Tag: Free Will

Debate over universalism in theology and philosophy—Robin Parry

Within contemporary theology and philosophy, there are lots of debates related to universalism. There are lots of issues that come up under discussion and are well worth thinking about. I don’t know the answers to all of them, by the way, but the following are the kinds of issues that would be talked about and raised.

The nature of divine justice?

Traditional views of hell are based on a particular view of what divine justice is. It’s the view that justice is understood in terms of retribution—the punishment must fit the crime, it should be appropriate to the crime and proportionate to the crime. Which in itself, raises a whole bunch of questions about traditional hell. Because if traditional hell is built on the idea that the punishment should fit the crime, how could a finite sin committed by a finite creature be so severe that the appropriate punishment is an infinite punishment? So in itself, the doctrine of retribution—which props up traditional views of hell—seems to undermine them at the same time, or at least make problems for them. There are attempts to defend traditional views of hell in the face of this kind of objection but there are also explorations among philosophers and theologians of alternative understandings of what divine justice might be. Oftentimes in Scripture, justice is seen as something that is about God’s saving justice. God saves people through justice. God restores people through his justice. It’s not simply about retribution. So there are all sorts of discussions about what divine justice might be in Biblical Studies and contemporary theology particularly.

Free will and divine sovereignty?

Particularly for universalism, the question becomes, “If humans have freedom—God can’t force people’s wills—how does God ensure that everybody chooses to be saved?” That’s a really good question and it’s a question that should be taken completely seriously. There are ongoing debates about this—particularly in philosophy of religion and philosophy. How is it that if people have free will—understood in terms of the ability to do something or not do it—how is it that God can ensure that you do the thing that God wants you to do, without forcing you? If he can’t force you, how does he ensure that the end of the cosmos will ever be what he wants? Does this mean we can thwart God’s purposes?

Some of the best people in this debate are:

  1. Jerry Walls—Methodist philosopher—is very sympathetic to universalism but not a universalist. He does think you can be saved from Hell though… but he thinks that you can’t ever be guaranteed universalism because of free will.
  2. Thomas Talbott, Eric Reitan, and folk like that, argue against that—that in fact, you can guarantee universalism even if people have free will.

Divine love?

Can hell be a loving thing? Some people argue that it’s loving for God to send people to hell—even if hell was eternal conscious torment. For example, Eleonore Stump—Catholic philosopher—argues, on a sort of Thomas Aquinas kind of approach, that even just existing is a good and thus if God deprived you of existence, he’s depriving you of a good… So allowing you to exist in eternal conscious torment is at least God allowing you some good (I’m sceptical about how kind it would actually be).

Atonement?

Some of the debates about penal substitution kind of link in with this. I mean, John Owen—great Puritan theologian—wrote what is perhaps the best defence of limited atonement (the view that Christ died for some people but not others). I remember reading it as a teenager and bits of it really drawing and attracting me, and bits of it really appalling me. Even though I was a Calvinist at the time, I still found parts of it appalling. But one of the things that was interesting, that struck me, is one of his reasons for arguing that Christ didn’t die for everyone was this: “Look, everyone for whom Christ dies will be saved. I mean, Christ’s death can’t be in vain. So if Christ died for everyone, they’d all be saved obviously. But they’re not all saved—we know that because some people go to hell—so he couldn’t have died for everybody.” The logic seems impeccable—at least on his understanding of atonement. But maybe he could have flipped it around and thought, “If Christ died for everyone….” Because the Bible does actually say that. Although to be fair, he has a good go at trying to show how the texts that look like the Bible actually says that, don’t actually say that. It doesn’t work but it’s a pretty intelligent attempt. If Christ did die for everyone, then yeah, maybe he should have contemplated the possibility of universalism.

Election?

In contemporary theology, particularly in contemporary Reformed theology, election is one of the really core things that has raised the issue again. Calvin thought that God elected some people to salvation but not everybody. As this developed within Calvinism, this sometimes became a sort of double predestination, whereby God elects some people to salvation and elects other people to damnation. But within the Reformed tradition, there was, and is, always rethinking of different doctrinal focuses—one of those was election. For example, Schleiermacher, in the 19th century, rethought it in a way where he’s trying to defend Calvin. He’s arguing that, actually, there is not a double decree—God doesn’t decide some for salvation and some for damnation. God makes a single decree, he doesn’t elect individuals, he elects the human race. God elects humanity the race for salvation but the race can’t experience that salvation unless all the individuals that composite it, experience that salvation. So he ends up arguing for universalism but a different account of election.

What’s been a lot more influential than that, is Karl Barth in the twentieth century, again with a radical revision of the reformed doctrine of election. He argued that in fact, Christ doesn’t elect some people to salvation and some people to damnation. God doesn’t elect any individual people, he elects Christ. So Christ is the subject of election and Christ is elect. Those who share in Christ are elect… well, everybody is elect in Christ. So there’s a sense in which, God doesn’t elect me to salvation, he elects Christ but in Christ, I share in that election of Christ. That rethinking of election has led a fair few people… I mean, Jurgen Moltmann was one of Barth’s students and he went on with universalism and Jacques Ellul—French Reformed thinker—developed these kinds of ideas in universalist directions. Barth always insisted he wasn’t Universalist and we could talk about that but anyway, these are some of the debates that are going on in philosophy and theology.


Above is my transcript—with minor editing for readability—of an excerpt from the video below. See Robin’s Hope & Hell videos for more transcripts.

Why the diversity of universalisms matters—Robin Parry

Universalism is a pretty minimalist thesis and basically, at its core it’s just saying, “God will save everybody.” That allows for a lot more diversity and different versions of universalism than you might suspect. It’s consistent with a range of different views on a whole bunch of issues. The following are some examples:

Atonement

There are lots of debates now… penal substitution? Not penal substitution? Well, universalists were having those same debates. You could be a universalist and hold different views on that.

For example, James Relly in the 18th century. James Relly was one of George Whitfield’s converts and preachers, so he was a Calvinist committed to penal substitution. He became a universalist because he thought that penal substitution required it. “Those for whom Christ died will be saved—how could Christ’s death be for nothing? If Christ died for everyone, everyone would be saved—how could it be otherwise?” The argument was somewhat different from that but that’s basically kind of where he’s going. So he thought penal substitution requires the salvation of all people.

On the other hand, we could say, “What about George MacDonald?” (very famous 19th-century author and Universalist). He hates penal substitution with a vengeance. He thinks it’s anathema, destroys the gospel, and so on. Both Universalists—one a universalist precisely because he thinks penal substitution requires it—the other one thinks penal substitution is a mess.

Free Will and Divine Sovereignty

A perennial issue of interest in theology and universalists have taken both sides. Historically, universalists would be on the side that humans have libertarian free will—that’s the majority view through history. For example, the early church fathers who were universalists (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and so on) were really strong on this, about the importance of human freedom.

On the other hand, there have been various Calvinist universalists. For example, Peter Sterry who was a Puritan. He was one of Oliver Cromwell’s chaplains and a member of the Westminster Assembly, which wrote the Westminster Confession of faith—which is super-Calvinistic-expialidocious! He is a beautiful, beautiful writer and a beautiful man and he is a universalist. He writes this fantastic book that even Richard Baxter the Puritan—who didn’t really like Sterry most of the time—thought was a wonderful book on free will because he takes this view that free will is compatible with determinism, “God determines every choice you make but that’s compatible with free will.” So universalism could go either way on this issue.

Sacraments

Some universalists have been really strong on the sacramentality of sacraments—particularly if they’re Catholic or Orthodox or Anglican (in my case). Some, at what was called the “spiritualist” end of things, thought that sacraments are just symbols and in fact, you don’t even need them, you don’t even have to do them. For example, some Quakers were universalists.

Church

Any kind of view of the church you could come up with, you could find a universalist who had it.

Scripture

Most universalists believed in the authority and inspiration of Scripture but of course, in more recent times, there have been universalists who took more liberal views of Scripture, and that’s also compatible with universalism.

Inclusivism vs Exclusivism

Just to clarify that briefly. Granted that we can only be saved through Christ, do we need to know about Christ or have explicit faith in Christ to be saved through Christ? Is it possible to be saved through Christ, even if you don’t know about Christ but maybe God takes whatever faith response you have to whatever revelation you have and applies the merits of Christ to you? Inclusivists would say that. Exclusivists would say, no, you have to have explicit faith in Christ to be saved.

Well, you got universalists who are both kinds. There are those who’ve argued for inclusivism, George de Benneville was one—he thought you could be saved through Christ without having heard about Christ or without necessarily being explicitly Christian. Others were more, no, you have to have faith in the gospel, you have to have heard of Jesus and so on. Universalism can go either way.

Important Implications

So the point is that there are diverse ways of being a Christian Universalist and what that means is we should be wary of folk who go, “Ah, well, the problem with universalism is it leads down this route, to this view…” Well, it might do but it might not! We need to be a little bit more discerning with those kinds of arguments.

For example, I read a very good book recently that was critical of universalism but one of the problems was he too easily moved from the idea that “this particular version of universalism has problems” to the idea “Well then, universalism is wrong.” Whereas in fact, it might just be that particular version of universalism has problems and other versions are absolutely fine.


Above is my transcript—edited for readability—of an excerpt from the video below. For more transcripts see: Robin’s Hope & Hell videos

Does God coerce people into loving Him?

No, “coerced love” is an oxymoron… but most people who ask the question already know that, so why do they ask? In my experience, as soon as I say, “God will save everyone”, people assume I’m saying God will have to use coercion to make that happen. However, if the person is a Christian, I’d want to ask them, “Did God coerce you into loving Him?” I suspect the answer will be “No”, so why do they think God has to do something different when it comes to other people?

They might object, “It must be different, as most people reject the Gospel that I’ve accepted.”

Only God really knows someone’s mind but I think that the reason that most people don’t want to be saved is that they are currently not fully experiencing their “choice”** of “independence from God”. God is blessing the rebellious in this age with “sunshine and rain” (Mt 5:45, cf Psalm 145:9, Luke 6:35, Acts 14:17, aka “common grace” ), patiently giving them an opportunity to turn to Christ (2Pet 3:9)—ideally today (2Cor 6:2).

However, for those who insist on being Prodigals (Luke 15:11-32), they will use up their inheritance (common grace) in the foreign land (this life) and end up with nothing in a pigpen (hell), where they’ll become hungrier and hungrier (perishing), until they realise even being a servant for the father (God) would be far better than the pigpen. Amazingly, not only will God accept their return, He forgives, washes, and restores them so that they come-of-age and begin to act as sons and daughters ought (I explore this in greater depth in Are only Christians children of God or is everyone??).

Withdrawing undeserved common grace isn’t coercion, it’s simply allowing someone to fully comprehend the reality of what “independence from God—Truth, Beauty, Love, Goodness, Joy, Light, Life, Mercy, and Justice” is actually like. The Bible repeatedly says that it won’t be a nice experience, and sometimes we get a taste of that now in our own lives. History is full of examples of what starts to unfold when people discard God.

I think one of the reasons God gives us our lives now is that He wants to spare us hell—learning the hard way that cutting off the branch that holds us up is catastrophic! There is a real opportunity for people to heed what God has already kindly revealed.

** I said “choice” but I think desiring “independence from God” only occurs when someone mistakenly thinks that there’s something worthwhile outside of God. When someone discovers there actually isn’t anything worthwhile apart from God, to continue on that path would then be irrational, especially as the further they went from the Light, the darker it became. A will that is enslaved to sin always rejects God, conversely a will that is freed always chooses God as it truly knows that is the only worthwhile path. Therefore, whenever God frees someone’s will, they start being in harmony with Him—the eternally and infinitely Free Will.

You could argue that I was not a free agent [when I converted], but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom…

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 224

"Ram It Down" by Judas Priest

Checkmate C. S. Lewis

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

In a chapter titled, “Checkmate”, C. S. Lewis describes his own conversion, which demonstrates that even when people make free moves, God will always checkmate them in the end.

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

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 228–29

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

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

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 224

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

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

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons—Kingship (emphasis mine)

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


The above post is based on Thomas Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God: Second Editionp199-200

Ultimately, evil is unstable and unchoosable

Over the last few months, I’ve been reflecting on what God’s response to hell was, is, and will be, and how that shapes our response to it. My sermon, God went through hell so we can too, engages with this but in this post, I want to respond to the objection that those in hell may not want God to rescue them—that “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 130)

There are times when we do “lock the door”—when we try to shut God out, try to run away from home. Initially, that may even seem desirable and pleasurable. The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) initially was very confident that he didn’t need the father—that he could go it alone (v12-13). At that point, he certainly didn’t imagine he’d ever need forgiving or saving.

However, proud, egotistical hedonism is a path to hell—becoming lost and dead (v14-15).

One of the things I’ve noticed as a clinician and as an observer of people, in general, is that I’ve never ever seen anyone get away with anything and Jacob doesn’t get away with any of this. He is humbled by his eventual experiences and he learns that he did it wrong.

Jordan Peterson, Jacob’s Ladder, 2h7m38s

Thankfully, evil doesn’t have God’s sustenance and strength—it is inherently unstable, it collapses, it shatters, it falls apart, revealing that it’s utterly pointless, boring, disappointing, unattractive, undesirable, and repulsive—utterly unchoosable.

The nature of evil is unstable and passes away. It did not come into existence in the beginning with the creation … and it will not continue to exist eternally …. Consequently, in that life which lies before us in hope, there will remain no trace of evil.

Gregory of Nyssa, On the Titles of the Psalms, 155 (translated by Ilaria Ramelli)

A modern example would be Russell Brand—he made a living out of his infamous lifestyle but things slowly fell apart. He got to the point where he woke up.

My route to spirituality comes through addiction, so it comes from desperation and fear and this sort of defeat, destruction, annihilation of self in a very humiliating way, I suppose… So, I had no choice but to embrace spiritual life, but now I am grateful for this. It makes sense of my life.

Russell Brand, The Second Coming of Russell Brand

Hopefully, you won’t need to go to the same extremes but even if you utterly destroyed your life—literally end up dead—the underlying truth is universal. Whether it be in this life or the next, we need to turn back to God—to be found and made alive (v24, 32). This can only occur because the Father forgives (v20), transforms (v24), and restores us (v22). Indeed, the Lost Sheep/Coin parables show that God even goes out and finds us—which is what Jesus did and the Spirit continues to do.

You always have the opportunity to return to the proper path … There’s no easy out … but there is that positive idea—that’s continually represented—that the individual is the source of moral choice. And the individual is prone to genuine error and temptation in a believable and realistic way but that that doesn’t sever the relationship between the individual and the divine, and the possibility of further growth… thank God for that because without that, who would have a chance!

Jordan Peterson, Jacob’s Ladder, 2h1m24s

As the Prodigal Son shows, delusions take time to break but break they must as darkness cannot withstand Light, ignorance and lies cannot withstand Truth, hate cannot withstand Love, death cannot withstand Life, and evil cannot withstand Good.

There’s no evil so evil that good cannot triumph over it.

Jordan Peterson, Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors, 2h8m47s

Only the Good brings the real joy, meaning, and life with God we were created for.

Google’s definition of “reform” includes “cause someone to relinquish an immoral, criminal, or self-destructive lifestyle” and “make changes in something [such as the trajectory of your life] in order to improve it”. So it makes sense to describe both the Prodigal and Brand’s experience as reform. However, we all need God to reform us—especially those in hell, who are the most lost, sick, and deluded. This is why Jesus went there after His crucifixion, and this is why the Spirit continues to work wherever there is hell—and invites His Body and Bride to do the same now and in the future.

Jordan_Peterson_and_Russell_Brand
Jordan B. Peterson photo © Jesse Blayney 2018. Russell Brand photo via Pinterest.

Parry—Free Will & Annihilationism

Of course, Augustine’s problems are compounded by his predestinarianism. Believers in eternal torment do not have to be Augustinians in this respect. The more common approach among apologists for hell nowadays is to argue that God desires to save all people, but that he allows his creatures the dignity of freedom to choose whether or not to embrace that blessed destiny. Those who reject God will find that hell—whether eternal torment or annihilation—is the end they have chosen.

Now I do think that God’s love is protected on this view. I also think that this view has many able defenders. However, I don’t think it works. I side with Thomas Talbott, John Kronen, and Eric Reitan on that. But I’ll let that slide for now. Instead, I want to identify the cost of the approach, even if it does work.

If eschatological destruction is something that God reluctantly allows creatures to inflict upon themselves then it represents God’s permanent failure to bring about his purposes in the case of all such creatures (and remember that for some folk, that includes most humans who have ever lived). He tried to stop them before it was too late, but they slipped through his fingers like sand and were gone. If, on the other hand, it is something that God actively inflicts on sinful creatures then it represents God’s permanent abandonment of his purposes in the case of such creatures. God tried to woo them over but they thwarted his attempts, so he gave up trying and condemned them to hell or blasted them out of existence. (And remember that if this life is the only opportunity we have for salvation, most of those who are eternally obliterated are people that would likely choose God given more time and better circumstances—what Jerry Walls calls “optimal grace.” God seems to give up on them rather easily.) Either way—God has failed to bring a significant part of his creation to the destination for which he intended it. Instead, he reluctantly settles for second best—either the prison or the guillotine.1

"Savaoph, God the Father" by Viktor Vasnetsov
“Savaoph, God the Father” by Viktor Vasnetsov

Of course, believers in freewill hell would never put it that way, but in the cold light of day, it is hard to see it otherwise. And I do find this to be a terribly problematic theological position. I appreciate that some are prepared to bite the bullet on this one, but I am a classical theist and it is simply inconceivable to me that God can so catastrophically fail. Indeed, it seems something akin to Orwellinan doublespeak to call the end of this narrative, “God’s triumph over sin,” or “divinity victory.” The problem is that this notion of divine victory is theoretically compatible with a state in which every rational agent in creation freely chooses to reject God and embrace extinction. We would look at the eschatological state in which the whole cosmos was burning in hell or has been annihilated, in which none of those for whom Christ died has been saved, in which none of God’s intentions for creation are realized, and we would say, “This is God’s triumph over sin!” But to me it looks for all the world like the triumph of sin and Satan over God’s purposes. It seems to make “God wins” worryingly close in meaning to “God loses.”

In my view, Annihilationists rightly raise the objection against eternal torment that, on the traditional view, evil is never removed from creation, but is simply contained in an everlasting stasis chamber. Indeed! Better to be done with sin and banish it from creation. Annihilationism removes that problem with the guillotine. There are no sinners in the new creation—God is all in all.

The problem is that God’s answer to evil here is not a gospel solution (i.e., to eradicate sin from the sinners) but a terminator solution (i.e., to eradicate the sinners themselves). This is a drastic way of winning creation—like winning all the votes in an election, but only because one has killed all those who would have voted differently. Hypothetically, God could annihilate the vast majority of human beings and then claim to have won a glorious victory in a universe filled with creatures that love him. But such a victory may well seem to be a pyrrhic victory. The cost of winning was so very very high. And given that this cost was a cost that God really did not want to pay then it is as much a failure as a victory. It looks to me like on this view sin and death have their wicked way in the end—forcing God to abandon and obliterate many of those he loves. Here is Nik Ansell:

It is worth reminding ourselves . . . that the annihilation and destruction of God’s good creation is precisely the aim and goal of evil, not evidence of its defeat. The destruction, including the self-destruction, of those made in God’s image represents a victory for the forces of darkness. In the transformation of everlasting punishment into final judgment [i.e., annihilation], evil still has the last word.2

It seems to me that hell as eternal torment or as annihilation, as prison or guillotine, is in danger of either losing God’s love (in its Augustinian modes) or God’s victory over sin (in its freewill mode). It is a hard jigsaw piece to fit. And both options seem unnecessarily drastic, because there is an alternative.

 


1. This view is not only hard to square with divine victory, but perhaps also with divine goodness. God is choosing to snuff out all hope of redemption for a significant subsection of his creatures. He is inflicting irrevocable harm on them from which there can be no return. (On the passive view, he may be guilty of allowing creatures to inflict irrevocable harm on themselves.) Here is Richard Beck: “Here is a God who licks his fingers and systematically snuffs the flame of each candle, the billions and billions of souls carrying the flame of life. Here we see, in the final moment of life, the child looking into her Father’s face hearing his whisper, ‘No.’—No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No . . . .  Each flame snuffed out—one by one by one—until the last candle is extinguished. The last life—with all its pain, sorrows, loves, memories, hopes, and dreams—finally extinguished in a wisp of smoke. As you can surmise, I have trouble envisioning God being ‘good’ if this is the way the story ends for most of humanity.” Richard Beck, “Annihilationism versus Mortalism.” Blog post (5 Sept 2011) on www.experimentaltheology.blogspot.co.uk
2. Nik Ansell, “Hell: The Nemesis of Hope?” Online: http://theotherjournal.com/2009/04/20/hell-the-nemesis-of-hope/


Above is the ninth section of the excellent talk Robin Parry gave at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference (video below). See here for more.

Sarris & Rankin Debate—Will Hell Eventually Be Abolished? part 1

Below is my transcript of George Sarris‘ 15-minute presentation in the above video of the Mars Hill Forum debate titled, “Will Hell Eventually Be Abolished?”


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!”

Thank you.


God willing, I’ll get an opportunity to transcribe the rest of the debate over the next week or so…