Engaging Stackhouse’s View of Hell―Part 1

John G. Stackhouse Jr.
John G. Stackhouse Jr.

John Stackhouse wrote the biblical and theological case for Terminal Punishment (also know as Conditionalism or Annihilationism) in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. As I did with the previous chapter, my aim is to engage with him as I read through his chapter, and not read the responses from the other authors until after I’ve finished my own.

Introduction

I like Stackhouse’s opening paragraph:

Any proper doctrine of hell must take thoroughly into account the goodness of God, an attribute that can be viewed as having two poles, both of which are essential …

… God’s holiness: God’s moral rectitude and cleanness, God’s detestation of all that is wrong and his relentless action to make everything right. God is, in a word, a perfectionist … “God is light” (1 John 1:5)

… God’s benevolence: God’s kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. God is, in a word, a lover … “God is love” (1 John 4:8,16)

John Stackhouse, page 61

The first example of “everything right” was in Eden before the Fall, and so I think that scene should define the minimum of any future right-ness. In it all humanity were created in God’s image and enjoyed holy relationships of selfless love―there was no death, destruction, or annihilation.

Stackhouse contends that his view, summarised below, satisfies both poles of God’s goodness better than the alternative views, and furthermore, is the most warranted by Scripture.

hell is the situation in which those who do not avail themselves of the atonement made by Jesus in his suffering and death must make their own atonement by suffering and then death, separated from the sustaining life of God and thus disappearing from the cosmos.

John Stackhouse, page 61-62

It will be interesting to see Stackhouse unpack this but my first reaction is that I don’t see why death has to be seen as complete separation from God. According to the 2016 Annual Moore College Lectures, most Christians believe in at least a semi-conscious intermediate state, where those who have died go until the general resurrection. That seems to imply “death” cannot simply be equated to complete separation and cessation.

What Is Hell?

In this section, Stackhouse highlights the three biblical depictions of hell he sees as central:

  1. A destination.

Hell is the logical and metaphysical, and thus inevitable, outcome of the decision to reject God―and thus to reject the good.

John Stackhouse, page 63

As with the previous quote, I’m concerned too much weight is placed on someone’s “decision“―whether they reject or “avail themselves”. As far as I can tell, everyone is ignorant of the complete reality of their choices, that we are corrupted/damaged and lacking in discernment. We desperately need the Holy Spirit to work in us, to heal us, give us wisdom, and the ability to choose what is best for us―namely the Good. I think Talbott’s reflection on C. S. Lewis’ conversion is very helpful when considering the role of our decisions.

  1. A fire. He says that fire performs two functions in the Bible:

The first is that of testing, or judging, the essential nature of a thing by destroying anything that lacks value, as fire burns away husks to reveal seeds, if there are any … . The second … [is] purifying the situation of that thing itself if there is nothing to it of lasting value.

John Stackhouse, page 63

I believe the Bible teaches us that everyone is a child of God―made in His image. If the biological seed/connection from our parents is irreversible (it’s in our DNA), how much more permanent will the divine (immortal) seed/connection from our Father be!

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39, ESV

  1. A dump. He says it fits because:

… hell is the place to which evil is removed and in which it is destroyed (Matt. 22:13; 25:30)

John Stackhouse, page 63

The first passage cited is the parable where one of the king’s wedding guests was so arrogant and ungrateful that he didn’t even bother to dress respectfully. Similarly, the second passage is the parable where a servant was so apathetic about his master’s business, that he did nothing with the talent entrusted to him. In both cases, the consequence was being thrown into the “outer darkness”. However, there’s no mention of them being “destroyed”, on the contrary, we are told there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (a conscious activity), which might be a sign of remorse (a step towards repentance). Given another chance, I suspect they would have a better attitude. Regardless of whether I’ve interpreted that detail correctly, I think Jesus’ point was that self-righteousness and laziness towards God are character flaws that will be addressed―and I believe―corrected, even if that requires hiding from us (outer darkness) so our delusions shatter.

Regarding Stackhouse’s comments about evil, I believe God’s holiness and love means He will not tolerate evil continuing anywhere, not even in hell 1. But how He achieves that seems to depend on what evil isor isn’t… Some theologians suggest it is the privation of good, similar to darkness occurring when light is removed. If that is the case, adding enough divine light/goodness should result in the cessation of evil.

Don’t let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good.

Romans 12:21, CEV

Alternatively, I think evil could be described as “any will discordant to God’s”. If that is correct, evil will cease if God can freely bring our wills into harmony with His―which seems to be His plan.

… [God] is patient with you; for it is not his purpose that anyone should be destroyed, but that everyone should turn 2 from his sins.

2 Peter 3:9, CJB

Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?

Abraham Lincoln


1. Which I think is a huge issue for the Eternal Conscious Torment view.
2. Literally, “a change of mind”.

Videoclip: The Gauntlet Thrown Down by Evangelical Universalists—Williamson at Moore College

Dr Paul Williamson lectures in Old Testament, Hebrew and Aramaic at Moore College, has written a number of books, and was a NIV Study Bible contributor. In the first lecture of the Annual Moore College Lectures, he surveyed the views of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Zoroastrians, Greeks, and Romans then focused on Evangelical views. He also explained what each of the remaining lectures would cover.

Of particular interest were his comments (clips below) on Evangelical Universalism—he explains the view and says that, “a gauntlet has been thrown down”. In the Q&A it turns out he has read the second edition of Four Views on Hell, and while he disagrees with Robin Parry, he acknowledges that Parry is a genuine Evangelical seeking to be faithful to Scripture.

One other comment that caught my attention was:

Hell has generally been perceived as a place of conscious punishment that endures forever. Not surprisingly, many find such a thought deeply disturbing, indeed there’s probably something wrong with you if you don’t find such a thought deeply disturbing.

Paul Williamson, at 1h 22m 36s

I look forward to seeing him engage these topics further in the rest of the lectures.

Annual Moore College Lectures 2016 "Death and the Life Hereafter" by Dr Paul Williamson
Annual Moore College Lectures 2016
“Death and the Life Hereafter”
by Dr Paul Williamson

Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 5

William T. Cavanaugh
Dr. William T. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh is Professor of Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. He holds degrees from Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Duke University, and has worked as a lay associate with the Holy Cross order in a poor area of Santiago, Chile, as well as for the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School. His books include:

2016 Richard Johnson Lecture

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. William Cavanaugh and attending his lecture “The Myth of Religious Violence”. I’ve broken the interview up into 6 short posts:

  1. Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?
  2. Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?
  3. Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?
  4. Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?
  5. Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?
  6. Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?

I’ve also posted it as a single, combined post.

Is God Violent In Hell?

What do you think of the doctrine of hell, which in many ways is how God treats those who reject Him and how do you think that influences the way we treat people now?

I really like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and I think that puts forward a speculative—but I think a very orthodox view—that Hell is self imposed and it’s not imposed by God. It’s a kind of self imposed separation from God… So the kind of gratuitous torturing God, I think that’s not the Christian God—just finding exquisite and inventive ways to torture people for all eternity. So this kind of self separation from God I think is the way to think about it and I think there’s a kind of general, broad agreement on that.

The question is whether anybody can resist God’s grace forever, whether anybody’s sin is strong enough to resist God’s grace forever and so I tend to think of these things in terms of… It’s not all necessarily over at death but, I guess this kind of points towards the Catholic idea of purgatory in some ways, that there is a continuing process after death of purgation.

Yes, I’d agree with that 1.

But I suppose you need to leave open… I mean Barth I think was wise on these questions to say at some point you have to just maintain a kind of holy silence. We don’t know and so there might be the possibility that some people are not saved and we can’t presume and be guilty of the sin of presumption.

In which case, I think Annihilationist ideas kind of make sense. Paul Griffiths recent book Decreation makes a pretty cogent argument for Annihilationism and that kind of fits into a whole Augustinian scheme of the farther away you get from God the less being that you have and so it might be possible that people that have kind of permanently excluded themselves from God’s communion might just cease to be in some sense. I think C. S. Lewis kind of points to that, in that eventually there might be nothing left but ashes.

Yes, I usually call that “Soft” Annihilationism, as it’s self inflicted, as opposed to “Hard” Annihilationism, where God is deliberately doing the annihilating.

Right, “Zap!”, yeah…

And you’re right, that particular view has gained a lot of popularity. As opposed to the view where, according to some people, God will be basically torturing people forever.

Does Our View of Hell Influence Our Judicial Systems?

Do you think our view of hell affects our view of Justice? Do you think our view of how God treats people in hell influences our judicial systems now? For example, our ideas of what prisons are about and what prisons are for? Whether they are simply, “Person makes a mistake, therefore they get locked away forever”. Or whether there’s a different kind of model, where we’re actually trying to bring about change. Prison, put loosely, is seen as a means to an end—as an opportunity to reform the person. 2

Whether or not Christian views of hell influence that… I think that they certainly could, and probably did, at least in the past. Certainly, yeah, but there’s a pretty clear divide between people who call it a penal system or people who talk about a Department of Corrections, as it’s called in the US. But so often there’s no longer any attempt at correction and I think that’s a huge scandal, especially the United States where we have an enormous number of people locked away.

And there seems to be money involved as well.

Right, a lot of for-profit prisons, which is astonishing isn’t it?!

Yeah, that seems absolutely… it’s just mindblowing. That is sooo just going to cause a problem!


1. Every time I hear someone advocate for C.S. Lewis’ view on Hell, I can’t help but think of Thomas Talbott’s insightful observations about C.S. Lewis’ own conversion: Why C.S. Lewis’ Conversion Suggests He Should’ve Been A Universalist.
2. Helpful further reading on the relationship between hell and our current justice systems A cheat sheet on hell (although re: Kevin’s last point, I think UR actually achieves more justice than the other views).

Summary of Stackhouse’s Response to Burk’s ECT

I spent 11 posts carefully engaging all of Denny Burk’s case for Eternal Conscious Torment in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. To give myself something to look forward to, I didn’t read the responses from the co-contributors beforehand. Anyway, it was great reading them last night so I’ll now summarise them for you, starting with John Stackhouse, who holds the Terminal Punishment (aka Conditionalism/Annihilationism) view.

Stackhouse and Burk
Stackhouse and Burk

I like that Stackhouse started by highlighting the significant common ground with Burk, before critiquing his case.

In particular, we agree that our view of God is at stake in our view of hell. So I grasp the nettle to suggest that Burk’s view of God is rather more focused on God’s greatness than upon God’s goodness and particularly, it seems, at the expense of celebrating God’s love for his creatures.

John Stackhouse, page 44

I think Stackhouse explains the role of emotions really well:

Burk starts by taking swipes at his theological counterparts for being “emotional”—as if emotions are not conveyors of information that theologians, like any careful thinkers, ought to pay attention to. Why does this formulation of doctrine repel me? Why does this view of God horrify me? Perhaps it is because I have unsanctified feelings that need to be corrected by God’s Word. But perhaps instead, those are sanctified feelings, or even just good, basic human feelings remaining of the imago dei, that are warning me that I am on the wrong theological path. To be “emotional” is simply to be humanly alert to what’s going on, and we are wise to take the feelings into account, although not, of course, to be dominated by them.

[Burk also begins his main argument with] a story not from the Bible [, which appeals] immediately to our emotions… (I myself don’t think there’s anything wrong with such a move; it simply seems incongruous from someone who has just taken pains to warn us about the emotionalism of his opponents.)

John Stackhouse, page 44

Stackhouse now examines Burk’s central argument.

Despite Burk’s claim to be rigorously biblical, I submit that his argument is essentially deductive:

Since God is infinitely great, any sin against such a God deserves infinite punishment …

The immediate problem here, and one that shows up in all the exegetical work that follows, is that Burk shows precisely nowhere in the Bible a single passage in which this argument is actually made. … I suggest that it is Burk who is guided by his emotions and intuitions expressed deductively and that the actual data of Scripture are entirely against him when freed from the interpretative presupposition he brings to it from reasoning such as this.

John Stackhouse, page 44-45

Stackhouse’s next point is similar to Love or Glory? What Motivates God?:

Burk’s view of God has God pursuing primarily his own glory:

God has created the world for the purpose of exalting the glory of his own name (Isa. 42:8; 43:7).

Denny Burk, page 42

Let’s notice first that the former of the two proof texts offered here does not in fact make the point in question, and that the latter one actually speaks of God’s love for Israel, not that Israel is some means God uses merely to glorify himself.

Indeed, this view of God as preoccupied with his own glory, so popular among some evangelicals today, is a dangerously narrow view of God’s purposes in the world. It is narrow because it leaves out lots of scriptural teaching:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16)

not so that God would get more glory but so

“that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Likewise, Jesus suffered and died for us “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2)—the joy of a lover who gets to save the beloved. God is deeply invested in the whole cosmos and in making shalom (peace”) everywhere, and so he undertook

“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. 1:20).

John Stackhouse, page 45

Stackhouse spends another three paragraphs going even further in his criticism of this, particularly in relation to Calvinism, but I’ll move on for the sake of space.

His next point is that the Bible discusses Judgment, and its consequences, which he believes is extinction for those opposing God, in more than just the ten passages Burk looked at. Furthermore:

In passage after passage of Burk’s analysis, moreover, he adds meanings that are not in the text—especially the idea that the suffering depicted therein is eternal, which is, after all, begging the question.

John Stackhouse, page 46

Stackhouse gives a few examples of where he thinks Burk has done this, including his discussion of Isaiah 66:

[The worms and fire] do not die, but they are consuming corpses, not zombies or some other form of perpetually living “undead.” The deathlessness of the symbols of judgment, worms and fire, speak of the perpetuity of God’s holy antipathy toward sin, but the corpses themselves are dead. They’re finished. And Burk has the integrity in this case to admit that he is, indeed, adding information to the text:

“Though not mentioned specifically in this text, this scene seems to assume that God’s enemies have been given a body fit for an unending punishment.”

I suggest that it is not “the text” that is doing the assuming here.

John Stackhouse, page 46

Stackhouse’s final point is that:

God’s wrath is fierce, but it does not last forever, as we are told in Scripture again and again (Ps. 30:5; 103:9). … And since universalism is not correct …, terminal punishment remains as the view consistent with scriptural teaching.

In Burk’s view, alas, God’s wrath does last forever, he punishes forever, and he does so because it makes him look good to do so (equal to increasing his glory). I respectfully suggest that the view of God as keeping human beings conscious in torment forever does nothing to achieve God’s other purposes of saving the creatures he loves and enhancing shalom.

I suggest further that such a view doesn’t even achieve its desired result: to enhance God’s glory. Quite the contrary: It poses an unbiblical and therefore unnecessary stumbling block to genuine faith. Such a view is, to speak more bluntly, sadistic, and the God of the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the exact opposite of one who gets joy from the suffering of others: he gets joy from suffering for others (Heb. 12:2 again).

John Stackhouse, page 47

I like that Stackhouse finishes by praising God:

For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

Psalm 30:5, NRSV

Sprinkle’s Introduction to “Four Views on Hell: Second Edition”

Alex holding his copy of "Four Views on Hell: Second Edition"
“Four Views on Hell: Second Edition”

I’ll have to pause my current blog series because Four Views on Hell: Second Edition has arrived! This is the latest book in Zondervan’s1 Counterpoints―a series that allows 3-5 prominent scholars to each present their view on an important biblical and theological issue, and then respond to each of the others. Thus, in one book, a reader can get a good overview of the topic and see where the points of difference are. Because of this, I suspect the book will turn out to be one of the most significant books on the topic of Hell for many years to come. My aim is to post about the book as I read through it.

Preston Sprinkle
Preston Sprinkle

The general editor of this book, Preston Sprinkle, wrote the Introduction. He starts by acknowledging that Christianity’s doctrine of Hell has sometimes been poorly articulated and misused. Also, that even within evangelical Protestantism there has been a wide range of views. The examples he gives are Karl Barth, C. S. Lewis, John Stott, and N. T. Wright. He says that in the last 20 years there has been an increasing amount of discussion of the topic (I’ve observed this too). He rightly notes that this isn’t because people are becoming “wishy-washy” but quite the opposite, it’s because people are re-examining Scripture. I think this is partly due to the Internet exposing us to many great Christian thinkers, past and present, across the entire Church, not just our local denomination. In the same vein, he mentions that dialogue between Protestants and Catholics is now common. Another reason for re-examining Scripture is that Early Church history, councils and creeds are more accessible, meaning we can see for ourselves that all of the views on Hell in this book are actually orthodox2.

If you hold onto your view too tightly, unwilling to reexamine it in light of Scripture, then you are placing your traditions and presuppositions on a higher pedestal than Scripture itself. If the view you have always believed is indeed Scriptural, then there’s nothing to fear by considering and wrestling with other views. If Scripture is clear, then such clarity will be manifest.
Preston Sprinkle, p14

I loved that he emphasised “ecclesia temper reformanda est, or ‘the church is (reformed and) always reforming’”3, which was the inspiration behind this blog (see my first post). I agree with him that we regularly need to review our views, otherwise:

It’s common, perhaps likely, that unexamined beliefs become detached from their scriptural roots over time [and acquire “unbiblical baggage” p11] … We believe particular doctrines, but can’t always defend them biblically.

Preston Sprinkle, p15

He briefly introduces each contributor4 and their view:

  1. Denny Burk is “a Professor of Biblical Studies and the director of the Center for Gospel and Culture at Boyce College”. His view is Eternal Conscious Torment, and is based on passages such as Matt 25:46.
  2. John Stackhouse is “the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies and Dean of Faculty Development at Crandall University”. His view is “terminal punishment” (aka Annihilationism or Conditionalism), and is based on passages such as Matt 10:28.
  3. Robin Parry has “a PhD [in OT theology] from the University of Gloucestershire (UK) and serves as the commissioning editor for Wipf and Stock Publishers”. His view is Christian [Evangelical] Universalism (aka Universal Reconciliation), and is based on passages such as Rom 5:18. Sprinkle helpfully points out that this is not “anything goes, all roads lead to heaven” pluralism!
  4. Jerry Walls is “Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University”. His view assumes Eternal Conscious Torment but unlike Burk, he argues here for a type of purgatory where sanctification of believers and sometimes repentance of some (but not all) people who hadn’t believed in this life, can occur (similar to C. S. Lewis?), based on passages such as 1Cor 3:10-15. Sprinkle explains that this does not replace Christ’s atonement.

All of them have also authored multiple books and publications. I appreciated that he repeatedly points out all the contributors to this book:

  1. are committed Christians
  2. believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture
  3. affirm the existence of Hell (despite differing on the nature of it)
  4. base their view primarily on Scripture and theological reasoning rather than tradition, emotion or sentimentality

As Christians, we should seek to understand before we refute, and if we refute, we must do so based on compelling biblical evidence and not out of fear or presupposition.
Preston Sprinkle, p15


1. Publisher of the well known NIV translation.
2. He mentions this here in relation to Annihilationism but elsewhere I’ve seen him say this about Evangelical Universalism too.
3. p15
4. All quotes in this paragraph are from p13.

Presumptions and Possibilities―Her Gates Will Never Be Shut―Part 2

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:

  1. Our view of God
  2. Our view of Atonement
  3. Our approach to Scripture
  4. 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.

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 10

  1. 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

  1. 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.
  2. Amen!
  3. 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.

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut page 10


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.

Engaging Others For The Sake Of Truth And Unity – Chris Date’s Rethinking Hell Talk

Rethinking Hell Conference 2015 LogoThis year Fuller Theological Seminary hosted the second Rethinking Hell Conference. Its theme was Conditional Immortality and the Challenge of Universal Salvation. Evangelicals holding conditionalism, traditionalism and universalism all gave talks and engaged with each other.

As I live on the other side of the world, unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend but I recently received the DVD! I’ve already watched the first talk and so would like to share some of the highlights 1. The talk was by an Evangelical Conditionalist, Chris Date, and was titled, A Seat at the Table: An Appeal for Dialogue and Fellowship.

I really appreciated that Chris’ gracious attitude extended even to those he strongly disagreed with. As he mentioned during the talk, sadly often Evangelicals aren’t interested in engaging or dialoguing with Conditionalists, and even less so with Universalists―instead:

… numerous other pastors, professors, apologists, authors, and radio show personalities feel comfortable writing, speaking, and teaching about the motives, errors, and dangerous teachings of conditionalists and universalists, all the while largely ignorant of what it is they actually think and argue.

Chris Date 2

Chris backed up this claim with quotes and explained that he wasn’t merely complaining but that:

… the reality is, whether we like it or not, universalism has been gaining ground, and we at Rethinking Hell think this may be because it is typically seen as the only alternative to the traditional view of hell, rather than as one of three competing views of final punishment including conditionalism.

Chris points out that traditionalists are actually increasing the rate at which people are switching to conditionalism and universalism because they are failing to engage them properly 3. He gives some reasons why this isn’t good:

1. We are all fallible and if Chris is holding a mistaken belief he actually wants to be shown that, because truth matters and mistaken beliefs can have negative consequences 4. I agree with him. Part of caring for our brothers and sisters is helping them to find truth.

2. It’s not building unity:

Jesus prayed to his Father that “those who will believe in me . . . may all be one” (John 17:21). He even said that by being one, the world might know that his Father truly sent him. Paul told the Ephesians:

to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:2–3)

F. F. Bruce understands Paul’s words as a call, not to agree perfectly on “a body of belief,” but to “live at peace with one another.” … Challies takes Bruce’s understanding of unity a step further …

It is God’s loss and your loss, and it is Satan’s gain, when you will not walk in love with other Christians, [and] when you will not work arm-in-arm together.

The call to Christian unity, then, is a call to both fellowshipping together, and ministering together.

Chris then gives a good definition of Christian essentials that unity can be built around. He also explains why the doctrine of Hell should be secondary, and gives examples of respected associations 5 and theologians who have classified it as such.

Sadly when unity breaks down:

Conditionalists and universalists have learned that rejecting the doctrine of eternal torment comes at a cost, both personal and professional… Those who do consider alternatives, and become convinced, often face the unenviable dilemma of either acknowledging their newfound conviction, or keeping silent and keeping their jobs…

I’ve seen that too, and have experienced being sidelined in church. Furthermore:

What breaks my heart still more than the refusal of many traditionalists to minister alongside conditionalists and universalists is their refusal to fellowship with them.

And he explains that this can result in conditionalists and universalists being forced to either join liberal churches or become churchless 6.

No longer allowed in their more conservative faith communities, they no longer have the opportunity to be involved in the discussions those communities are having about other issues. They lose accountability, and they miss out on the influence conservative evangelicals otherwise might have had on them. As a result, nothing remains to prevent them from abandoning other, often more important Christian and evangelical doctrines and positions.

Worse still:

If this lack of fellowship and unity in the Body of Christ were visible only to those within the Body of Christ, it would be bad enough. But recall Jesus’ prayer for unity so that the world would know his Father sent him, and now recall the publicly facing evangelical response to Rob Bell and Love Wins. Paul Coulter documents, for example, the accusations of heresy leveled at Bell by high profile Christian leaders in America before the book had even been published.

Chris thinks that although Bell deserved much of the criticism, the abusive manner in which is was done was an awful witness to the watching world—the opposite of:

“Just as I have loved you,” Jesus said, “you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35)

He rightly didn’t let conditionalists and universalists off the hook but encouraged them to also love and engage with traditionalists. I liked his suggestion to try to respect church leaders and not to undermine them in public or behind their backs.

It was helpful to hear his serious criticisms of universalism 7 and I will try to keep them in mind. I appreciated that he still acknowledged that Evangelical Universalists are at least trying to take the Bible, sin, atonement, etc. seriously, even though, from his perspective, they’re arriving at some very mistaken conclusions.


1. It was a 55 minute talk so I can’t cover all his points.
2. All quotes in this post are from his talk.
3. He gives examples of traditionalists either dismissing us entirely or criticising things we don’t actually believe.
4. e.g. From his point of view, some people may postpone their repentance and faith until it’s too late, if they think God will save them anyway. I wrote a response to this concern last week.
5. e.g. World Evangelical Alliance.
6. Sadly I’ve seen some also give up on Christianity altogether.
7. e.g. That we don’t seem to consider that “Scripture promises enduring life and immortality only to the risen redeemed”.

What are the current views of Hell??

While I’m itching to get into more detail about why and how I think we should reform our view of Hell, I think we first need to establish what the current views of Hell are. This is hard to do accurately because not many people talk about Hell, and of those that do, it seems that quite a few are required to promote a particular view (e.g. there are some seminaries, ministry positions, and denomination memberships that require it). However, a broad definition could be, “The fate of those who aren’t saved in this life.”

Religions have different views about what this fate is and the quantity of those who will experience it. However, for the sake of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the religion, Christianity, that I’ve got some knowledge1 of and experience with. Even within Christianity, there are at least 5 common views of the fate of those who aren’t saved in this life:

  1. Probably everlasting conscious torment2 or punishment3. It’s hard to know what label to give this view, some suggest “Traditionalism” but all views have a long tradition. I’ll use “Hellism” – not because other views don’t have a view of Hell but because none of the others have Hell as the final fate of anyone.
  2. Probably cease to exist4. Known as Annihilationism, Conditionalism, or Conditional Immortality.
  3. Probably all will be saved eventually5. Known as Universalism, Universal Reconciliation, or Universal Restoration.
  4. Probably all go “straight to heaven”6. Sometimes known as Ultra-Universalism.
  5. Too hard to predict7. Sometimes known as Soteriology Agnosticism.

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve said “predict” and “probably”. This is because epistemologists explain that knowledge of anything is difficult, and I assume future events are particularly so. Anyway, here’s my very rough estimate8 of how many Christians hold each view:Chart

One of the reasons I think view 5 is common is because it seems to be the unofficial Catholic position9, although I’ve also met plenty of Protestants who hold it, at least for specific individuals (i.e. if you ask someone if they think person X is in Hell, many will say they don’t know).

In my first blog post (“Ecclesia semper reformanda” – the church is always to be reformed), I was mainly thinking about those who hold view 1 but on further reflection, I think it applies to all the views, including my own.

Do you think my estimate of the distribution of views is reasonable?


1. Unfortunately the opportunity to study this topic at a tertiary level hasn’t occurred yet but I have privately studied the topic for about 7 years, and have been a Christian for about 30 years.
2. Based on passages like Revelation 14:9-11.
3. Some believe the punishment is being inflicted by God, others believe people are tormenting themselves and getting the natural consequences of their sinful behaviour. See Theology In The Raw for more details.
4. Some believe God simply stops sustaining mortals, some believe God actively destroys people, and some believe people slowly destroy themselves until there’s nothing left. See Rethinking Hell for more details.
5. Some believe it will only be a little while, some believe it will a fair while, and some believe it will be many ages. There are also different views on where the unsaved reside and what happens to them before they are saved. See Universalism and The Bible for more details.
6. Some believe as each and every person comes face-to-face with God they will repent, believe, have faith in Christ, etc. (like Saul/Paul did at Damascus) and go to heaven. See Tentmaker for more details. Some believe they are already good enough to go to heaven.
7. e.g. some believe the Bible reveals multiple possible endings. See God’s Final Victory for more details. 
8. I couldn’t find a recent, comprehensive study but the following influenced my estimates:
George Sarris’ blog
George Sarris’ survey
Barna 2003 study
Baylor Religion Survey, Wave 2, 2007
“Rethinking Hell” Facebook group
“Evangelical Universalism Invitation and Debate” Facebook group

9. I’m not a Catholic but I get the impression from the current Popes and the previous one, that they hope and pray for view 3 e.g. Pope Francis seems even closer to UR than previous 2 Popes!. Although it seems their official position is still view 1 – see What about the Catholic Church?