Let’s get a bit of a sense of where the current debate over universalism is at. I don’t think it’s a massive debate. I don’t think it is the hot issue at universities or in theology departments but it was not an issue at all until fairly recently. It is becoming more of an issue so it’s worth getting some sense of where some of the discussions are at, as we go forward.
The debate, as far as Scripture goes, I think has two foci: first of all, there are debates to do with the meanings of specific texts. Now, that might be specific texts about Hell—or “Hell”, depending on how you interpret the text—or it might be specific texts that are, on the face of it, universal salvation texts. You get scholars who kind of line up on both sides and sort of argue, “Well, this text is definitely teaching eternal torment….”
I’m sure you’re familiar with all the debates in evangelical circles about annihilationism—maybe not? Or are you…? Well, let’s just assume that some of you aren’t. So, the assumption was the Bible teaches eternal hell—but what kind of eternal hell does it teach? Does it teach an eternal hell where you’re conscious and in torment forever and ever? Or does it teach an eternal hell that’s like God annihilates you so that you cease to exist? You’re annihilated for eternity so both of them are eternal punishment but one as annihilationist later put it, “One’s an eternal punishing and the others an eternal punishment.” That was a debate that was particularly stirred up in evangelicalism in the late eighties. In some ways, that was a precursor to people then starting to ask, “Well, actually, might there be another view…?” This is one of the reasons why some of the traditionalists don’t like annihilationists—it is because once you open up the question, people then start asking other questions, and we would rather they didn’t ask questions because it’s a pain. They end up going in places you don’t want them to go because it’s dangerous—but with the best will in the world, they think it’s dangerous and I understand that. I’ve been carefully and kindly told I’m a heretic and that’s okay.
Scholars acknowledging universal salvation texts
So there is debate, and there has been debate for some time—particularly among evangelicals—about hell texts. But, of course, once you look at a hell text and go, “You know, maybe the bit about sheep and goats isn’t talking about eternal punishment as eternal conscious torment…,” that opens up other possibilities—particularly with regard to texts that appear on the surface to say something about universal salvation. There have been a growing number of New Testament scholars who’ve been going, “Well yeah, they really do say that.” Evangelical New Testament scholars kind of washed over them because “we knew they couldn’t mean what they said” but more often those who were not evangelical New Testament scholars—who didn’t really care whether the Bible was consistent or not—they go, “Oh well, those bits, yeah, they really are saying universal salvation, no question about it.” There has been a growing number of scholars who’ve been arguing that—which then opens up the universalist question. Those kinds of debates are ongoing, as are debates about how you hold together the diverse theologies of Scripture.
Diverse theologies of Scripture
Everybody agrees that Scripture has diverse theologies, the question is, how do you hold them together? I want to give a lot more attention to that in the next talk because there are various ways of doing that but that is where a lot of the interpretation debate is at, I think. Actually, this issue occurs even with a single author—Saint Paul is a prime example. Saint Paul seems to have texts which are universalist and seems to have texts which are sort of eschatological judgment and punishment—endtime punishment. How do you hold those together in Paul? Presumably, Paul had some kind of coherent thinking so what does he think these mean? How does he think these hold together? Did he even ask those questions? Those questions aren’t just as to how we hold Paul and Matthew together, or Paul and Job, or whatever, it’s how do we hold Paul and Paul together?
Above is my transcript—edited for readability—of an excerpt from the video below. For more transcripts see: Robin’s Hope & Hell videos
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…
God's justice reforms all things—even hell—to the way He intended: wholeheartedly delighting in Him together, Shalom!