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.)
One of the fascinating things about the history of universalism in the post-Reformation period is that the doctrine seems to be “rediscovered” over and over again. While we can trace universalist genealogies in the post-Reformation period, the more interesting feature is just how many folk seem to stumble into it for themselves without having had it passed on to them. Some folk have unexpected religious experiences that lead them to become universalists; others, simply reflecting on the Bible come to believe that it teaches universalism; yet others find that wresting with the tensions in Christian doctrine draws them to the larger hope. But from the seventeenth century onwards we find universalism in Protestant countries breaking out again and again, here and there and everywhere. And when one genealogical line dies off, as many do, new ones spring up, often unconnected to earlier movements.
Why? My conviction is that a part of the answer to this question lies in the following claim: universalism feels like a better “fit” within Christian theology than the alternatives, at least at face value. As such there is an internal pressure generated by various Christian doctrines that pushes in universalist directions. The doctrine of hell puts a blocker on that push, but in so doing it generates a build-up of unresolved theological pressure that sometimes needs to be released. One of the ways that it can be released is by pushing out eternalist interpretations of hell (like a cork from champagne) and embracing universalism. So I think that if every Christian universalist and all their universalist materials vanished into thin air today, we would not have to wait long before some Christian was led to “rediscover” universalism again.
Think of Christian theology like an incomplete jigsaw: how do we know which pieces do and do not fit into the gaps? The clues are provided by the shape of the gaps left by the pieces that are already in place and by the image contained on them. My suggestion is that there is no obvious hell-shaped hole in this puzzle. Hell, understood as one’s eternal fate, has been squashed and squeezed into a space in the jigsaw, but the shape and the picture on the piece are not quite right. The space clearly has to do with judgment and punishment, so the hell piece is not completely out of place, yet something is wrong with it and this creates a niggling sense of dissatisfaction. That this is the case is indicated not merely by the fact that some people throw the piece away and seek out a piece that they think fits better, but also by the lengths those who support the inclusion of the piece go to to defend its appropriateness. Hell, they acknowledge, does appear not to fit, but they insist that upon closer inspection we can see that things are otherwise.
Now the salvation story that the church tells seems to me to generate, by its own internal narrative logic, certain expectations about the appropriate end to the plot. While we may well expect that the journey towards the end will involve judgment and punishment, the narrative logic does not lead us to expect it to end in eternal damnation for some/many/most people. Eternal damnation sounds more like the unexpected twist at the end of a Hammer Horror film. Or, to use a musical analogy, it is like a discordant note sounded at the end of a Mozart symphony. Instinctively we feel that it doesn’t fit, and indeed that it is rather ugly.
The universalist proposal is that in fact it does not fit; that the Bible does not actually teach such a doctrine; that many in the early church never accepted such a doctrine; and that we’d be better off throwing the rogue jigsaw piece away and replacing it with a piece that fits the gap better in terms of its shape and its picture.
Universalists also worry that insisting on retaining the eternal hell piece does damage to the rest of the jigsaw. By forcing the piece into a gap it does not fit, the surrounding pieces are squashed out of shape. Perhaps they are even repainted somewhat to make them blend in better with hell. When we let the hell piece call the shots and we reshape the jigsaw around it, the end result is a distorted picture.
To drop the barrage of analogies (jigsaws, movies, stories, symphonies), what I am saying is that the doctrine of hell may lead to our reconfiguring the other parts of orthodox theology to relieve the pressure—perhaps God did not create everyone for beatific union with God, perhaps some were created and eternally destined for damnation. Perhaps Jesus does not represent humanity, but a subsection of it. Perhaps he died for a few people, rather than all. These ideas do serve to relieve some of the pressure on hell, but they do so at a cost. It is a cost in all sorts of areas—at face value such notions are unbiblical; they are theologically problematic; they are arguably not true to the pre-Augustinian Christian tradition.
What we need to remember is that when we speak about hell, we are never simply speaking about hell. We are also implicitly speaking about creation, about humanity, about sin, about justice and punishment, about atonement, and about God. Every hellology implies a theology, every doctrine of eschatological punishment implies a doctrine of God.
When considering which account of divine judgment to embrace we are always doing more than simply exegeting this passage or that passage of the Bible. We are also, always, looking at the big picture. We need to remember that for Christians biblical texts are only authoritative when understood within their context in the canon of Scripture and in light of the rule of faith. So an atomistic approach to the topic that builds everything on the interpretation of a handful of passages will never do. Those passages will factor into Christian reflection, but only as located in a wider context. So today I want to briefly sketch out the narrative logic of the biblical plotline as I see it so as to make clearer the jigsaw pattern that I think a doctrine of final punishment has to fit comfortably within. A caveat: for reasons of time limit I am going to skip over a critical part of the story—that of God’s way with Israel. So I must simply register here that I do not think this part of the story optional, but to open it up would lead us into areas we have no time to handle. Also, I must stress that I will not be looking at the exegesis of any of the hell texts—this is an important task, but there is no time. My purpose is a tad more modest. I am hoping to offer something like the initial stages of a prolegomena to the theological interpretation and appropriation of such texts.
This 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 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.
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”.
God's justice reforms all things—even hell—to the way He intended: wholeheartedly delighting in Him together, Shalom!