feel I’m presenting everything fairly. Each week, the people in the class were convinced this was my view (whatever view we were studying that night). When we came to the end of the study, they were eager to learn which view I actually held. I openly shared with them I was still working through that question myself, and that I was finding it difficult to refute the evangelical universalism view. I invited them to continue studying and to share with me anything they thought might counter a belief in universal reconciliation and restoration. The people responded personally to this new (to us) belief—and to just the existence of alternative Christian beliefs—with varying degrees of interest and resistance. But all agreed this wasn’t something we needed to be dogmatic about, and that sincere Christians could hold to any of these views.

The question of hell was something we occasionally talked about after this, but it was mostly on the back burner while we focused on other developments in our church. I continued to study the subject in my spare time, seeking to be diligent in dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s biblically and theologically. But I never brought up the issue or any alternative views in my weekly teaching to the whole church. Late last year, we were asking for topics any of our people wanted to cover in our “Forum” study and discussion group. Our policy in our Forum group is that we’ll study and discuss anything that anyone wants to study and discuss. As you can now guess, the topic they wanted to study and discuss was hell and the different views on hell. Again, the responses to the differing views varied greatly, but there was strong consensus that people in our church should have the freedom to hold any of these three views.

This open church study understandably led to more conversations within the church. Eventually we discussed the issue as a congregation and decided—unanimously—that we would officially provide the freedom for anyone in our church, including pastors and leaders, to hold and teach differing views. (You can see our church statement here.)

I began receiving requests for a simple, easy to understand introduction to the universal reconciliation and restoration view, so I decided to write this blog series. There are wonderful books available that delve into the philosophy, hermeneutics, theology and history of evangelical universalism, but my concerns in writing this series were more narrowly pastoral in nature. I’ve tried to provide a logical and systematic introduction to this view, but one that’s very accessible and easy to follow for those who don’t routinely read books on theology or philosophy. Some of you have encouraged me to compile this writing into a book, and I deeply appreciate the encouragement. If those who determine these kinds of things deem the content of this blog series to be suitably helpful as a basis for a book, I’d be happy to pursue that.

I’ve had numerous discussions with friends as we explored these ideas. Many of us have experienced the same kind of process. At first we merely acknowledge that faithful, biblically-grounded evangelicals can believe in universal salvation (even if we don’t agree). But then as we continue to read and study we find ourselves unable to refute this belief biblically or theologically. Next, we begin to realize we’re becoming convinced this view is actually true. Finally, we come to a point when we’re so overwhelmed with the beauty and wonder of this scriptural truth—how much it brings glory to God and how much it’s profoundly in harmony with the gospel of Christ and the biblical story—that we can’t imagine it not being true! It’s much like a page of wavy patterns that we’re told contains a hidden picture of, say, a boat. At first we can’t see anything, but once we see the boat—clearly and unmistakably—we can’t unsee it. Once we’ve seen it, it’s obvious, and it’s hard to understand how we never saw it before. That’s what this has been like for many of us.

I wouldn’t encourage anyone to change their views regarding these things too quickly. Take your time. Read some of the books listed below. Read them prayerfully, with an open Bible, ready to check and verify what’s written. It’s not easy to accept a belief that most evangelical Christians still reject (and with which a great many aren’t even familiar). But ultimately—especially as evangelical Christians—our commitment is above all else to biblical truth. The primary question is: What does Scripture actually teach? Or, as a question from my own Free Church tradition asks: Where stands it written? 

Ultimately we must take a similar stand to that of Martin Luther as he stood alone before the church council that was called to judge him. Because he was convinced his beliefs were taken directly from the Word of God, he couldn’t recant these beliefs on the mere human authority of a particular church leader or council. He was open to being convinced “by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason,” but otherwise said he remained “bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” None of us are another Martin Luther, of course, but we would take a very similar approach. We’re open to being convinced by Scripture and reason, but we can’t betray our consciences and what we’ve seen in God’s Word for the sake of any human authority.

I want to note the deep appreciation and respect I have for Thomas Talbott and Robin Parry. Their thinking on these issues is profound, compelling and edifying, and I urge anyone who’s interested at all in Christian universalism to read what these brothers have written. (See below for recommended books.) I also want to thank some of my friends who have especially challenged and encouraged my thinking regarding these ideas over the years: Andy Eby, Peter Boehmer, Ric Rutherford, Jack Foster, and Doug Rosenfeld. I also cannot thank enough our wonderful church family at The Orchard. They refuse to uncritically embrace or reject anything, but beautifully model a Berean approach of searching the Scriptures to see what is and isn’t true (Acts 17:11). My wife, Kelley, has also been very encouraging to me as she thought through these issues for herself. And, of course, thanks to all of you who took the time to read through this long blog series. I pray this will be a blessing to you.

For further reading

[I receive no credit or payment for any purchases of the books below. I only include the links to be helpful. There are many other books on this subject that are well worth reading, but these are a great place to start.]

If you’d like to read some books that present and compare the differing views on the nature of hell, I’d take a look at some of these:

Four Views on Hell (2nd ed.) edited by Preston Sprinkle (Robin Parry represents evangelical universalism in his chapter and responses.)

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

Universal Salvation? The Current Debate edited by Robin Parry and Christopher Partridge (particularly examining the views of Thomas Talbott)

Perspectives on Election: 5 Views edited by Chad Owen Brand (Thomas Talbott represents universal reconciliation in his chapter and responses.)

For books on evangelical universalism, I would heartily recommend:

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

The Evangelical Universalist (2nd ed.) by Gregory MacDonald (Robin Parry writing under a pseudonym to protect the Christian publisher for whom he worked at the time)

There are also a number of very helpful videos featuring Robin Parry that you can find on YouTube, etc.

If you want to dig into the views of Christian leaders throughout the history of the church, I’d recommend:

A Larger Hope? Volume 1: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich by Ilaria Ramelli

A Larger Hope? Volume 2: Universal Salvation from the Reformation to the Nineteenth Century by Robin Parry with Ilaria Ramelli

“All Shall Be Well” Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann edited by Gregory MacDonald (Robin Parry)

Related post:

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

Exploring Hell series:

The question of hell

Hell in the Bible: Understanding the biblical words

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

Understanding the “eternal fire” of hell

Do other passages teach eternal conscious torment?

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

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

Considering the theological case for eternal conscious torment

Considering the theological case for universal salvation

Theological challenges to universal salvation

What about annihilationism?

Some closing thoughts on the nature of hell