What about annihilationism?

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

Some of you may have noticed I haven’t spent much time directly addressing the view of annihilationism or conditionalism. This isn’t because of a lack of respect for those who hold this view or because I don’t include it as a view that sincere, faithful evangelicals Christians can follow. I would certainly agree there were Christian leaders and thinkers who held this view in the early church. While I’m not able to comprehensively address the arguments for this view—whole books have been written propounding this belief—I do want to offer some general thoughts and responses, especially in the context of this blog series on the nature of hell.

Terminology

First, let me comment on terminology. Many who hold this view refer to it as “conditionalism” because of the necessity of also holding to belief in conditional immortality. The idea here is that human beings are not intrinsically immortal as the creation of God. Our immortality is only in Christ. So our immortality—our ability to exist eternally—is only for those who are in Christ, not for the lost in hell. Consequently the judgment of hell actually brings about their death in the sense that it causes them to cease to exist. They are annihilated. 

The problem is that people who hold the other views of hell, whether eternal conscious torment or universal restoration, can also believe in conditional immortality; they can believe that humans aren’t inherently immortal but only receive their immortality from God. Certainly this would make eternal torment more gruesome because God would then be actively sustaining the lost in eternal torment, but there’s nothing incompatible about these beliefs. And there’s nothing preventing a Christian universalist from believing in conditional immortality, indeed many seem to believe this very thing. So the term conditionalism is fitting but it doesn’t adequately distinguish this view from the others. This is why I prefer to use the description annihilationism, because it communicates more clearly the distinguishing aspect of this view.

Already covered (albeit briefly)

You’ve probably noticed that I actually have mentioned the annihilation view in many of my previous posts. I’ve often been focusing on the question: “Will anyone be eternally lost?” The way we answer this question distinguishes universal salvation from both eternal conscious torment and annihilationism. Many of the challenges to the eternal conscious torment view are also challenging to annihilationism, and I’ve included both views in many of my comments.

We noted that love is an essential aspect of the character of God, that God can no more be unloving than he can be unholy. We can ask in what sense hell is loving, how would it be in the best interest of the lost. We can equally ask the same thing of annihilationism. Is killing people for all eternity a loving act? Is it in their best interest? How can it be what’s best for them when they were created for loving relationship with God for all eternity just as we were? How can it be loving—in their best interest—to snuff them out of existence? How can heaven be truly heaven for us if our dearly loved spouses, parents, siblings, children have been annihilated, ceasing to exist forever? How can we grieve but with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13) if we’ll never see these loved ones again? How can God claim to love me if he doesn’t also love my spouse or parent or sibling or child?1 Does God not love the lost enough to save them? Or is he unable to save them? These challenges apply to both eternal conscious torment and annihilationism.

If God’s desire is to save everyone (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), in what way is he victorious if a great many, possibly the vast majority, of his creation will never be saved? If the lost are lost to God, and he wishes to restore to himself what he has lost (Luke 15),2 how is he victorious if he never restores to himself many or most of what he has lost? In what way has he made “everything new” (Revelation 21:5)? If many or most of God’s creation will remain dead for all eternity, in what way has God been victorious over death? In what sense has he destroyed his last enemy, death (1 Corinthians 15:26)? How is not the triumphant challenge, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55) not an empty boast if death can respond: “Right here! in the countless billions of your precious creation who I will hold in my clutches for all eternity!”

How is God victorious if he is doing to his own creation what the enemy wants done to God’s creation—killing and destroying them (John 10:10)? How is the universal praise and worship of God we see in passages such as Isaiah 45:22-24, Philippians 2:9-11 and Revelation 5:13 not hollow and artificial when it’s only accomplished by killing all of those who refuse to praise and worship him? Isn’t this like a president boasting of unanimous support when they’ve silenced or eliminated anyone who would oppose them?3 Is this truly the glorious victory of God? Is the God of the Bible truly a God who achieves universal worship by exterminating anyone who resists worshiping him—and then triumphantly exults in his “victory”?

Which view is most consistent with both the biblical character of God and with the gospel? Is the gospel about the salvation of a few and the extermination of most? Is God a God who permanently terminates his enemies,4 or one who transforms his enemies (Romans 5:10), making peace with them and reconciling them to himself (Colossians 1:20), making them righteous (Romans 5:18-19), and even adopting them as his children (Romans 8:15-17)? Which one is most consistent with the entire biblical story of a creation perfectly created, ruined and then restored?

In his response to the terminal punishment view (i.e. annihilationism), Robin Parry addresses this:

The problem is that God’s answer to evil here is not a gospel solution (i.e. to eradicate sin from the sinners), but a terminator solution (i.e. to eradicate the sinners themselves). This is a drastic way of winning creation — like winning all the votes in an election by killing those who would have voted differently. Hypothetically, God could annihilate the vast majority of human beings and then claim to have won a glorious triumph in a universe filled with creatures that love him. But is this not a pyrrhic victory? The cost of winning was so very high. And given that this was a cost that God really did not want to pay, then it is as much a failure as a victory. It looks to me as if on this view sin and death have their wicked way in the end — forcing God to abandon and obliterate many of those he loves [emphasis in original].5

Dependent on over-interpretation of key words

Many observe that this view relies to a great degree on a particular understanding of certain words in Scripture, what many of us would see as over-interpretation of these words. This is a bit ironic because we’ve seen that the eternal conscious torment view rests essentially on the misinterpretation of one word. Just as—once we understand the meaning of aionios—we see no place where Scripture describes eternal conscious torment, so we find no passage of Scripture that clearly and unambiguously describes the lost as ceasing to exist. But we do hear many proponents of this view emphasizing certain key words. Let’s briefly look at some of these words.

It’s common for annihilationists to summarize their belief by calling our focus to all the places in Scripture that describe the ultimate fate of the lost as death (such as Romans 6:23), and then stressing: dead means dead. It doesn’t make any sense, we’re told, for “death” to mean anything other than actual death, as in ceasing to exist. And this sounds simple and compelling, honoring the wording of Scripture. The problem is that the Bible often uses the word death in ways that obviously do not mean annihilation. Let’s look at one example in Ephesians 2:1-5:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.

We see here that we were previously living in a state of death, existing but needing to be made alive. This is common language in the Bible, a common way to speak of death. So it is not all nonsensical to speak of people existing in a state of death when we speak of the judgment of hell. Some will go so far as to argue that death in the Bible primarily (or often) explicitly means a total cessation of existence. I can’t find even one place in Scripture where the word death unambiguously connotes such an idea. Since death can be used in very different ways—often meaning to exist in a state of death spiritually and other times meaning simply the end of one’s physical life—to argue that “dead means dead in the sense of ceasing to exist” is circular reasoning, assuming one’s point to make one’s point.

Some argue that the Greek word translated “perish” in verses such as John 3:16 (apollumi) actually means to die in the sense of ceasing to exist. This word most often means to be lost (see for instance throughout Luke 15), and also frequently conveys the similar meanings of to perish or to be ruined or destroyed. (At least three translations render John 3:16 as should “not be lost but have eternal life” ISV, NCV and Phillips.) 

So let’s think about the word “perish.” What does it mean to perish (especially taking into consideration how frequently this Greek word is similarly rendered to be “ruined” or “destroyed”)? When we say something is “perishable,” what do we mean? If you leave something that’s perishable indefinitely in your refrigerator, does it cease to exist? We’d probably wish it would cease to exist! What does it do? It decays, it rots. It might even decay to the point we no longer know what it is! But it doesn’t cease to exist. It actually continues to exist but in a ruined state.

It’s surprising to me how many of those who hold this view refer to the ruined wineskin Jesus spoke of in Matthew 9:17 to support the idea of annihilation. The point often made is that the ruined wineskin would have to be discarded. The problem is that the text doesn’t say anything about discarding the wineskin. The ruined wineskin does not cease to exist, it continues in a state of ruin. Now, someone could subsequently discard the ruined wineskin, but they also may not. To discard the wineskin would be a separate act. The fact that the wineskin is ruined does not mean or require that it ceases to exist. (Actually, even if it’s discarded, it doesn’t cease to exist.)

We have the same problem with the word “destroy.” This sounds very extreme, no doubt, but it doesn’t require a cessation of existence. One can easily think of a car, a building or a city that is destroyed but continues to exist in a ruined state. We even refer to a destroyed city or building as “ruins.” And we also can’t forget the pattern we saw in Scripture that what God destroys he also restores.

It’s often emphasized that fire consumes things. That’s what it does, this is true. But we all know that Scripture also speaks of fire as something that purifies instead of destroying. Actually fire often destroys and purifies at the same time, burning away the dross and leaving the purified silver or gold. We can’t simply assume a particular connotation for fire. Fire does consume, but it doesn’t only consume and it doesn’t always consume.

My point here is that there is no lexical or textual basis for claiming that the words “death,” “destroy,” “perish,” “ruin” or “fire” in Scripture require or even suggest that anyone ceases to exist. And it’s inappropriate to assume this meaning, and then use this assumed meaning as a basis on which to establish this belief. This is going beyond the meaning of the text and reading into it something that’s not explicitly and unambiguously there.

Theological inconsistencies

Many annihilationists rightly stress that they, too, believe in God’s judgment of the lost in hell. They point out that their belief includes the suffering of unrepentant sinners in hell, in a way that corresponds to the individual’s sins. They’re clear that the unsaved will suffer to a greater or lesser extent depending on their actual sins. In a chapter on “terminal punishment” (i.e. annihilationism), John Stackhouse Jr explains repeatedly that the unsaved must suffer in hell in order to “make their own atonement” for their sins.6

But wait a minute. Hasn’t Jesus already atoned for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2; John 1:29)? One might respond, “Yes, but if people don’t accept Christ’s atonement for them, then they must atone for their own sins.” [And, yes, I do understand that many Calvinists would not agree that Christ atoned for the sins of the world, although that seems to directly contradict the Scriptures I referenced.] Fair enough. So they must atone for their own sins. And according to annihilationists such as Stackhouse, the lost do this by suffering in hell.

But this begs an important question: If the lost reach a point in their suffering when they have atoned for their own sins, why are they then annihilated? If they’ve actually atoned for their own sins—atoning for their sin that separated them from God—why are they not restored to God? Isn’t this the very essence of the word atonement, intentionally combining the words at-one-ment? If they’ve atoned for their own sins, why are they not then at one with God as the word requires? This seems to me confusingly inconsistent theologically.

(Please understand, Christian universalists aren’t arguing that the the lost actually do atone for their sins by suffering in hell. I’m simply responding to an annihiliationist argument, and showing where I think it’s theologically problematic.)

Some annihilationists don’t believe that people will atone for their sins by suffering in hell. Some believe that hell is simply the means of execution; it’s the way God brings their life to an end. They are cast into hell and they die because, we’re reminded, humans are not intrinsically immortal. If we don’t have eternal life in Christ, then we will naturally die in hell and cease to exist.

But this brings up more questions. If “dead is dead,” what is the state of the lost when they die in this lifetime? Do they cease to exist? How could they not, since the human soul is not immortal? Or is the soul not immortal . . . but it’s a bit more immortal than the body? Does the soul have a slightly longer shelf-life? Is God sustaining the souls of the lost for some reason? Or does the lost person actually cease to exist, and then when God resurrects the lost (Daniel 12:2; Revelation 20:11-13), he’s actually re-creating them? But then why would God re-create someone who had ceased to exist . . . just to painfully exterminate them again? That seems pretty chilling! But if the soul does live on beyond the body . . . just how much fire does it take to consume a soul? The more we actually think this through, the more confusing and theologically problematic it becomes.

The strong case for universal reconciliation and restoration

When annihilationism was beginning to be increasingly considered and discussed back in the 1980s and 90s, few were including Christian universalism in the broader discussion. What’s interesting is that when we go back and read many of the cases for annihilationism at that time, they were using many of the passages and challenges to eternal conscious torment that evangelical universalists now use. It makes us ask: Doesn’t universal reconciliation and restoration fit these passages even better? Doesn’t it challenge eternal conscious torment even more effectively? And isn’t annihilationism actually vulnerable to many of the same challenges?

Clark Pinnock challenged eternal conscious torment by writing:

What purpose of God would be served by the unending torture of the wicked except sheer vengeance and vindictiveness? Such a fate would spell endless and totally unredemptive suffering, punishment just for its own sake. But unending torment would be the kind of utterly pointless and wasted suffering which could never lead to anything good beyond it.7

And John Wenham agrees:

Whatever anyone says, unending torment speaks to me of sadism, not justice.8

But couldn’t the same challenges be made of annihilationism? Doesn’t this challenge any punishment that is purely retributive, punishment for punishment’s sake, any punishment that isn’t loving and redemptive? What if we use the same quotes above, but replace the words “endless” and “unending” with purely retributive punishment followed by complete annihilation?

What purpose of God would be served by the purely retributive torture of the wicked followed by complete annihilation except sheer vengeance and vindictiveness? Such a fate would spell purely retributive and totally unredemptive suffering, punishment just for its own sake. But purely retributive torment followed by complete annihilation would be the kind of utterly pointless and wasted suffering which could never lead to anything good beyond it.

Whatever anyone says, purely retributive torment followed by complete annihilation speaks to me of sadism, not justice.

Don’t these challenges apply just as well to annihilationism? We can find many arguments for annihilationism that present it as merciful. But the absolute annihilation of human beings, causing them to completely cease to exist, can only be considered merciful when compared to the horror of endless, hopeless torment. When we add biblical universalism to the discussion, annihilation doesn’t seem so merciful anymore. It’s only slightly less horrific than the traditional view.

We see the same kind of thing in even more recent works. In Four Views on Hell, John Stackhouse Jr ends his response to eternal conscious torment9 by quoting Psalm  30:5 from the NRSV:

For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

But you can see how we might read this and think, “Doesn’t this passage fit biblical universalism even better?” If God is—in his wrath—permanently and eternally annihilating people, causing them to cease to exist, how is anger only lasting for a moment? The effects of his anger will certainly continue for all eternity. And, from the annihilationist view, is the weeping during the night truly replaced by joy in the morning? Isn’t this torment replaced by extermination? That may give a sense of relief, in some sense, to someone being tormented—but could we, with a straight face, call this joy? When someone is on death row and their final appeal is denied, is that the time they rejoice? Would joy come with their execution, especially if there was absolutely no hope for anything past this death, only completely ceasing to even exist?

Even compared to eternal conscious torment, this is still horrific, just a little less intolerable. When we include Christian universalism in the discussion, the reference to these kinds of passages from annihilationists seems more than a little ironic. In a similar way, the frequent references to the utter destruction of Sodom don’t have the desired impact to evangelical universalists, not only because this destruction was not the same as cessation of existence, but because God tells us explicitly in Scripture that he will restore the Sodom he utterly destroyed (Ezekiel 16:46-63)!

Because for most of us eternal conscious torment has been, by far, the dominant view, annihilationists and conditionalists have welcomed evangelical universalists somewhat as allies. This makes sense, and I certainly appreciate it. I have deep respect and admiration for a great many annihilationist leaders and scholars. But, as Christian universalism has been increasingly discussed and its influence has been growing, I’ve heard from an annihilationist friend frustration that relatively few (from his perspective) are considering conditionalism but seem to be leapfrogging immediately to the universal restoration view. Why is that?

The process of reexamining my views of hell and the bases for the view I once held reminds me a great deal of a much earlier process I went through of reexamining my eschatological view and bases for it. When I examined the foundational claims of my classic dispensational view, I found them wanting. When I examined the foundational claims for eternal conscious torment, I had a very similar result. 

But there’s another interesting similarity here. When I first decided to reexamine my eschatological views, it seemed I had to weigh through a number of possible views. But I quickly realized that the primary question I had to answer was: Does the Bible present the rapture and the return of Christ as separate events or as aspects of the same event? When I looked at it this way, the choice was between historic premillennialism (a posttribulational rapture) and all the other views. I had known about the midtribulational view, of course. I knew a few people who held this view. They tended to be very intelligent students of Scripture, and they had their arguments focusing on what they thought to be key details in Scripture. But I quickly came to see this view as a variation on a theme, an adjustment of the classic pretrib view.

When I eventually came to reject the classic dispensational view in which I had been brought up, I went right to historic premillennialism. Others leaving classic dispensationalism have moved to an amillennial view. But I don’t know anyone who has moved away from classic dispensationalism to the midtrib view. That’s because it’s simply a variation on the same theme, it’s a modification of the classic pretrib view. Even if you completely disagree with my conclusions, hopefully you can understand the thought process. And I think you can see where I’m going with this.

When I decided to reexamine what I believed about hell and why, it seemed I would need to sort through extensive arguments for all the different views. And I did read a great deal from annihilationist scholars. But I quickly began to focus on one key question: Does the Bible teach that anyone will be eternally lost? In much the same way as before, when we look at the issue in this light, it distinguishes biblical universalism from all other views. Annihilationism answers this question in the same way that eternal conscious torment does. It’s still a variation on the same theme. 

Ultimately the answer to the question I and others have received: Why aren’t you more seriously considering anniliationism? is that I’m already thoroughly convinced that God does love everyone and intends for everyone to be reconciled to him and completely restored, that he is more than able to accomplish everything he intends, and that he has planned for all of this from the very beginning, that this very outcome was woven all through his creation from the very beginning. I don’t see any clear passages of Scripture explicitly telling us the lost will suffer eternal conscious torment or that they will ultimately be annihilated. But I do see in Scripture that nothing is lost or destroyed or ruined beyond God’s ability to heal and restore, and that he restores everything he judges and destroys. I find a great many passages clearly and explicitly telling us that God will reconcile and restore all of his creation, that everyone will come to him and worship him.

I find the theological arguments for both eternal conscious torment and annihilationism to be problematic and unconvincing (often in the exact same ways). But the more I study the Scriptures and the more I consider these things in a more broadly theological way, the more I’m convinced that, of course God will save all of those he has created! I respect and love my brothers and sisters who see this differently. But I’m not only confident of this biblical truth and hope, it fills me with overwhelming praise and worship for our glorious God who, alone, could accomplish this perfect outcome to his perfect plan! Because of this surpassingly, gloriously perfect ending to God’s perfect plan, I’m driven to the same kind of worship as the apostle Paul for the same reasons:

For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he might have mercy on them all.

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Romans 11:32-36
  1. Thomas B. Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 126-129.
  2. Steve Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 57.
  3. Robin A. Parry, “A Universalist Response” in Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 91.
  4. Parry, Four Views on Hell, 89-92.
  5. Parry, Four Views on Hell, 91.
  6. John G. Stackhouse Jr, “Terminal Punishment” in Four Views on Hell, 61-79.
  7. Clark Pinnock, cited by Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell, 210.
  8. John Wenham, cited by Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell, 210.
  9. Stackhouse, “A Terminal Punishment Response” in Four Views on Hell, 47.

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

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

Photo by Fa Barboza on Unsplash

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

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.”

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

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

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

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

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).

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

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

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

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.

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

The question of hell

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

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.

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

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

We recently posted the article below on our church website.

Updated May 19, 2022

There’s an old saying that the church should be “reformed and always reforming.” This means that we’re “reformed” in the sense of holding to the authority of God’s Word above all else, and we’re “always reforming” by not assuming any doctrine is true simply because it’s traditional for us. Instead, we seek to be good Bereans (Acts 17:11) by searching the Scriptures to see what’s true. We want to be so committed to biblical truth that we’re willing to reexamine any particular teaching in light of Scripture to make sure it really is biblical.

The right for each believer to scripturally examine teachings and to determine for themselves the biblical soundness of any view is a sacred one given to us by God. Because of this, we strive to protect the freedom of people in our church—as much as possible—to hold sometimes differing views. Of course, we must be united in our commitment to the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ for us to be a Jesus-following church. And there are certain issues about which we have to be reasonably on the same page to be able to function as a cohesive church (for example, issues such as speaking in tongues or baptizing infants). But we try hard to not unnecessarily encroach on the freedom and conscience of each Christian.

The Orchard is rooted in the evangelical free church tradition, one that’s historically been committed to a similar approach. For instance, evangelical free church associations often don’t have official positions on such issues as predestination, the security of the believer, spiritual gifts, baptism, the timing of the rapture, the age of the universe, etc. We leave these issues up to each church to work out for themselves. This “majoring in the majors instead of the minors” has long been part of the heritage of the evangelical free churches. Early in our history, this was referred to as the “significance of silence.” The idea is that we remain “silent” about these kinds of secondary issues in the sense of refraining from make any official pronouncements (but we continue to study and discuss together any issues concerning Scripture, theology and the life of the church).

Some beliefs can become so traditional that Christians end up unaware there even are other viewpoints. When Martin Luther and other reformers began challenging certain traditional beliefs, these beliefs had been the accepted teaching of the church for over 1,000 years. Most Christians at that time weren’t even aware there could be a biblical alternative. It’s not quite as dramatic, but many of us can remember when most of the people in our churches weren’t aware there’s any biblically viable view of the rapture other than the belief it would happen before the tribulation, seven years prior to the return of Christ. For example, this was true of the Evangelical Free Church of America (a free church denomination in the U.S.). In the early 1980s, the churches in the EFCA had to reexamine the issue of the rapture and decide whether they would allow Christians and churches in the denomination to hold differing views. (At that time, they didn’t allow any other view except the pretrib or “Left Behind” view.) Ultimately they decided they would allow people to hold differing views, and now a large number of people, including pastors and leaders, in their association hold views on the rapture of the church that differ from the “traditional” view of a pretrib rapture.

Another belief about which Christians have historically held differing views is the nature of hell. This is another issue where many of us are surprised to learn that other biblical views even exist! Even for pastors, it can be illuminating to learn that 1st century Jews (during Jesus’ life on earth) didn’t hold just one default view on the nature of hell, but had multiple, differing views. We can also be surprised to learn that for the first 600 years of the history of the church, pastors and leaders held differing views regarding hell, that this wasn’t a point of great debate or controversy, and that it’s very unlikely that our traditional understanding of hell was the dominant view during this time. Throughout the history of the church there have been leaders and groups of Christians who held different views than the current traditional view. And now the question of the nature of hell has again become a topic of discussion the last two decades, and increasingly so the last few years. Just what are these differing views that believing Christians have held over the centuries? Here’s a very brief description of each view:

Eternal Conscious Torment (or Punishment)
This is the belief that’s probably most familiar to all of us. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will go to hell, where they will suffer for eternity without hope of any release or end to their torment.

Annihilationism (or Conditionalism)
This is the belief that when the Bible describes the wages of our sin as “death,” it means death in the sense of actually ceasing to exist. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will go to hell, where they will suffer for a certain amount of time but will be ultimately consumed, they will finally die and will cease to exist.

Universal Reconciliation and Restoration
This is the belief that God not only loves each person and desires that each person be saved, but that he will ultimately accomplish his desire by bringing each individual person to salvation through faith in Christ, completely triumphing over hell and death. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will experience the judgment of hell, but that hell is both loving and redemptive, that it accomplishes God’s purpose of bringing even the most recalcitrant sinner to the point of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and thus God will completely restore his creation.

Two of these views may be completely new to many, and even sound very strange. Notice that each view includes the reality of hell and judgment. Each view also insists on faith in Jesus Christ as absolutely essential for salvation. None of the views contradict any core, essential teaching of historical, biblical Christianity, and proponents of each view build their case drawing directly from Scripture. Where they differ is in how they understand, in light of Scripture, the purpose and final outcome of hell. As we previously noted, leading Christian pastors and leaders of the first 600 years of the church held these differing views on this issue without any major controversy. The early creeds produced by the church didn’t address the nature of hell at all. Throughout church history there have been pastors and teachers who held these views concerning hell. And there are solid, reputable evangelical pastors and scholars today who hold these same views. 

After much prayer and multiple studies and discussions, our church has decided that—while we may not all completely agree regarding this issue—all of our people, including our pastors and leaders, should have the freedom to hold and teach from Scripture these differing views on the nature of hell. As always, we pray that the way we address this issue would result in God being glorified, that the church would be edified and strengthened, and that we would be faithful witnesses of God’s truth and love to the world around us.

I plan to write more on this subject, but if you’d like to check out books that compare these differing views on hell, you could begin here:

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

Four Views on Hell, second edition by Preston Sprinkle, Denny Burk, John Stackhouse Jr, Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls

Perspectives on Election: 5 Views by Chad Owen Brand, Jack Cottrell, Clark Pinnock, Robert Reymond, Thomas Talbott, and Bruce Ware