In this third talk of our Hope and Hell conference, Robin paints a sweeping picture of the story of salvation beginning with creation and ending with the eschaton. He then poses the significant question—which fits best into this picture—hell or universal salvation?
This talk is quite awe-inspiring—not because it advocates universal salvation (which it does) but even more because it stretches our horizons beyond individual redemption into the purpose of the cosmos. In developing his theme, Robin draws heavily on the magnificent Patristic fathers and their grand conception of the irresistible goodness of God.
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!”
God willing, I’ll get an opportunity to transcribe the rest of the debate over the next week or so…
My last post began a series of posts on Brad Jersak’s book, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut (HGWNBS). Brad starts the first chapter looking at how globally, in both religion and culture, images of “fire and brimstone, dungeons and torture, demons and judgment”1 are deeply embedded. It’s no surprise that non-believers often think all religions are bound up with fear and violence.
Brad describes being fearful of the fate of his dear unchurched relatives as he was growing up in an evangelical church. But as he knew of no alternative to the eternal conscious torment doctrine, he did his best to try to accept it and teach it to others.
However, thankfully when he was 25 he read Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal Evangelical Dialogue by David Edwards and John Stott. He trusted Stott more than anyone else at the time, and so this meant Annihilationism became a valid, biblical alternative. This lead to the him to discover that, throughout Church history, there has been more than one legitimate eschatology (view of the end times/age to come). He broadly categorises the views as Infernalism2, Annihilationism3, or Universalism4. In HGWNBS he gives examples of passages typically cited to support each interpretation. He then rightly says,
All of these points reflect theological concerns for representing God’s character aright, pastoral concerns for guarding God’s flock in the truth, evangelistic concerns for presenting the Gospel with integrity, and biblical concerns for faithfulness to Christian Scripture. So how is it that we’ve come to such differing positions? Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 5
In answer to this he suggests how we arrive at our view of hell often depends on:
Our view of God
Our view of Atonement
Our approach to Scripture
Our personal need (biases)
He unpacks each of these before proposing that, by design, Scripture is polyphonic (has multiple voices) so that none of us can be dogmatic. Instead there are “magnificent tensions”5. For example, the Bible affirms that God allows humans to make choices, even those with severe consequences. But that this seems to be in tension with the Bible’s teaching that God is free to relent, forgive and restore whomever He likes.
My argument for hope over presumption is just this: the Bible doesn’t allow us to settle easily on any of these as “isms”. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 7
So where does that leave us? Setting aside preconceptions as best we can, what does the Bible actually teach us about judgment and hell when we read it carefully and take it seriously? Not “what do I imagine about hell?” or “what do I wish about hell if it were up to me?” … Is there a way to approach the subject of hell that doesn’t presume or negate any of these positions, one that accepts the reality of judgment but hopes that somehow everyone might one day be reconciled to God? Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 8
I agree, I think it’s important to keep the Bible central.
Rather than painting themselves into universalist or infernalist [or annihilationist] corners, a great many of the Church Fathers and early Christians found refuge in the humility of hope. They maintained the possibility (not the presumption) of some version of judgment and hell and the twin possibility (not presumption) that at the end of the day, no one need suffer it forever… that Jesus’ plan to save the whole world might actually work. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 8
Likewise, I think it’s important to consider what Christians before us have thought and taught, particularly those who were natively fluent in the Bible’s original languages, something that no one is any more.
In short, I do not intend to convince readers of a particular theology of divine judgment. I hope, rather, to recall those relevant bits of Scripture, history, and tradition that ought to inform whatever view we take on this important topic. That said, the data summarized herein did lead me to four conclusions, which you may or may not share after all is said and done:
1. We cannot presume to know that all will be saved or that any will not be saved.
2. The revelation of God in Christ includes real warnings about the possibility of damnation for some and also the real possibility that redemption may extend to all.
3. We not only dare hope and pray that God’s mercy would finally triumph over judgment; the love of God obligates us to such hope.
4. Revelation 21-22 provides a test case for a biblical theology of eschatological hope.
I agree we shouldn’t presume but I think we can actually be confident in this sense:
Many Christians think or feel that confident universalism is presumptuous, for we cannot claim to know the end. And while there is a lot that we do not know about the end, we do know this: “Christ is risen!”. And that’s enough, because God has revealed the destiny of humanity right here and for me that’s what it means more than anything to be an Evangelical Universalist. It means to find one’s universalism in the Evangel and to be confident in my universalism I would say is not presumptuous because I’m not claiming anything more than that in Christ humanity rises again and returns to God.
Robin Parry at the Rethinking Hell Conference 2015
I think the revelation of God includes warnings of damnation, just not everlasting damnation because I don’t think God will fail to redeem everyone.
I look forward to sharing his excellent analysis of Revelation 21-22 later on in this series.
He concludes the chapter by saying:
To summarize our direction, I quote Hermann-Josef Lauter [Pastoralblatt, p123].
Will it really be all men who allow themselves to be reconciled? No theology or prophecy can answer this question, but love hopes all things (1 Cor 13:7). It cannot do otherwise than to hope for the reconciliation of all men in Christ. Such unlimited hope is, from a Christian standpoint, not just permitted but commanded.
1. Jersak, Bradley. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009. Page 1. 2. The belief that some/many/most will be eternally consciously tormented, either by their own perpetual self-destruction or by God’s wrath. 3. The belief that some/many/most will cease to exist permanently, either as a result of their own self-destruction or of God’s wrath. 4. The belief that everyone who God has created will be forgiven, reconciled and restored by/to God. 5. Jersak, Bradley. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009. Page 7.
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…