Robin‘s final talk in our [Hope and Hell conference] series explores perhaps the most significant question of all: “How does a belief in universal salvation influence my life and service in the world—including things like evangelism, counselling, and taking funerals?”
Robin is a pastor as well as a theologian, and he brings a wealth of practical experience to this huge question. Does universal salvation mute the gospel and just make us melt into a kind of uncritical pantheism? Robin argues that universal salvation, far from muting our voice in the world, amplifies our voice, and the many ways through which we can bless the world.
Augustine believed that everlasting damnation is the clear teaching of the divine revelation given in Scripture (Civ. Dei XX–XI) so he felt obliged to fit it into the jigsaw. I am not objecting to his attempting to do this, given his convictions on the teaching of Scripture. My point here is simply that he failed to make it fit, which propels us to consider again whether he was right in his interpretation of the Bible on this matter.
So what is the problem? In the first instance, this: those in hell are sinners—humans with broken and defective souls. But with Augustine’s hell, God keeps such sinners in existence as sinners for eternity. God actively perpetuates the existence of sinfulness and evil in his creation world without end. Now Augustine believes that those in hell do not continue to perform sinful acts—their power to continue sinning is removed (Ench. ad Laur. 111). Nevertheless, they remain sinful—with the dispositions of their souls disordered and oriented away from God. (If this were not so, they would be among the redeemed and so not in hell.) And God maintains them in this condition, not (a) allowing sin to corrode them into non-existence nor (b) annihilating them nor (c) redeeming them. As such, Augustine’s God would rather have a world in which sin and evil was forever perpetuated than one in which they were eradicated.1 It is somewhat ironic that the theologian who was so effective is critiquing the Manichaean dualism of good and evil locked in eternal conflict ended up crafting his own, albeit different, eternal dualism of good and evil. For Augustine, God purposed from before the foundation of the world that creation should forever fall short of its own telos. God intends that only some parts of creation will achieve the goal of eschatological completion.
Why? Because hell is an everlasting public display of divine justice, which is a great good. A world in which sin exists forever and is perfectly balanced by retributive punishment is a better world than one in which there is no permanent sin and no permanent display of divine punishment.
One is reminded of Jonathan Edwards’ claim, reflecting his panentheism, that the reprobate suffering in hell form a part of the infinite complex beauty of God’s being. Such a complex beauty requires “irregularities” and “deformities”—his words, not mine—and the damned, says Edwards, are these “deformities” in God. Strong words, and for a Perfect Being theologian like Edwards they ought to have caused some sleepless nights (or at least some dreams about red flags). John Bombaro comments on Edwards: “God is simple because His ideal essence of an infinitely complex beauty is perfectly and totally integrated into all that God is and does. For this reason Edwards admits no distress with God purposely orchestrating the Fall, decreeing sin and evil, and facilitating pain, suffering, and damnation.”2 The tormented damned as part of the beauty of God? That’s a ballsy move!
We don’t have time to pick apart all the problems hanging out in the bars near this proposal, but let me suggest that we should at very least find it an odd and unexpected ending to the plot we traced earlier. The jigsaw piece certainly does not seem a comfortable fit. To make it fit better, Augustine and Edwards work hard on modifying the other parts of the jigsaw, but this has the awkward feel of generating what Barth called a “God behind the back of Jesus Christ”—a secret God hidden behind the one revealed in the gospel; a God whose secret will differs from the will of God manifest in Christ. Red flags?
Augustine claims that his theology has a friend in divine justice, but I beg to differ. I have a serious problem with the claim that everlasting hell is a display of justice. I think that Augustine so inhabits Roman views of justice, he has not appreciated that biblical understandings of justice are much wider, reaching beyond mere retribution. So I do not think that everlasting hell is a display of biblical justice. In addition, I do not think it is even a display of simple retributive justice. Augustine’s defence of the everlasting nature of the punishment is, in my view, hopelessly inadequate,3 as is Anselm’s later (very different) attempt to do the same.4 But that’s a discussion for another time. If Augustine is after retributive justice then he’d have been better off being an annihilationist—and he’d have had the added benefit of the eradication of evil from creation had he gone that route.
So divine justice was the one theological friend Augustine’s view of hell had to play with and it turns out, or so I think, that even that friend has turned its back on him.
And Augustine has another problem—his view of hell threatens to incinerate the revelation of God’s love. The idea is simple enough: if God is love then God’s disposition towards the other—his creation—is loving. To love someone is to desire what is best for them. So if God is love, God desires what is best for his creatures. And what is that? Union with God in Christ. Now, I believe that the instincts in this argument are entirely biblical, but, again, as with much else, that is an argument for another day.
For Augustine, loving creation is entirely optional for God. God could, if he wanted, love and redeem all his creatures. He does not do so because he does not want to do so. He could show love and compassion, but decides not to. Hell, for Augustine, is nothing to do with God’s love, for God does not love the reprobate. Hell only displays God’s love for the elect by giving them a vivid display of what they deserved so that they will better appreciate and enjoy their redemption.
Now Augustine would never deny that God is love—indeed his doctrine of the Trinity is rooted in the notion of inner divine love. However, I would argue that if Augustine is right on hell then God is not love in his very essence. And that is a problem. Big red flag! It’s a problem because it arguably messes up Augustine’s own trinitarian theology. It is a problem because Augustine’s God ceases to be what Anselm called “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Even I can conceive of a greater God than the God of Augustine’s scheme—i.e., the God who is love. To be frank, I don’t want to risk screwing up my doctrine of God just to hold onto my doctrine of hell: certainly not if there are better alternatives on the table.
Perhaps Augustine should have reconsidered his biblical arguments for everlasting hell—which are not bad, but are not that great either. They need to be a lot better given the heavy theological burden he wants to place on their back.
In sum, Augustine’s view is at best a hard sell and deserves to be greeted by raised eyebrows.
1. Why? God “would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil” (Ench. ad Laur. 11). So presumably eternal evil must be something that God only permits because he can bring some eternal good out of it. What possible goods may these be? —First, the good of God’s perfect justice on public display. In hell evil is perfectly balanced with just the right amount of retributive punishment and this is a good thing. Augustine says that God could, if he wanted, redeem everyone and heal the whole creation. However, he thinks it is better to create a world in which evil exists forever so that his justice in punishing it can be permanently displayed. After all, they have no grounds to complain—they do deserve their fate: “if not a single member of the race had been redeemed, no one could justly have questioned the justice of God” (Ench. ad Laur. 99). Whether God loves his creatures is entirely up to Him: “there is no injustice in God’s not willing that they should be saved, though they could have been saved has He so willed it” (Ench. ad Laur. 95). —Second, the good of making the wonders of salvation clear by contrasting them with what the redeemed are saved from. Evil, he said, is never good, but it can enhance our appreciation of the good. We value good things even more when we compare them to evil things. And the redeemed appreciate the joys of undeserved salvation far better by contemplating the damnation of the majority. 2. John J. Bombaro, Jonathan Edwards’ Vision of Reality: The Relationship of God to the World, Redemption History, and the Reprobate. Princeton Theological Monographs Series 172 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 179. 3. In Augustine’s scheme, the basis of punishment being everlasting is not the sins that we commit, but the sin that Adam committed. Adam’s sin was not like our sin in that he knew God and his will was genuinely free. The sinful decision that he made was unspeakably horrific and warrants everlasting punishment. We sin “in Adam” and inherit the guilt of his offence. Thus, any unredeemed human, whether a serial killer or unbaptized baby, will deservedly face everlasting punishment. This does not make all sinners equally bad. The severity of our everlasting punishment will vary a lot, depending on the actual sins that we commit. So the unbaptized baby will be cooked on, say, gas mark 1, while the serial killer will roast on gas mark 5. In addition, there are questions about the justice of God forever destroying sinners who could never have done anything other than sin. No other options were open to them, apart from divine assistance—assistance that was deliberately withheld. 4. I.e., that a sin against the honour of an infinite God incurs an infinite demerit and warrants an infinite punishment.
Doctrines of hell—in both Augustinian and freewill versions, and both eternal torment and annihilationist editions—have more problems than a hedgehog has spikes. It is hard to know how best to handle the issue in so short a time. So I thought I’d use the “Rethinking Hell” triangle as my guide on the journey and use the issue of God’s victory over evil as a way in.
First, a word on the ontology of evil. Here one of my part-time heroes, Augustine, offers some helpful insight. He argued that all created things come from the goodness of the Creator and are good (Ench. ad Laur. 9–10). Evil itself is not a substance, not a thing, but an absence of good.
In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present—namely, the disease and wounds—go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance—the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils—that is, privations of the good which we call health—are accidents. Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And when they are cured, they are not transferred elsewhere: when they cease to exist in a healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else.
Augustine, Ench. ad Laur. 11.
The ontology of evil that Augustine articulated here was in fact a widely shared Christian view by his day. The Christian Platonist tradition prior to Augustine held firmly to the notion that evil was not ontologically essential to creation and that God would defeat it. But defeat it how? Two options have been considered by Christians: you can either (a) imprison it or (b) annihilate it. And there are two very different ways one can annihilate evil: one can either annihilate the substance that has been corrupted by evil or one can heal the substance that has been corrupted by evil, thereby eradicating the evil. This yields the three basic options of the hell triangle.
The Prison: forever balance evil with perfectly proportioned retributive punishment.
The Guillotine: annihilate evil by annihilating those infected with it.
The Hospital: annihilate evil by healing those afflicted with it.
Or, as we better know them: everlasting torment, annihilationism, and universalism. (I ought to add that Jerry Walls has his own hybrid version and the following analysis does not do justice to it.)
A few years ago, I lived in the inner city in London, my husband was a pastor there, and I had a very good friend who at that time was the same age as me (late twenties). We were very different, from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, she had five kids, lived on quite a high floor in a block of flats. She also had about four dogs. None of the dads of her children were still around, in fact, one of them was in prison (he was a crack dealer, very violent man, she had a restraining order against him). She became a Christian and we became very good friends—we met weekly.
One day, her ex-partner (the father of one of her children) got out of prison and he came to her apartment and broke in and beat her virtually to death. I’ll never forget seeing her. When I saw her—it was just incredibly shocking—she was unrecognizable. Now, in that situation, what did I feel—what did love cause me to feel about the perpetrator of that violence? Love meant that I cried out for justice for her.
Amy Orr-Ewing, The Ring of Truth (12m 53s mark) or my transcript
Love causes us to cry out:
a. for the evil to be acknowledged rather than ignored.
b. for the evil to be stopped rather than for it to continue.
c. for the awful damage done to be healed rather than for it to consume the victim. And,
d. for the perpetrator to fully comprehend the evil, violence, and damage done, and to respond in genuine repentance, to completely turn their life around, dedicating the rest of their life to making amends and seeking to see domestic violence end everywhere.
I would suggest that d) is actually the only way to completely stop evil, because until d) occurs, the evil and hatred continues to fester and grow in the perpetrator. Tragically, unless the victim can reach the point of gracious forgiveness (which doesn’t mean ignoring the evil or allowing it to continue) the evil will continue to cause them harm, potentially consuming them with hatred. (This doesn’t to imply the onus is on the victim to act, nor that the responsibility for reconciliation is on their shoulders).
When d) occurs obviously it’s easier for the victim to forgive but sometimes it’s actually the victim’s forgiveness that causes d) to occur. How many perpetrators have turned around because of Jesus’, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”, or because of Gladys Staines’ remarkable forgiveness of her family’s murderers, or Mandela’s forgiveness, or Eric Lomax’s?
But our forgiveness today can’t just be conditional on repentance, which may not occur in this life. It has to be freely given whether or not it’s going to provoke immediate repentance. It is actually for the victim’s own healing and peace that they forgive. Ultimately, it’s the only—albeit extremely difficult—way forward (and this may not be possible until Christ returns).
It is quite easy to put ourselves in the position of someone like Orr-Ewing, witnessing the awful wrong perpetrated against her friend. We recognise that feeling of righteous anger that she refers to. What is more difficult to do is to put ourselves in the position of someone who dearly loves the perpetrator—perhaps his mother or brother? What would the love of the perpetrator’s mother cause her to feel? Surely, she would yearn for a), b), c), & d) to occur? This doesn’t mean she is callous towards the victim in this scenario. She wants the wrongs righted. She is angry and ashamed of her son. At the same time, she longs for him to repent and be changed, and to somehow undo the damage he has caused. This is the position of our heavenly Father. He deeply loves all His children—victims and perpetrators—those who love Him and those who still hate Him. The righteous son and the prodigal son. His love doesn’t discriminate.
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children [imitators] of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. … Be perfect [in your loving], therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 5:44-45,48, CSB
God instructs us to imitate His love of those who show Him enmity. How does “love your enemies” influence our view of justice? It may well still include punishment but unless it results in d), I can’t see true healing, reconciliation, harmony, and Shalom ever occurring.
Finally, we must remember that we’re all sinners—perhaps not perpetrators of domestic violence but it’s hard to avoid being complicit in some sort of violence in this world—don’t we all nail Jesus to the cross? There’s also some link between the forgiveness we give and the forgiveness we receive:
forgive us our sins, as we also forgive those who sin against us. … For if you forgive other their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their offenses, neither will your Father forgive your offenses.
Matthew 6:12,14-15, MOUNCE
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Ephesians 4:32, NIV
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Colossians 3:13, NIV
I also think there’s some link between our cry for justice and the justice that is brought upon our own sins.
For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged
Matthew 7:2a, NIV
So I think we should to cry out for justice but justice that moves us all towards God’s Shalom.
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:
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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 is, or 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 turn2 from his sins.
2 Peter 3:9, CJB
Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?