More Than One Way to Think About Hell?

Back just before Rob Bell’s Love Wins came out, people were freaking out. I don’t know why, because the book hadn’t even hit the shelves yet. But somehow enough had leaked out that the firestorm was in full swing. I was suspicious that what had everybody going was that Rob was going to talk about other views of  ‘the fate of the wicked’ than simply “they burn forever and ever”. Since views of hell that were over instantaneously, or only temporary and remedial in nature were much more numerous in historic Christianity than most North Americans realized, I wrote the following summary of the short-terms hells for our church’s website. This post will get us around to a post I will write soon “Then Why Send Missionaries?”

Various Christian universalisms have been around since the beginning, although they haven’t historically been the majority view. Christian ideas of universal salvation are not generic universalism. “Generic universalism” is the idea that all religions essentially teach the same thing and are pointed at the same goal, so any religion can get you to heaven. (By the way, all religions do not teach the same thing, all religions do not aim at the same goal, and no religion gets anyone to heaven, including Christianity).

The various versions of ‘Universal Salvation’  (also called ‘Universal Reconciliation’ or ‘Universal Restoration’) in Christianity are not the idea that any religion will get you to the same place. No, Universalism in Christianity was the idea that the atonement of Jesus is so profoundly powerful that, in the purposes of God, when all is said and done, every human who has ever lived will eventually and finally turn to God. (This may be what Bell’s title refers to: Love Wins.) Here’s another way it has been summed up: “All human beings will ultimately enjoy redemption and the presence of God forever. Some find the abundant life on this side of the grave — they are called “the elect,” “the saints” and “the firstfruits.” Others may face a fearful judgment and retribution, either in this life or the next. But in the end, they will join the company of the redeemed.” (http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/universal_restoration.html)

Most Christian versions of this doctrine include hell of some sort, usually as a limited-duration remedial punishment (get their attention so they want God more than rebellion). While it hasn’t come down to us as the majority view, there were times when it was common (as late as the 5th century Jerome said ‘most people’ and Augustine said ‘many people’ believed it).  The idea  has been believed, or at least considered quite possibly true,  by many sincere followers of Jesus down through the ages, including some pretty heavy hitters: St. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, the Alexandrian fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Peter Boehler, William Law,  Sundhar Singh, G.K. Chesteron, Karl Barth and John Neuhaus. (I had a larger list and at present can’t find it). Needless to say, the list of heavy-hitters who did NOT believe in this doctrine is far, far, longer.  The fact that the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, Rev. Billy Graham, has expressed hope in the doctrine of Universal Salvation ought to indicate that it doesn’t undercut evangelism, as some of its critics claim.

Christians who believe in Universal Salvation basically build their arguments around the following ideas:

  • the God who told us to forgive our enemies wouldn’t turn around and set His on fire for trillions of years (this idea has also given birth to the doctrine called ‘Annihilationism’: the idea that Hell is brief and then “the wicked vanish like smoke” and cease to exist (Psalm 37:20).
    •  modern English tends to obscure the nuances of Greek words regarding hell, and we tend to assume the words hell, gehennaSheol, punishment, judgment, justice and wrath all mean the same thing, which they don’t
    • the Greek words for punishment associated with hell in the New Testament are words with ‘remedial’ meanings, indicating the punishment is so people will do better next time
    • Jesus said some will be ‘beaten with few blows’ or ‘punished lightly’ (Luke 13:48). How could this possibly be describing trillions of years of torment?
  • 1 Peter 3: 19-20 and 4: 3,5 describe Jesus preaching to those who had died without knowledge of God’s ways during the time of Noah. Universalists figure something will apply to others who fit the same description.
  • It is against the nature of God, who is “kind and loving toward all He has made” to set people He created on fire for trillions of years. Endless torment  is disproportionate punishment for a crime committed in a limited scope on earth.
  • Paul calls Jesus “the Savior of all men, especially those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10)  and “reconciling all things on heaven and on earth” (Col 1:20 .)   Jesus said “If I am lifted up I will draw all men to me” John 12:32. David declares “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” (Psalm 22: 27) These are by no means all the verses Christian Universalists use, but they are representative.
  • ‘Universal Salvation’ was never condemned by any Ecumenical Council during the formative Patristic Age (first 5 centuries), even though some tried to have it condemned. St. Augustine considered those believing in Universal Salvation, (though he did not), still to be genuine Christians.

C S Lewis, in his beloved Chronicles of Narnia approaches this subject by describing a man who had grown up worshipping an idol/false god, finally meeting Aslan (who represents Christ). When Aslan says ‘come here my son,’ the man falls down on his knees expecting to be killed. When Aslan doesn’t kill him, he can’t understand: “I served Tash – a false-god – all my life, and now I see that YOU are the Truth….” Aslan replies “You acted in ignorance. Whatever vows you kept to Tash I credit as vows kept to me. Whatever vows you made to Tash and broke, I count as vows broken to me.” (I summed it up: for more detail, see The Last Battle, chapter 15).

–          – – – – – –

–          Some Christians ask “If someone can eventually get right with God after death, why send missionaries?” I’ll tackle that in an upcoming post.

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3 thoughts on “More Than One Way to Think About Hell?

  1. I’m a Christian Universalist. I finally recently came out with my views on my blog, which I’ve been very hesitant to do, fearing driving “blogging friends” away. But it has actually turned out well and only one person who used to always come to my sight no longer seems to be showing up.

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