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.