Parry—The Prison and the Guillotine—Augustinianism

Augustine believed that everlasting damnation is the clear teaching of the divine revelation given in Scripture (Civ. Dei XX–XI) so he felt obliged to fit it into the jigsaw. I am not objecting to his attempting to do this, given his convictions on the teaching of Scripture. My point here is simply that he failed to make it fit, which propels us to consider again whether he was right in his interpretation of the Bible on this matter.

So what is the problem? In the first instance, this: those in hell are sinners—humans with broken and defective souls. But with Augustine’s hell, God keeps such sinners in existence as sinners for eternity. God actively perpetuates the existence of sinfulness and evil in his creation world without end. Now Augustine believes that those in hell do not continue to perform sinful acts—their power to continue sinning is removed (Ench. ad Laur. 111). Nevertheless, they remain sinful—with the dispositions of their souls disordered and oriented away from God. (If this were not so, they would be among the redeemed and so not in hell.) And God maintains them in this condition, not (a) allowing sin to corrode them into non-existence nor (b) annihilating them nor (c) redeeming them. As such, Augustine’s God would rather have a world in which sin and evil was forever perpetuated than one in which they were eradicated.1 It is somewhat ironic that the theologian who was so effective is critiquing the Manichaean dualism of good and evil locked in eternal conflict ended up crafting his own, albeit different, eternal dualism of good and evil. For Augustine, God purposed from before the foundation of the world that creation should forever fall short of its own telos. God intends that only some parts of creation will achieve the goal of eschatological completion.

Why? Because hell is an everlasting public display of divine justice, which is a great good. A world in which sin exists forever and is perfectly balanced by retributive punishment is a better world than one in which there is no permanent sin and no permanent display of divine punishment.

One is reminded of Jonathan Edwards’ claim, reflecting his panentheism, that the reprobate suffering in hell form a part of the infinite complex beauty of God’s being. Such a complex beauty requires “irregularities” and “deformities”—his words, not mine—and the damned, says Edwards, are these “deformities” in God. Strong words, and for a Perfect Being theologian like Edwards they ought to have caused some sleepless nights (or at least some dreams about red flags). John Bombaro comments on Edwards: “God is simple because His ideal essence of an infinitely complex beauty is perfectly and totally integrated into all that God is and does. For this reason Edwards admits no distress with God purposely orchestrating the Fall, decreeing sin and evil, and facilitating pain, suffering, and damnation.”2 The tormented damned as part of the beauty of God? That’s a ballsy move!

We don’t have time to pick apart all the problems hanging out in the bars near this proposal, but let me suggest that we should at very least find it an odd and unexpected ending to the plot we traced earlier. The jigsaw piece certainly does not seem a comfortable fit. To make it fit better, Augustine and Edwards work hard on modifying the other parts of the jigsaw, but this has the awkward feel of generating what Barth called a “God behind the back of Jesus Christ”—a secret God hidden behind the one revealed in the gospel; a God whose secret will differs from the will of God manifest in Christ. Red flags?

Augustine claims that his theology has a friend in divine justice, but I beg to differ. I have a serious problem with the claim that everlasting hell is a display of justice. I think that Augustine so inhabits Roman views of justice, he has not appreciated that biblical understandings of justice are much wider, reaching beyond mere retribution. So I do not think that everlasting hell is a display of biblical justice. In addition, I do not think it is even a display of simple retributive justice. Augustine’s defence of the everlasting nature of the punishment is, in my view, hopelessly inadequate,3 as is Anselm’s later (very different) attempt to do the same.4 But that’s a discussion for another time. If Augustine is after retributive justice then he’d have been better off being an annihilationist—and he’d have had the added benefit of the eradication of evil from creation had he gone that route.

So divine justice was the one theological friend Augustine’s view of hell had to play with and it turns out, or so I think, that even that friend has turned its back on him.

And Augustine has another problem—his view of hell threatens to incinerate the revelation of God’s love. The idea is simple enough: if God is love then God’s disposition towards the other—his creation—is loving. To love someone is to desire what is best for them. So if God is love, God desires what is best for his creatures. And what is that? Union with God in Christ. Now, I believe that the instincts in this argument are entirely biblical, but, again, as with much else, that is an argument for another day.

For Augustine, loving creation is entirely optional for God. God could, if he wanted, love and redeem all his creatures. He does not do so because he does not want to do so. He could show love and compassion, but decides not to. Hell, for Augustine, is nothing to do with God’s love, for God does not love the reprobate. Hell only displays God’s love for the elect by giving them a vivid display of what they deserved so that they will better appreciate and enjoy their redemption.

Now Augustine would never deny that God is love—indeed his doctrine of the Trinity is rooted in the notion of inner divine love. However, I would argue that if Augustine is right on hell then God is not love in his very essence. And that is a problem. Big red flag! It’s a problem because it arguably messes up Augustine’s own trinitarian theology. It is a problem because Augustine’s God ceases to be what Anselm called “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Even I can conceive of a greater God than the God of Augustine’s scheme—i.e., the God who is love. To be frank, I don’t want to risk screwing up my doctrine of God just to hold onto my doctrine of hell: certainly not if there are better alternatives on the table.

Perhaps Augustine should have reconsidered his biblical arguments for everlasting hell—which are not bad, but are not that great either. They need to be a lot better given the heavy theological burden he wants to place on their back.

In sum, Augustine’s view is at best a hard sell and deserves to be greeted by raised eyebrows: it’s like dressing a dog turd in a bikini and entering it for a beauty contest.


1. Why? God “would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil” (Ench. ad Laur. 11). So presumably eternal evil must be something that God only permits because he can bring some eternal good out of it. What possible goods may these be?
—First, the good of God’s perfect justice on public display. In hell evil is perfectly balanced with just the right amount of retributive punishment and this is a good thing. Augustine says that God could, if he wanted, redeem everyone and heal the whole creation. However, he thinks it is better to create a world in which evil exist forever so that his justice in punishing it can be permanently displayed. After all, they have no grounds to complain—they do deserve their fate: “if not a single member of the race had been redeemed, no one could justly have questioned the justice of God” (Ench. ad Laur. 99). Whether God loves his creatures is entirely up to Him: “there is no injustice in God’s not willing that they should be saved, though they could have been saved has He so willed it” (Ench. ad Laur. 95).
—Second, the good of making the wonders of salvation clear by contrasting them with what the redeemed are saved from. Evil, he said, is never good, but it can enhance our appreciation of the good. We value good things even more when we compare them to evil things. And the redeemed appreciate the joys of undeserved salvation far better by contemplating the damnation of the majority.
2. John J. Bombaro, Jonathan Edwards’ Vision of Reality: The Relationship of God to the World, Redemption History, and the Reprobate. Princeton Theological Monographs Series 172 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 179.
3. In Augustine’s scheme, the basis of punishment being everlasting is not the sins that we commit, but the sin that Adam committed. Adam’s sin was not like our sin in that he knew God and his will was genuinely free. The sinful decision that he made was unspeakably horrific and warrants everlasting punishment. We sin “in Adam” and inherit the guilt of his offence. Thus, any unredeemed human, whether a serial killer or unbaptized baby, will deservedly face everlasting punishment. This does not make all sinners equally bad. The severity of our everlasting punishment will vary a lot, depending on the actual sins that we commit. So the unbaptized baby will be cooked on, say, gas mark 1, while the serial killer will roast on gas mark 5. In addition, there are questions about the justice of God forever destroying sinners who could never have done anything other than sin. No other options were open to them, apart from divine assistance—assistance that was deliberately withheld.
4. I.e., that a sin against the honour of an infinite God incurs an infinite demerit and warrants an infinite punishment.


Above is the eighth section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.

Parry—The Victory of Divine Love over Evil

Doctrines of hell—in both Augustinian and freewill versions, and both eternal torment and annihilationist editions—have more problems than a hedgehog has spikes. It is hard to know how best to handle the issue in so short a time. So I thought I’d use the “Rethinking Hell” triangle as my guide on the journey and use the issue of God’s victory over evil as a way in.

Hell Triangle created by Rethinking Hell

First, a word on the ontology of evil. Here one of my part-time heroes, Augustine, offers some helpful insight. He argued that all created things come from the goodness of the Creator and are good (Ench. ad Laur. 9–10). Evil itself is not a substance, not a thing, but an absence of good.

 

In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present—namely, the disease and wounds—go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance—the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils—that is, privations of the good which we call health—are accidents. Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And when they are cured, they are not transferred elsewhere: when they cease to exist in a healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else.

Augustine, Ench. ad Laur. 11.

The ontology of evil that Augustine articulated here was in fact a widely shared Christian view by his day. The Christian Platonist tradition prior to Augustine held firmly to the notion that evil was not ontologically essential to creation and that God would defeat it. But defeat it how? Two options have been considered by Christians: you can either (a) imprison it or (b) annihilate it. And there are two very different ways one can annihilate evil: one can either annihilate the substance that has been corrupted by evil or one can heal the substance that has been corrupted by evil, thereby eradicating the evil. This yields the three basic options of the hell triangle.

  1. The Prison: forever balance evil with perfectly proportioned retributive punishment.
  2. The Guillotine: annihilate evil by annihilating those infected with it.
  3. The Hospital: annihilate evil by healing those afflicted with it.

Or, as we better know them: everlasting torment, annihilationism, and universalism. (I ought to add that Jerry Walls has his own hybrid version and the following analysis does not do justice to it.)


Above is the seventh section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.

Parry—Consummation: all things are to him

“Eschatology,” said John A. T. Robinson, “is an explication of what must be true of the end, both of history and of the individual, if God is to be the God of biblical faith. All eschatological statements can finally be reduced to, and their validity tested by, sentences beginning: ‘In the end, God . . . .’”1 I think that this insight is profoundly important. For God to be the God revealed in Jesus Christ, the God of the gospel, our eschatology must be gospel-shaped. And what does that look like? The answer, I suggest, is that it looks like the risen Lord. The gospel calls the shots. The gospel determines the shape of the end.

This sounds very much like a story for which universal salvation is a fitting ending. Thus, Paul speaks of “the mystery of [God’s] will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:10).2 All creation is made “for” and oriented “to” God—and it is summed up and brought to its fitting conclusion and destiny in Jesus. Then at Jesus’ name every knee will bow—in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth (which is to say, the dead)—and every tongue confess him as Lord (Phil. 2:9–11).3 All will be subject to Christ, and then Christ will subject himself to the Father on behalf of creation, so that God will “be all” and will be “in all” (1 Cor 15:28).4 That is the kind of end I would expect for the biblical story.

Now, we are so used to the traditional story of hell as the final fate of some/many/most people that we usually fail to notice how out of place it feels as a conclusion to this story. But surely we need a very good explanation for this tale ending in tragedy for some/many/most people. What possible reasons could there be for such an unexpected climax?


1. John A. T. Robinson, In the End, God . . . : A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things. Special Edition (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), 23.
2. For a universalist reading of Ephesians, see TEU, 184–91.
3. For a defense of a universalist interpretation of this text (against the often-made claim that some are forced to bow the knee against their will) see TEU, 97–100.
4. For a defense of a universalist reading of 1 Corinthians 15, see TEU, 84–90.


 

Above is the sixth section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.

Parry—Church: a foretaste of the age to come

We live in a time between the resurrection of Jesus and the general resurrection of the dead, between the inauguration of the kingdom of God and our full participation in it. The new age is here now—for Christ has been exalted and the Spirit has been poured out—but we still await its complete arrival.

This tension between now and not-yet permeates NT teaching on universal salvation. On the one hand, in the person of the risen Christ everyone is already redeemed. God has already reconciled the world to himself in Christ (Rom. 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:19; Col. 1:19–20).

On the other hand, only those who have been united to Christ by the Holy Spirit now participate in that salvation (and even then, only in an anticipatory way, until the general resurrection). So the actual existential participation of all people in salvation is not a present reality, it lies in the future: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).1

So is everyone currently justified? Yes and no. In that Christ has been raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25), we are all already justified in his resurrection. However, it is only as we respond in obedient trust to the gospel, and are united to Christ by the Spirit, that we participate subjectively in this justification.

This now/not-yet tension is seen throughout Paul’s letters. For instance, in 2 Corinthians 5:14–21, Paul addresses the issue of the universal significance of Christ’s work. We read that “one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14) and that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). From this perspective there are no insiders and outsiders—everyone is an insider. And yet Paul still issues the imperative, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). A Spirit-enabled human response to the gospel is still required if people are to share in the salvation already achieved in Christ. And right now many live outside the gospel community. So Paul makes a very clear distinction in all his writings between those who are “in Christ” and those who are not, the church and the world, believers and unbelievers, the elect and those who are not elect. The former are “being saved” while the latter are “perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3).

It is critical to note, however, that for Paul the dead in sin can become those alive in Christ, children destined for wrath can become children of mercy (Eph. 2:1–11).2 This is relevant because we cannot assume that just because Paul sees a current divide between those being saved and those perishing, that this divide will remain in place eternally. Romans 9–11 makes this point well.3


1. For a defense of a universalist reading of this passage, against its critics, see TEU, 84–90.
2. I do not have time to explore the important notion of election. For my understanding of it, see TEU, 222–42.
3. It seems to me that underpinning much NT ecclesiology is the vision of Israel’s prophets that in the last days Israel would be restored, the Spirit poured out, and the nations would come in pilgrimage and worship the God of Abraham alongside Israel (e.g., Isa. 2:1–4; 11:10–12; 18:7; 60:1–16; 61:5–6; 66:12, 18, 23). To NT authors, this vision is coming to pass in the ekklesia—the Spirit is poured out, and Jews and people from among the nations are united as equals, worshipping the God of Israel together. However, we make a mistake if we lose sight of the now/not-yet tension. The church in the present is only a prophetic foretaste of the fuller reality to come—an anticipation of the grander fulfillment in the new creation, when “all Israel” is saved (Rom. 11:26) and all the nations and the kings of the earth bring their tribute into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:24–27).


Above is the fifth section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.

Parry—Redemption: all things are through him

Incarnation1

The divine Word, the second person of the Holy Trinity, became flesh (John 1:14). As the Second Adam, Jesus represented the whole race—he is the sinless and obedient one in whom God’s covenant relationship with humanity finds fulfillment. Most Christians have been universalists about Christ’s humanity—he represents all humans in his humanity. Here, for instance, is Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367): “Christ has become the body of the whole of humanity, that, through the body that he was kind enough to assume, the whole of humanity might be hidden in him . . . .”2

Christ’s being fully human is fundamental to our salvation. As Gregory of Nazianzus observed: “that which He has not assumed, He has not healed.”3 He became human so that he could heal our humanity in himself, through his death and resurrection. This is suggestive. Listen to Athanasius: “Flesh was taken up by the Logos to liberate all humans and resurrect all of them from the dead and ransom all of them from sin.”4

Death

Most Christians, past and present, are universalists about Christ’s crucifixion—Jesus died for all people in order to save all people. This belief is well grounded in Scripture and tradition. Consider the following well-known verse: “[Christ] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).5 Recall that “the world” in 1 John, as in John’s Gospel, is the sinful, God-rejecting world. So we know whom God so loved and sent his Son to die for—for the whole wicked world. Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). For remember, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). (Of course, I am well aware of a post-Reformation minority report in favor of a limited atonement, but I don’t have time to get into that here.6 The mainstream historic Christian tradition is clear and well summed up by Athanasius: Christ “delivered his own body to death on behalf of all . . . in order to bring again to incorruptibility the human beings now doomed to corruption.”7 Exitus et reditus.)

This teaching emphasizes the mainstream Christian view that God desires to redeem all people (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9) and has acted in Christ in order to do so.

Now while I am have not shown much sympathy with limited atonement, I do see that behind it lies what I consider to be a sound theological worry. The worry is this: will the cross save all those for whom Christ died, or will his death have been in vain for some people?8 The five-point Calvinist finds the idea that Christ died for many (or any) people in vain to be terribly problematic. So do I. But because they think that some folk will go forever to hell, they deduce that Christ could not have died for those people. But might we work things the other way? Might we say that because Christ died for all people that none will find themselves forever lost? Which does most justice to the overall narrative logic of the salvation story?

Resurrection/Ascension

The resurrection of Jesus is new creation, the age to come breaking into the present evil age. And Jesus’ resurrection is not simply Jesus’ resurrection—it is ours; it is the destiny of all humanity played out in the person of our representative.

All Christian eschatology must be Christ-centered and it must be grounded here, in this event. Here we see the future of the world, the future of humanity, manifest in his risen flesh. The story of humanity does not terminate on a cross, but passes through an empty tomb, and ascends to God. Christ, says Paul, was raised for our justification (Rom 4:25); indeed, his resurrection is our justification. That is why I think that Paul can be so confident that “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” (Rom 5:18–19).

Many Christians think that a confident universalism is presumptuous—for we cannot claim know the end. While there is a lot that we cannot know about the end, we do know this: Christ is risen! And that is enough. God has revealed the destiny of humanity right here. For me, this is what it means to be an evangelical universalist—it means to found one’s universalism in the evangel itself. And to be confident in my universalism is not presumptuous, as I am claiming nothing more than that in Christ humanity rises again and returns to God. What does the missing jigsaw piece look like? Looks to me like an empty tomb.


1. Of course, to tell the story fully would require speaking of God’s way with Israel, but space prohibits. On Israel and universalism, see TEU, 54–73, 90–96, 229–33.
2. In Psalmos, 51.16–17.
3. Epistle 101.
4. Letter to Adelphius.
5. Consider also, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14). “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people ….” (1 Tim. 2:3–6). “But we do see Jesus, who … suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9)
6. For a defense of a universal atonement in the texts cited in n.13, see I. Howard Marshall, “For All, For All My Saviour Died.” In Semper Reformandum: Studies in Honor of Clark H. Pinnock, edited by S. E. Porter and A. R. Cross (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2003), 322–46.
7. De Incarnatione, 9.
8. There is no agreed Christian understanding of how the atonement works. I contend that however we understand the mechanism, it coheres best with universalism.

 


Above is the fourth section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.

Parry—Creation: all things are from him and for him

All Christians are universalists about creation—God created all things, through his Word. And creation is not simply about origins (everything comes from God), but about purpose and destiny. Created things have an end, a destiny, and that end, as the beginning, is God. The end of creation is there in its beginning: creation is from God, for God, and oriented towards God, reaching towards its potential and completion in God. So the question of universalism and hell can be framed in terms of whether or not God will bring all creation to the goal for which he intended it. Yes . . . or no?

Let’s get more specific. Take humans—the subject of this debate. Christians agree that all humans are created in the image of God (Gen 1:24–26). But while God did create humans as “good,” he did not create humans as finished and completed creatures—he created them with a destiny to grow towards. This telos of human creatures is, in community, to be filled with God and to image God in the world.

Furthermore, humans find their sense of fulfillment and happiness in God. We all long for happiness; as Jerry Walls puts it, “We have a built-in hard drive to desire happiness . . . .”1 That is how God made us. And this desire cannot be fulfilled without being rightly related to God. Augustine famously put it this way: “our hearts are restless until they find rest in you” (Confessions I). So our story of creation already includes a notion of the goal for which God destines humans—and that goal is not everlasting alienation from God.

The gospel revelation of Jesus Christ deepens and sharpens our understanding of the human telos. The risen and ascended humanity of Christ is the climax of our human nature. One day we shall be like him (Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:12–57; 1 John 3:2). For us, being human is a yet-to-be completed journey. Jesus is the only person ever of whom it can be said that he is fully human. Humanity has reached its goal in him. And in the gospel it becomes clearer to us that the creation of humanity was always a two-phase project: the first Adam was earthly; the second Adam was heavenly (1 Cor. 15:42–49). Humanity was made with a destiny, and that destiny was to be conformed to the image of the true human, the origin of the new, phase-two humanity—Jesus. This theology is foundational for universalism. Humans have been created to grow towards God, their destination. They are not created for hell, but for theosis.

Fall

Genesis suggests that the move from phase-one to phase-two humanity was interrupted by sin. Sin is the creature’s attempt to interrupt the reditus, the return to God, which is the goal of creation. As such, sin represents a rupture in creation. It corrodes human be-ing at every level and makes it impossible for us to reach our destination. Instead we spiral away from God, the source of life, into corruption, decay, and death.

All Christians are universalists about sin—all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Without divine redemptive grace human beings (and creation as a whole) are doomed to futility.

Might hell be able to build on the foundation of this plot-twist? Do we deserve divine punishment? Yes. Do we deserve divine rescue? No. But, remember, even broken humans are still in God’s image (Gen. 9:6), still valuable, still beloved:

[A]ll creatures participate in God’s goodness, especially rational creatures who were made in God’s image. . . . The rational creature is, essentially, a being bearing the divine image and ordered toward union with God. . . . God can no more cease to value rational creatures—even if they fall into sin—than He can cease to value Himself, because rational creatures are a reflection of His own essence. Therefore, He is always faithful to them, even when they are unfaithful to Him, and must seek to destroy their sin.2

John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory

To hate creatures made in his image, even fallen ones, would be a form of indirect self-hatred, and this God cannot do. Thus, Jürgen Moltmann: “God is angered by human sin not although he loves human beings but because he loves them. He says No to sin because he says Yes to the sinner.”3

Anthony Bloom, former Metropolitan Bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain, once stated:

Every one of us is in the image of God, and every one of us is like a damaged icon. But if we were given an icon damaged by time, damaged by circumstances, or desecrated by human hatred, we would treat it with reverence, with tenderness, with broken-heartedness. We would not pay attention primarily to the fact that it is damaged, but to the tragedy of its being damaged. We would concentrate on what is left of its beauty, and not on what is lost of its beauty. . . . We must learn to look, and look until we have seen the underlying beauty. . . . Only then can we even begin to do something to call out all the beauty that is there.4

Blogger Alvin Rapier, commenting on this quote and annihilationism, writes:

If humans are like damaged icons and annihilationists hold that God completely annihilates human beings through the fires of hell, then the doctrine of annihilationism makes God the Great Iconoclast, the destroyer of human icons. God would be destroying the very Creation meant for communion, repeating the actions of the iconoclasts that were condemned in the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Instead of treating these icons “with tenderness, with broken-heartedness” and calling out the beauty that is there, as Bloom stated, annihilationism holds that God inflicts “capital punishment” upon these images, that the fires of hell will consume them, similar to how the iconoclast extremists “tore down icons from their places in churches and broke them up and burnt them” (Stephen W. Need, Truly Divine and Truly Human, 132). The God of annihilationism is the God of the iconoclasts, the ultimate destroyer of God’s images.5

So building a doctrine of eternal hell on the doctrine of the fall may prove harder than we may at first think. Hell’s defenders should try to do so, but they will have to wrestle with the wider biblical metanarrative in which the fall is located. Will God allow sin to thwart his creational purposes to beautify the cosmos? The answer comes, as we’ll see, in the gospel story. Sin may be as deep and dark and deadly as it can, but Christ annihilates it! The first Adam may have wrought havoc, but the Second Adam more than undoes that destruction (Rom. 5:14–21). Where sin abounds, grace abound all the more (Rom. 5:20). One problem with hell is that is makes the victory of Christ over sin sound something of a damp squib. Sin wreaks havoc in creation, but praise be! Grace undoes a bit of what sin does! Where sin abounds, grace abound quite a lot. Is that divine victory over sin? It looks at first blush like a doctrine of hell is a doctrine in which Satan achieves a big chunk of what he set out to do. And if the Augustinian tradition is correct and most people are forever damned then eschatological victory is in danger of sounding like celebrating the divine triumph after hearing the following soccer score:

Satan, 5; God, 1.

“Hooray! God has won!” For Augustine, this score counts as a win because God wanted Satan to score 5 and only wanted one goal himself, and because he plans on beating up Satan after the match. Yet that still sounds like another way of saying that God wanted to lose.


1. Jerry L. Walls, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: A Protestant View of the Cosmic Drama (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015), ?.
2. John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), 38. Some readers will be uncomfortable associating the divine image with rationality. If that is you, simply substitute “human” for “rational” in the passage.
3. Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (London: SCM, 1996), 243.
4. As quoted in http://www.stmaryorthodoxchurch.org/orthodoxy/articles/quotes
5. Alvin Rapier, “God the Great Iconoclast? A Theological Critique of Annihilationism.” Blog post (16 Dec 2014) on www.thepoorinspirit.com.


Above is the third section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.

Parry—Hell in the Context of the Biblical Narrative

Exitus et reditus

The first part of the material that follows can be found in a modified form in my contribution to the forthcoming Four Views on Hell counterpoints book, published by Zondervan. Everything starts and ends with God. Paul writes that creation is “from” God, “through” God, and “to God” (Rom 11:36). God is the context of the world—the origin and the destiny of creation. That basic pattern informs Christian theology: exitus et reditus—“going forth” from God and “return to” God.1 It forms the very broad theological framework within which we must operate.

Consider the Christ hymn of Colossians 1.

For in him [the Son] 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. … God was pleased … 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.

Col. 1:16, 19–20

We see here a story that begins with the creation of all things through Christ and runs on to the reconciliation of the same all things through Christ (i.e., the all things that have been created).2 Exitus et reditus. Avoiding the universalism in this text remains a significant challenge for those who believe in eternal hell—eternal hell, after all, does not seem much like reconciliation!3 But I’ll say no more on that now.

So I propose we explore this Christ-centered creation-to-new-creation plotline as a context for considering hell. This hermeneutical judgment—that Christ is the norm for interpreting Scripture—underpins my entire approach. And already we may catch a possible glimpse of a red flag: might an eternal hell foul up the “reditus” of creation? How can creation return to God . . . if it doesn’t ever return to God?


1. The exitus-reditus model was adopted and then adapted from Neoplatonism.
2. While sin is not mentioned, the fact that reconciliation is required clearly presupposes it.
3. Some argue that reconciliation here means, “to put in order.” So, we are told, believers are “reconciled” by being saved, while unbelievers are “reconciled” by being damned. The problem here is that this proposal runs roughshod over the concept of reconciliation in general, and of the concept of reconciliation in Paul in particular (Rom. 5:10; 1 Cor. 7:11; 2 Cor. 5:18–20; Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:22). Being defeated and condemned is not being reconciled! Rather, this reconciliation is spelled out in terms of “making peace through his blood shed on the cross.” Try as I might, I struggle to see how “making peace” through the cross can concern damnation, even if the damned acknowledge the justice of their punishment.


Above is the second section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.

I go into Colossians 1 in detail in Everyone Being Reconciled To Everyone Else One Day – The Bible’s Overall Story Part 3.

Parry unpacks the “Christ-centered creation-to-new-creation plotline” over 71 pages of careful, biblical exegesis (he did his Phd on part of Genesis) in his book, The Evangelical Universalist, resulting in the summary diagram below:

The Big Picture of the Bible
The Big Picture of the Bible—Diagram 4 of “The Evangelical Universalist”, p129

Parry—Burning Love: The Theological Hermeneutics of Hell

One of the fascinating things about the history of universalism in the post-Reformation period is that the doctrine seems to be “rediscovered” over and over again. While we can trace universalist genealogies in the post-Reformation period, the more interesting feature is just how many folk seem to stumble into it for themselves without having had it passed on to them. Some folk have unexpected religious experiences that lead them to become universalists; others, simply reflecting on the Bible come to believe that it teaches universalism; yet others find that wresting with the tensions in Christian doctrine draws them to the larger hope. But from the seventeenth century onwards we find universalism in Protestant countries breaking out again and again, here and there and everywhere. And when one genealogical line dies off, as many do, new ones spring up, often unconnected to earlier movements.

Why? My conviction is that a part of the answer to this question lies in the following claim: universalism feels like a better “fit” within Christian theology than the alternatives, at least at face value. As such there is an internal pressure generated by various Christian doctrines that pushes in universalist directions. The doctrine of hell puts a blocker on that push, but in so doing it generates a build-up of unresolved theological pressure that sometimes needs to be released. One of the ways that it can be released is by pushing out eternalist interpretations of hell (like a cork from champagne) and embracing universalism. So I think that if every Christian universalist and all their universalist materials vanished into thin air today, we would not have to wait long before some Christian was led to “rediscover” universalism again.

Think of Christian theology like an incomplete jigsaw: how do we know which pieces do and do not fit into the gaps? The clues are provided by the shape of the gaps left by the pieces that are already in place and by the image contained on them. My suggestion is that there is no obvious hell-shaped hole in this puzzle. Hell, understood as one’s eternal fate, has been squashed and squeezed into a space in the jigsaw, but the shape and the picture on the piece are not quite right. The space clearly has to do with judgment and punishment, so the hell piece is not completely out of place, yet something is wrong with it and this creates a niggling sense of dissatisfaction. That this is the case is indicated not merely by the fact that some people throw the piece away and seek out a piece that they think fits better, but also by the lengths those who support the inclusion of the piece go to to defend its appropriateness. Hell, they acknowledge, does appear not to fit, but they insist that upon closer inspection we can see that things are otherwise.

Now the salvation story that the church tells seems to me to generate, by its own internal narrative logic, certain expectations about the appropriate end to the plot. While we may well expect that the journey towards the end will involve judgment and punishment, the narrative logic does not lead us to expect it to end in eternal damnation for some/many/most people. Eternal damnation sounds more like the unexpected twist at the end of a Hammer Horror film. Or, to use a musical analogy, it is like a discordant note sounded at the end of a Mozart symphony. Instinctively we feel that it doesn’t fit, and indeed that it is rather ugly.

The universalist proposal is that in fact it does not fit; that the Bible does not actually teach such a doctrine; that many in the early church never accepted such a doctrine; and that we’d be better off throwing the rogue jigsaw piece away and replacing it with a piece that fits the gap better in terms of its shape and its picture.

Universalists also worry that insisting on retaining the eternal hell piece does damage to the rest of the jigsaw. By forcing the piece into a gap it does not fit, the surrounding pieces are squashed out of shape. Perhaps they are even repainted somewhat to make them blend in better with hell. When we let the hell piece call the shots and we reshape the jigsaw around it, the end result is a distorted picture.

To drop the barrage of analogies (jigsaws, movies, stories, symphonies), what I am saying is that the doctrine of hell may lead to our reconfiguring the other parts of orthodox theology to relieve the pressure—perhaps God did not create everyone for beatific union with God, perhaps some were created and eternally destined for damnation. Perhaps Jesus does not represent humanity, but a subsection of it. Perhaps he died for a few people, rather than all. These ideas do serve to relieve some of the pressure on hell, but they do so at a cost. It is a cost in all sorts of areas—at face value such notions are unbiblical; they are theologically problematic; they are arguably not true to the pre-Augustinian Christian tradition.

What we need to remember is that when we speak about hell, we are never simply speaking about hell. We are also implicitly speaking about creation, about humanity, about sin, about justice and punishment, about atonement, and about God. Every hellology implies a theology, every doctrine of eschatological punishment implies a doctrine of God.

When considering which account of divine judgment to embrace we are always doing more than simply exegeting this passage or that passage of the Bible. We are also, always, looking at the big picture. We need to remember that for Christians biblical texts are only authoritative when understood within their context in the canon of Scripture and in light of the rule of faith. So an atomistic approach to the topic that builds everything on the interpretation of a handful of passages will never do. Those passages will factor into Christian reflection, but only as located in a wider context. So today I want to briefly sketch out the narrative logic of the biblical plotline as I see it so as to make clearer the jigsaw pattern that I think a doctrine of final punishment has to fit comfortably within. A caveat: for reasons of time limit I am going to skip over a critical part of the story—that of God’s way with Israel. So I must simply register here that I do not think this part of the story optional, but to open it up would lead us into areas we have no time to handle. Also, I must stress that I will not be looking at the exegesis of any of the hell texts—this is an important task, but there is no time. My purpose is a tad more modest. I am hoping to offer something like the initial stages of a prolegomena to the theological interpretation and appropriation of such texts.


Above is the first section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.

Sarris & Rankin Debate—Will Hell Eventually Be Abolished? part 2

Below is my transcript of John Rankin’s’ 15-minute opening presentation in the above video of the Mars Hill Forum debate titled, “Will Hell Eventually Be Abolished?” (for George Sarris’ opening presentation see Sarris & Rankin Debate—part 1).


John Rankin: So will hell eventually be abolished? The question covers much territory and I will look at it through the proactive lens of freedom. The entire Bible is understood through the storyline of creation, sin, and redemption. In Genesis 1-2, in the order of creation, we have the foundation for, and the gift of, human freedom. In Genesis 3 we have the brokenness of human freedom and then the promise of this restoration through the coming Messiah. Now, the very word “redemption” means to buy back out of slavery, and thus the formal doctrines of creation, sin, and redemption can be spoken of as freedom, slavery, and return to freedom.

Our first concern is to understand the nature and name of the one true creator. In Genesis 1, the Hebrew word for the Creator is Elohim and in its grammatical usage, it simply means that the one true God of the Bible is greater than all the so-called gods of pagan religions. Elohim is greater than the human concept of number. In Genesis 2, the name Yahweh Elohim is introduced and at the burning bush in Exodus 3:14-15, Elohim defines his name for Moses. He calls himself ehyeh, the first person singular imperfect tense (don’t worry about the grammar) of the verb “to be”—the “I AM”. This means that he who is, always was, and always will be. The grammar that he is greater than space and time. And thus he tells Moses to call him Yahweh Elohim, where Yahweh in the Hebrew is the third-person singular imperfect for the verb “to be”—”he is”. In other words, “I am” azegna (sp?) “he is” as Yahweh. It’s the same: first person, third person, “he is”. “He is eternal existence”, “he is the creator”. Then Yahweh tells Moses that his name is forever—where the word forever is olam—and the sons of Israel are to remember his name from generation to generation. And when Jesus calls himself “I am”, he is calling himself ehyeh. Therefore he’s calling himself God. Thus the one true creator, Yahweh Elohim, is he who is greater than space, time, and number, and Jesus—as the incarnation of Yahweh Elohim—is the one who in being greater than time, space, and number, comes inside time, space, and number to save us. Only by starting here can we grasp the question of the duration of heaven and hell. Time is defined by Yahweh Elohim in the biblical revelation, not by us.

Our second concern leads us to the question “what is the nature of salvation?” in Genesis 1-2. Well, there is none, for there’s nothing yet to be saved from. Only after the introduction of sin does the need for salvation arise. And the purpose of salvation is to restore us to the original promises in creation. In Genesis 2:7, human nature is defined by the Hebrew term nephesh, which means soul or personhood. It is the word that refers to the throat and neck region—and indicates the nature of being needful of Yahweh’s breath and the ecosphere in order to live. Indeed, before the advent of human sin, when trust in Yahweh and one another is in place, with every breath we take we are grateful—the dependency of nephesh is our strength.

So let me take a quick survey: How many people here do not like a good back rub? It looks like we have unity so far… Let me give you two choices:

  1. Give yourself the back rub? Any takers? Unity continues.
  2. Have someone you love and trust give you the back rub?

But who among us would receive a back rub from someone who has a contract on our life? In other words, when we’re in a position of need and trust we are strengthened and we thrive. But if we are in a position of need and distrust is the norm, we are weakened and life can be in danger.

In the first case we have nephesh in the order of creation and the second we have its violation in the sin nature. Salvation restores us to the freedom of nephesh and, if you please, the freedom to receive the best possible back rubs.

The living and preaching of the gospel in a broken world seeks to touch the nephesh of the image of God and all people—and to show how Jesus alone fulfills it. The many who seek the mercy of God will find it in him and a few who love bitterness will not. And for those who have not heard the name of Jesus lived and/or preached, when they see Jesus on the final day they will either love or hate him. As Jesus speaks of those who love the light because of their pursuit of the good versus those who love darkness due to their evil deeds—nephesh honored or nephesh rejected—gratefulness for every breath given or disdain for the giver.

The first introduction of freedom is found in Genesis 1:2 and 2:1. In Genesis 1:2 the earth is formless and empty and the Spirit of Elohim hovers over the abyss, theum. This is the Hebrew word describing that which is outside of the creation, a bottomless pit of no boundaries, no life, no light, no heat, no identity, no hope—that is nothing.

There’s a foundation for the use of the abyss (abusan in the Greek) in the New Testament, which interfaces greatly with the language and images of Hell—of final judgment. Thus we note the language of the abyss before the creation and after creation but it does not exist within the good creation itself.

In Genesis 2:1, the text speaks of the creation of the heavens and the earth being completed in their armies. This means that in Genesis 1:2 these armies are already in place. It is a reference to the holy angels and a view of the fallen angels led by Satan. Essentially Genesis 1:2 assumes the freedom that all angels were originally given to accept the goodness of Yahweh Elohim or to reject it. Genesis 1:1 equals the first words in scripture, “in the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth.” Yahweh Elohim is sovereign and he has all power. And then in verse 2, we see that the angels have freedom from before the creation—sovereignty and choice, the great debate. Thus we have set the stage for human freedom.

As the first words of the Bible start with God’s sovereignty, his first words to Adam start with freedom. In Genesis 2:15, Yahweh Elohim calls Adam to work and quote unquote, “Guard the garden.” The Hebrew word for guard is Shamar, a crucial word across the entire Hebrew Bible. Adam is being called to guard the garden from the intrusion of the devil. He had already violated freedom and wants Adam and Eve to do likewise.

Then we read in verses 16 through 17 (when I quote the Bible I’m quoting translations straight from the Hebrew or the Greek), “And Yahweh Elohim commanded the man, ‘In feasting you shall continually feast from any tree in the garden but you must not eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, for the moment you eat of it in dying you shall continually die.'” Now a common translation of verse 16 is, “you are free to eat”, but the Hebrews is far more dynamic, acalltocael. This is the infinitive absolute and an imperfect tense for the verb “to eat”. And what it means is a feast that is always full in the moment and never ends. The grammar is clear, “in feasting we shall continually feast”, is a metaphor for freedom and it means a feast that is always full in the moment and never ends. This is the only positive definition of freedom in all human history—a freedom for the good. Whereas, in all pagan religions and secular constructs, the best hope is a freedom from a violation of evil. Adam and Eve had an unlimited menu of good choices, the metaphor of freedom, and this includes the Tree of Life, which, as they eat of it, they will never die.

Does anyone here who does not enjoy a feast with family and friends? The biblical metaphor of freedom is attractive to all people and the mission of the gospel is accordingly to bring true freedom into an enslaved world.

Now Genesis 2:7-17 is a whole unit where three realities are profiled: good versus evil, freedom versus slavery, and life versus death. In verse 9, in the middle of all the good fruit of the garden, we learn of the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The second tree refers to:

  1. The knowledge of everything that only Yahweh Elohim can possess, and also not be tempted or poisoned by evil.
  2. For man or woman to eat of it is to say Yahweh is not good.
  3. Thus it is to play God in redefining good and evil, calling Yahweh evil.
  4. It is to consume evil and be destroyed by it—only Yahweh Elohim can understand everything, including good and evil.

And so he is telling us that, “Don’t eat this fruit because you can’t understand everything and especially evil because if you try to digest evil you will die”—that’s the prohibition.

Now as we look at verse 17, which we’ve already quoted, “In dying you shall continually die.” And here we get to the nexus, to the crucial point about the debate over hell. The grammar is the same as in verse 16 but with opposite purpose, “a death that is full in the moment and is never ending.” So to disobey God is to have the fullness of death and it never ends—this is the grammar in Genesis 2:17.

As the forbidden food is eaten, the Tree of Life is forsaken, and thus death gradually wears down the human soul. Hell is the biblical language introduced later, used especially by Jesus in referring to final judgment. And all biblical language of freedom versus judgment starts in Genesis 2:16-17. Life, the good, and freedom never end. For those who say yes to Yahweh Elohim—to Jesus. Death, evil, and slavery never end for those who say no and refuse to repent. Life multiplies in the presence of King Jesus. Death ever shrinks humanity in the presence of the devil and his demonic horde in the abyss.

Thus what we have here is a level playing field to choose between heaven and hell. We have the freedom to choose hell if we so please. The choice is either to feast or die. But why would the good Creator allow us such proactive freedom?

First, being made in the image of God as finite creatures, we are made in the image of the infinite one who is fully free in his sovereign power.

Second, Yahweh Elohim as the Creator only does the good. For if he were to do the evil he would be a destroyer, which is one of the names of Satan (and the reality of all pagan deities). If Yahweh Elohim were to do evil he could not be the creator and could neither make nor sustain the universe and human life.

Third, and therefore, freedom is the power to do the good since it is creative but if freedom and goodness were forced on us it cannot be freedom, it cannot be good, it is slavery and evil, and Yahweh Elohim is neither a slave master nor evil. He will not force the good on us.

Thus unless we are free to say no to the good creator, we are not free to say yes. If we believe that Yahweh Elohim were to restrict anyone’s freedom to say an ultimate no to his love, and thus to cajole them into heaven one way or another, this equals:

  1. An unbiblical view of love, and
  2. It makes Yahweh Elohim into a pagan deity.

In this debate, there are those who, like George, see a dichotomy in the possibility that hell can be chosen forever. It goes like this: God either has all power and doesn’t want people to be saved or God is weak and does not have the power to save all people (George mentioned this earlier). But this dichotomy fails to understand the goodness of Genesis 1 through 2, where Yahweh Elohim is all-powerful, he is free, we are free, and he honors our freedom—this is biblically radical love. Thus as Adam and Eve choose death and as we all follow suit in the sin nature, Yahweh comes to us in Jesus the Messiah to rescue us but the good gift of freedom to say no remains in place.

Will hell ever be abolished or empty as George believes? No, to do so would violate the very goodness of Yahweh Elohim and his gift of human freedom.

We can conclude with two simple observations:

  1. Yahweh Elohim desire is for us to choose his freedom, which is the power to do the good and in His goodness, he does not manipulate our freedom.
  2. Heaven is for the many who love mercy, hell is for the few who guard bitterness.

There are very many outstanding questions I’m sure. Questions are intrinsic to biblical freedom so let them fly and let’s enjoy ourselves in the presence of King Jesus.

Thank you.


I know very little Hebrew but a Thomas Nicholson helpfully suggested:

Regarding Rankin’s main point about the Hebrew grammar in Gen. 2:16+17, I have my doubts. But I would love you and others to chip in on what I now write.

In these two verses, he refers to the two instances of infinitive absolute plus cognate verb in the imperfect:

VERSE 16 in feasting you shall (continuously) feast from any tree in the garden

VERSE 17 but when you eat the forbidden fruit: in dying you shall (continuously) die.

Certainly, the Hebrew imperfect can be “continuous” in the way that the Hebrew perfect cannot. But surely he’s wrong to imply that with the addition of the infinitive absolute, the phrase must now mean “continuing on throughout all eternity”.

All the main translations take this “infinitive absolute + verb” phrase in its usual emphatic or intensive sense — using words like “surely” feast or “certainly” die.

According to the Grammarians, if the cognate verb had come first, followed by the infinitive absolute, it could possibly mean “continuity” — but this is not the case here.

AFTER THOUGHT: Or is he saying that within the theological context of the Eden account, this grammatical phrase can be stretched to include a concept of going on for ever? And yet he kept referring to the grammar being right, so I’m not sure. In any case, I don’t think he has the grammar right — I think he’s miss-reading the meaning of the Hebrew “infinitive absolute + cognate verb”. But I would really like other opinions on this. Thanks!

Rankin’s argument seems to end up being similar to C. S. Lewis’—the type of freedom God gives humanity means He can’t save/draw/win-the-hearts-of at least some people. I think Reitan and Kronen comprehensively refute this in God’s Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism (see also Talbott’s approach that I discussed in Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?).

Sarris & Rankin Debate—Will Hell Eventually Be Abolished? part 1

Below is my transcript of George Sarris‘ 15-minute presentation in the above video of the Mars Hill Forum debate titled, “Will Hell Eventually Be Abolished?”


Host: The format for tonight’s forum is each of the speakers will present for 15 minutes, then they’ll have a discussion between two of them for about 20, we’ll take an offering at that point and after that, we’ll have Q&A for half hour or so. So that’s the form and we’re going to start with George Sarris.

George Sarris: I want to start by asking you three questions.

First question is: how much are you worth? And I don’t mean that in a financial sense like how much is your net worth, I mean how much are you worth as a person? How much are you worth to those who love you? How much are you worth to God who created you?

Second question is: I want you to think of some people that you know and love, how much are they worth? Again not in a financial sense but how much are they worth as a person? How much are they worth to those who love them and how much are they worth to God who created them?

The third question: I want you to think of some people you don’t like, or some people that may have hurt you, or whose lifestyles you don’t approve of. How much are they worth? Again how much are they worth—maybe not to you but to others who love them and everyone is loved by someone—how much are they worth to God who created them?

The basic message of my book is that in God’s eyes you and every one of them is priceless. The question John and I are discussing tonight is “Will hell eventually be abolished?” So it would seem appropriate to begin by asking what is hell? That word has been defined in different ways down through the centuries: from a place of literal fire; to a kingdom of darkness ruled by the devil and his demons; to what is the most common definition today: separation from God.

But for most people holding to the traditional view of Hell, two components are primary: First, hell is a place or condition of conscious misery and second that misery will never ever, ever, ever, ever end! I said that a little dramatically because in my experience most people—Christians today—have never really thought through the implications of what they say they believe. Punishment for sin is not the issue. We see sin punished all the time in this life and God has made it clear that there is punishment in the age (or ages) to come. But punishment that never ends is a completely different matter. It brings to mind cruel tyrants who torture their subjects who don’t do their bidding. Endless conscious misery is the most horrific thing you can possibly imagine and if you really believed it was true, you would be weeping almost every moment of every day over the fate of those who are lost and especially those you know personally.

I wrote my book to show that that understanding of Hell was not the teaching of the early Church, it is not the teaching of the Bible, and is contrary to what the scriptures reveal about the nature and character of God. What the early Church believed is important because they were closest to Jesus and the Apostles, they read the New Testament in their native tongue, they had the greatest impact on the surrounding culture of any time in history, and they established the faith that we now profess. They were the ones who wrote the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed to explain clearly what true Christians believed. They were the ones who formulated the doctrines of the divinity of Christ and the Trinity. And they were the ones who set up or who put together the 27 books that we call the New Testament. During the first 500 years after Christ, the dominant view within the leadership and laity of the church was that God will ultimately restore all of his creation.

Clement of Alexandria was one—born around AD 150. For him to believe that God was unable to save all was unthinkable because that would mean God is weak. To believe that God is unwilling was also unthinkable because that would mean that God is not good. For Clement, God is the Lord of the universe who will ultimately bring about the salvation of the universe.

Another leader in the early Church was Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory added the phrase, “I believe in the life of the world to come”, to the Nicene Creed, and is still revered as one of the greatest of the early Church fathers. Gregory explained that in due course evil will pass away into non-existence, it will disappear utterly from the realm of existence. Divine and uncompounded goodness will encompass within itself every rational creature—no single being created by God will fail to achieve the kingdom of God.

Even Saint Augustine—the most influential supporter of endless punishment in the early Church—acknowledged that in his day some, indeed “very many”, deplore the notion of the eternal punishment of the damned and their interminable and perpetual misery. Conscious suffering that never ends was not the teaching of the early Church.

And it’s also not the teaching of Scripture, even though most people today think it is. Four different words in the Bible have been translated to the English word “hell”: Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus.

Gehenna is the one most commonly translated that way in modern versions. Gehenna was well known during the time of Jesus as a specific location near Jerusalem that had been associated with child sacrifice in the past and was then most likely used as the common dump of the city. It was a place people could actually visit. And it spoke to Jesus and his listeners of repulsion, shame, and horrible death—instead of experiencing honor like their ancestors whose bodies were treated reverently when they died, those cast into Gehenna would experience the immense dishonor associated with those whose bodies had been thrown out into a dump to become an object of scorn for the masses. In an honor-shame culture like that in the ancient, and even modern Near East, that would be a fate worse than death. Gehenna didn’t mean punishment beyond the grave—endless punishment—in the Old Testament, during the time of Jesus, it didn’t mean that in the literature outside of the Bible, and it didn’t mean that for Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament.

The passage most often used as the clearest statement in the entire Bible that punishment in hell is endless is Matthew 25:46. In that verse, Jesus himself says that the wicked will go away to “eternal punishment” but the righteous to “eternal life”.

The first thing to point out in that passage is that the word translated “eternal”, doesn’t mean “never-ending”. It actually means “the end is not known”. It refers to a period of time longer or shorter, past or future, the boundaries of which are concealed, obscure, unseen, or unknown. For example, numerous times the Septuagint—the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament that Jesus and the Apostles used—the same adjective in this verse, “eternal”, is used to describe the statutes governing the sacrifices and offerings made by the priests. They were said to be “eternal statutes” but they didn’t last forever, and were never intended to last forever. The Old Testament sacrificial system was designed to be replaced one day by the new covenant in Christ. In Micah chapter 4 verse 5 (and 17 other places in the Septuagint), the phrase “forever and ever” literally means “to the age and beyond”.

The second thing to note is that when the same adjective is used twice in the same sentence it does not necessarily mean the same thing each time. For example, if an NBA basketball player we’re standing in front of one World Trade Center in New York City, you could honestly say, “a tall man is standing in front of a tall building,” but no one would think you thought that the man in the building were the same size! The adjective tall derives its meaning from what it refers to. In the first instance to a man, in the second to a building. In Matthew 25:46, the adjective that Jesus used [aionios] “eternal” refers to two completely different things: life and punishment. Eternal life is the divine life that comes from God—that life never ends. Eternal punishment is the divine punishment that comes from his hand—the duration of that divine punishment may certainly be temporary, lasting as long as it’s necessary until it accomplishes its purpose. The verse should be translated, “the wicked shall go away to the punishment in the age to come and the righteous to the life in the age to come”.

So what does the Bible actually teach about the salvation of mankind? We’ve been so accustomed to thinking that only a few will ultimately be saved that we often completely overlook the message that is at the heart of Christianity. Jesus Christ is the savior of the world not just the savior of part of the world. The angel who appeared to the shepherds on the night of Jesus birth did not say, “I bring you good news of great joy there will be for some of the people,” he just said, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” When speaking to the crowd after his triumphal entry, Jesus said, “when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself.” In Romans, Paul said, “as in Adam all die so in Christ all will be made alive.” The Apostle John told his readers that, “Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” The message at the heart of Christianity is that Jesus Christ came to redeem all mankind. Endless conscious suffering in Hell was not the teaching of the early Church, it’s not the teaching of Scripture, and it’s also contrary to what scripture reveals about the nature and character of God.

It’s not uncommon to see a bumper sticker on a car or graffiti on a wall that says, “God loves you”. They’re so common that it’s almost become a cliche but is it true? Does God really love you? The religious leaders of Jesus day didn’t think so. They thought God only loved people like them. So Jesus told them three parables to show them God’s heart. The Good Shepherd is not satisfied with the restoration of 99 percent of what is his, he seeks until he finds the one lost sheep. The woman with ten silver coins is not satisfied with 90 percent of her wealth, she searches until she finds the lost coin. The prodigal son’s father waited until his son returned after completely messing up his life. He welcomed him joyfully and his son was restored. “God is not willing that any should perish but desires that all will come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Scripture says there is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord. No plan of his can be thwarted—nothing is impossible with God. What Scripture reveals about God that his love is unconditional, his power is irresistible, and he never gives up.

Let me close by making a few observations about free will, since that’s a major focus of John’s position. Only God has absolute free will, only he is free to accomplish all that he desires. He gives each person some free will but always within limits and in the context of his absolute free will. For example, none of us was given the freedom to choose when we were born, where we were born, who our parents would be, what our physical stature or mental capacities would be, whether we’re male or female, or even when and how we will die. We have no control over many of the factors that directly impact the situation and decisions that we make every day. Joseph didn’t choose to be made second-in-command in Egypt, God arranged the circumstances for that to happen. Jonah ran away from God but God’s will prevailed and Jonah found himself in Nineveh proclaiming the message that God had given him. Scripture is clear when it says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, he directs it like a watercourse wherever he wishes. The mind of man plans his way but the Lord directs his steps. Many are the plans in a person’s heart but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” God is not helpless in the face of mankind’s free will. God specifically said that “he desires that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” God specifically said that “one day every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will freely and joyfully confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” Will hell eventually be abolished? Yes, it will. When all is said and done, all those who were created by God will walk through Heaven’s doors and “God will be all in all” after “the restoration of all things” the final word will once again be, “God saw all that he had made and it was very good!”

Thank you.


God willing, I’ll get an opportunity to transcribe the rest of the debate over the next week or so…