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.

Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?

Amy Orr-Ewing
Amy Orr-Ewing

Amy Orr-Ewing, in her article How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?, begins by pointing out that many people are shocked that anyone still believes in hell. Despite that, she says there are serious questions we need to consider:

Is it part of the profile of a loving God to punish people? How could that be fair?

To answer these questions, Orr-Ewing rightly notes that:

Most people want to live in a society where administrators operate the legal system justly and fairly. When we are victims of a crime, we long for justice. Our loved ones want justice on our behalf if they care for us.

Similarly, when our loved ones are victims of crime, we cry out for justice for them and Orr-Ewing shares an example from her own life. Reflecting on this, she makes a profound statement:

Love and justice are inseparable. To ignore evil or injustice would not be loving, so a loving God must also be a just God.

Yes, but doesn’t this also imply that a just God must also be a loving God—that His justice includes the ultimate good of the ones being judged?

“The problem of evil is the problem of love.” If love is to exist, we must freely give and receive it, or else it is not love. If this freedom is possible, withholding love is also possible. Selfishness, violence, and injustice are the result of the abuse of love’s freedom.

I think this is a strong argument.

Why must God’s judgment involve retribution and punishment in hell? Is this not outmoded and vindictive?

I think some theologians and preachers sadly do express a retributive punishment that is vindictive. However, I think retributive punishment can be non-vindictive when the punishment is done for the ultimate good of both the victim and perpetrator—namely their reconciliation.

Retribution is an important factor because, in a real sense, it connects the punishment with the sin. It means that punishment is not arbitrary or random, but rational and consequential.

I’d also add, that retribution should be purposeful—aiming to achieve something worthwhile.

If one of my boys hits his brother over the head and then bites his leg, he knows I will remove him from the room for time out. He endures this separation for a minute or so because he has acted aggressively. Even as a toddler he understands that his actions lead to punishment.

While this example shows that wrongdoing rightly has consequences, it’s already more developed than a simplistic “eye for eye” retribution. I suspect that Orr-Ewing would also encourage (or even insist upon) an apology from the offending toddler. Because her goal is not just to punish the toddler but to heal the relationship between the siblings.

Wrongdoing must be recognized as such both by the perpetrator and the world around us. This is the function of punishment.

I think punishment can be involved in achieving genuine comprehension (see Engaging Shumack: justice and the death penalty).

Hell is the ultimate punishment. It is the destination of those who refuse to recognize their own sin for what it is. Their assertion of the self over others and God, defies divine justice. Hell is the ultimate consequence of egotism.

I think Hell is an inevitable—very sobering—consequence and punishment for the egotism Orr-Ewing describes. At the same time, I don’t think it’s “ultimate” because God doesn’t allow the evil of egotism to continue unaddressed forever. Instead God hides everyone (including Himself) from the egotistic person (“Outer Darkness”), which shatters their delusion of superiority and independence.

The idea of eternal suffering as a result of temporal sinning seems disproportionate if people do not fully appreciate the seriousness of sin. But a biblical view of sin positions it as serious. The worth of people, created as we are in the divine image and given the capacity and opportunity to make moral choices, shows how serious it is to abuse this human dignity by sinning. This applies to one’s own life, to others, and ultimately, to defying the Maker himself. We underscore further the seriousness of sin in the Christian worldview when we reflect on the cost Jesus paid to deal with it.

I think sin is so serious that Jesus died for everyone so that sin won’t eternally infect His creation, particularly all His immeasurably valuable and irreplaceable image bearers!

Orr-Ewing’s appeal to free will being the cause of evil, including people egotistically refusing God, suggests she would agree with C. S. Lewis’ statement, that “The doors of hell are locked on the inside” (The Problem of Pain, 130). However, his “Checkmate” chapter (below) reveals there is much more to the story.

Title titled
C. S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 247

He describes his own conversion, which demonstrates that even when people make free moves, God will always checkmate them in the end.

I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England … a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape. The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood [my emphasis], they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. … His compulsion is our liberation.

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 228–29

Looking back he realised that because he chose God it was free choice—an overwhelmingly superior choice. Had he rejected God, it would’ve have been because he was enslaved to a sick, sinful delusion.

… before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. … You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom…

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 224

Imagine a firefighter at the top of a ladder imploring someone to escape the flames. Surely if the person “chose” not to come, they’d be considered insane—not pejoratively but literally unable to make a rational free choice? Because of this, the firefighter may need to drag them to safety so that they can come to their senses. Likewise, our loving Father doesn’t abandon us to our own misguided “choices” but instead shatters our delusions, frees us from our enslaving sin, and heals our minds. In doing so, God comes inside, lifts us up so together we can unlock the door. (I highly recommend reading the article Free-will Theodicies of Hell, where Thomas Talbott fleshes this out).

Jesus is a king because his business is to bear witness to the truth. What truth? All truth; all verity of relation throughout the universe—first of all, that his father is good, perfectly good; and that the crown and joy of life is to desire and do the will of the eternal source of will, and of all life. He deals thus the death-blow to the power of hell. For the one principle of Hell is “I am my own…

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons—Kingship (emphasis mine)

Lastly, consider the context of Lewis’ MacDonald quote at the start of his “Checkmate” chapter. Before MacDonald wrote, “… the one principle of Hell is ‘I am my own'”, he explained that Jesus reveals all truth universally, including the truth that the glorious goal (“the crown”) of all life is to choose (“desire and do”) the will of God, thus defeating hell—all the deluded, sinful, egotistic pride.

Hell—Practical & Ethical Implications Now

Last month I was asked to write an article for an e-zine, Engage.Mail. This online publication is a produced by Ethos, the Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity and Society. Here is my introduction:

Evangelical Universalism

In March 2016, one of the world’s largest Evangelical publishers, Zondervan, produced a second edition of Four Views on Hell, which included Eternal Conscious Torment, Terminal Punishment, Purgatory and, for the first time, Universalism. The editor states that all four contributors are committed Evangelicals who affirm biblical inspiration and authority and the existence of Hell, and who base their view primarily on Scripture and theological reasoning, rather than tradition, emotion or sentimentality.

In this article, I explore the practical and ethical implications of the Evangelical Universalist view of hell on our understanding of justice and judgement, imitating God, punishment, God’s character and evangelism. It is beyond the scope here to make a case for this view, and for this I recommend Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (2012), as well as the Four Views on Hell mentioned above. The latter was recommended by Dr. Paul Williamson as further reading during the annual lecture series on ‘Death and the Life Hereafter’ organised by Moore College, an influential Evangelical college in Sydney, in August. Williamson said that, while he doesn’t agree with the last three views, he believes their proponents are Evangelicals who deserve to be respectfully engaged.

I go on to look at:

  • Judgment and Justice: what do they look like?
  • Imitating God in all our actions?
  • Our perception of hell’s purpose/nature and our view of punishment now
  • Hell and God’s abilities, character and response to evil
  • Inspiring hope and evangelism

The full article is freely available on their website:
Practical and ethical implications of hell. Part I: evangelical universalism

I’m now working on a sermon titled, “Hospitality—Why?”, so I may not get a chance to post anything else this month…

A Polyphony? Her Gates Will Never Be Shut―Part 1

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“Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem” by Bradley Jersak

When I pick up a book, I almost immediately turn it over and read the back. In this case the blurb is a good summary and therefore seems like an appropriate place to begin this blog series.

Everlasting hell and divine judgment, a lake of fire and brimstone―these mainstays of evangelical tradition have come under fire once again in recent decades. Would the God of love revealed by Jesus really consign the vast majority of humankind to a destiny of eternal, conscious torment? Is divine mercy bound by the demands of justice? How can anyone presume to know who is saved from the flames and who is not?Blurb on back of Her Gates Will Never Be Shut

I like Brad Jersak’s approach. These are honest questions, which I have certainly contemplated over the years growing up in the evangelical tradition.

Reacting to presumptions in like manner, others write off the fiery images of final judgment altogether. If there is a God who loves us, then surely all are welcome into the heavenly kingdom, regardless of their beliefs or behaviors in this life. Yet, given the sheer volume of threat rhetoric in the Scriptures and the wickedness manifest in human history, the pop-universalism of our day sounds more like denial than hope. Mercy triumphs over judgment; it does not skirt it.Blurb on back of Her Gates Will Never Be Shut

Likewise, I’ve seen many people understandably swing to the opposite extreme of “anything goes”, or sadly even give up on God entirely. I think pluralism is a better way to describe it, although realise that frustratingly many people (thankfully not Brad) consider all universalism to be that.

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut endeavors to reconsider what the Bible and the Church have actually said about hell and hope, noting a breadth of real possibilities that undermines every presumption. The polyphony of perspectives on hell and hope offered by the prophets, apostles, and Jesus humble our obsessive need to harmonize every text into a neat theological system. But they open the door to the eternal hope found in Revelation 21-22: the City whose gates will never be shut; where the Spirit and Bride perpetually invite the thirsty who are outside the city to “Come, drink of the waters of life.”Blurb on back of Her Gates Will Never Be Shut

While Brad isn’t an Evangelical Universalist, I still found what he had to say very helpful. Indeed I find looking at things from different angles usually clarifies my own thoughts. I agree with him that we can easily fall into the trap being over confident and presumptuous, so I appreciated his encouragement to try to be humble. I think that when we look at the Bible, especially in our English translations, we do get the impression that there are multiple views being expressed, a polyphony as he puts it. This does make it harder to settle what we’re meant to believe about the age to come. However, as a potential way forward, he highlights some insightful connections within the Bible, some of which I’d never noticed before. Over the next few blog posts I’m going to try to summarise them for you, hopefully inspiring you to read his more detailed case and to reexamine the Bible for yourself.

“Ecclesia semper reformanda” – the church is always to be reformed

One of the things I appreciated growing up in the Reformed tradition, was Reformation Day1. Among other things, this celebrated the ideal that we should always be reforming the church, or at least be willing to consider our beliefs and practices, in light of Scripture.

I believe the Reformers made many important reforms. However, I think that they should have reformed their soteriology2 and eschatology3 further, back past Augustine4, to Gregory of Nyssa5 and Origen6. One of the reasons is because I believe these earlier Church Fathers’ interpretation is more in line with the Apostle Paul.

God willing, over the next few weeks I’ll be able to unpack this…


1. Reformation Day: Celebrated each year on the 31st of October.
2. Soteriology: The study of the doctrine of salvation.
3. Eschatology: The study of the doctrine of the end times and the ultimate destiny of humanity.
4. Augustine (354–430).
5. Gregory of Nyssa (330-395) “The father of [the early Church] fathers”.
6. Origen (184–254).