A Biblical Case For Universalism: Old Testament Perspectives on the Afterlife

“There is no more tiresome error in the history of thought than to try to sort out our ancestors on to this or that side of a distinction which was not in their minds at all. You are asking a question to which no answer exists.” - C. S. Lewis

Introduction

Fallen Angels in Hell by John Martin, 1841. 

Fallen Angels in Hell by John Martin, 1841. 

To quickly review, this was the conclusion of the last post

Once we acknowledge the diversity of the biblical witness concerning hell and final judgment, the relevant hermeneutical question shifts, from finding the unified voice of Scripture to finding the theological high points of Scripture. The strength of universalism lies in its ability to honestly account for the texts that don’t fit while focusing on the larger biblical testimony concerning God’s character and on the overall direction of the biblical narrative towards the reconciliation of all things in Christ. It is on this basis that I believe universalism does more justice to the biblical data than either traditionalism or annihilationism.

Now that the foundation has been laid, we are ready to take a closer look at what the Scriptures have to say about the fate of the wicked. In the next two posts we will focus on the Old Testament, dealing with specific texts about the afterlife in this post and with texts about God’s purposes in judgment more generally in the next. In following posts we will look at the relevant passages in the Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the book of Revelation. 

A Question To Which No Answer Exists

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind as we approach the OT is that the questions we are asking are not the same questions faced by the majority of OT writers. Christians who look for clear expressions of postmortem judgment in the OT, expressions which they find in the NT or other later sources, are bound to turn back almost completely empty handed. This is because the focus of the OT lies elsewhere. As N. T. Wright explains, 

“When Walter Zimmerli wrote his short, clear monograph, Man and his Hope in the Old Testament, the question of life beyond the grave was not only not the main issue; it hardly rated a discussion… The hope of the biblical writers, which was strong and constant, focused not upon the fate of humans after death, but on the fate of Israel and her promised land. The nation and land of the present world were far more important than what happened to an individual beyond the grave” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, 99). 

If we read the OT in its own historical context, it becomes clear that the primary hope of the Jewish people was for national restoration, not personal immortality. The promise to Abraham was not that he would go to heaven when he died, nor even that he would rise from the dead, but that he would have thousands of descendants to carry on his name in a land they could call their own. And as with heaven, so with hell: the end of Isaiah 14 shows that the ultimate expression of God’s judgment against the wicked was not to be seen in postmortem torment, but in making their land desolate and cutting off their family line (Isa. 14:22).

There is of course a long tradition of reading later ideas about hell into texts like Isaiah 66:24, but a historically sensitive reading of those texts shows that such ideas were not in the minds of their authors. In Isaiah 66, the “fire” and “worms” are feeding upon the decaying corpses of the dead outside of Jerusalem; they are not images of torment after death (cf. Jer. 17:27). As Jewish author Simcha Paull Raphael states, “From its inception, biblical Judaism… was concerned exclusively with the collective destiny of the nation and not at all with the postmortem fate of the individual Israelites per se” (Jewish Views of the Afterlife, 43). 

Given the centrality of heaven and hell in the modern evangelical worldview, the complete lack of interest in the afterlife displayed in the first two thirds of the Bible is unsettling. But this lack of interest has a cogent historical explanation. “It’s important here to remember,” notes Rob Bell, “that the Israelites, who wrote the Hebrew Scriptures, had been oppressed and enslaved by their neighbors the Egyptians, who built pyramids and ornate coffins and buried themselves in rooms filled with gold, because of their beliefs about life after death. Those beliefs appear to have been a turnoff to the Jews, who were far more interested in the ethics of and ways of living this life” (Love Wins, 66-67). A detailed understanding of the afterlife doesn’t seem to have been an issue that they needed to get absolute clarity on like it is for so many evangelicals today.

Sheol: The Land of No Return

This is not to suggest that the ancient Israelites had no thoughts about the afterlife. They did. But again, we must be careful not to read later ideas about heaven and hell into these ancient texts. In fact, not only does the OT show little interest in the fate of the wicked after death, but most of the OT assumes that death is the end, not just for the wicked, but for everyone. Rich and poor, saints and sinners — all faced the same fate in Sheol (e.g. Job 3:11ff). As Raphael summarizes, 

“One of the main attributes of Sheol, at least in the early stages of development as a postmortem concept, was its amoral character. Existence in Sheol was neither good nor bad… it is not a realm of torment or punishment; it is simply the domain of the dead” (Jewish Views of the Afterlife, 53). 

There are of course several passages, such as 1 Samuel 28:3-25 or Isaiah 14:4-21, which suggest the belief in some sort of continuing existence in Sheol, but the minimal “life” which we see reflected in such passages was a cause for neither hope nor dread in ancient Israel. As Wright says, “Only a world which had already begun to hope for something more interesting and enjoyable after death would find this vision unusual or depressing” (RSG, 90). When Isaiah 56:4 extends the hope of an “an everlasting name that will not be cut off” to the faithful eunuch who keeps the Sabbath, it means that he will be given an honorary plaque in the temple, not that he will live forever in the hereafter. The fact that the author calls these plaques “better than sons and daughters” shows that he had no conception of bodily resurrection or personal rewards in the afterlife.  

Of course, such an analysis is understandably problematic for anyone committed to finding a unified voice in the Bible’s depictions of the afterlife, which is why many evangelicals attempt to harmonize all the data into a monolithic whole. For example, annihilationist author Edward Fudge (whom I’ve chosen as a primary dialog partner in this series) claims that while the wicked had no reason to expect to leave Sheol, the righteous did have strong grounds for hope. Although Fudge says that this hope is “stated explicitly only a few times,” he declares that it nonetheless “pervades the entire Old Testament” (The Fire That Consumes, 49). In order to say this, however, Fudge has to effectively mute large portions of the OT which explicitly preclude such an expectation, such as the following: 

“As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up; he returns no more to his house, nor does his place know him anymore.” - Job 7:10

“For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” - Ecclesiastes 3:19-20

“For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” - Psalm 6:5

“For Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.” - Isaiah 38:18-20

Given the outlook of such passages, which are myriad throughout the OT, Wright shows more respect for the dignity of individual OT authors when he says that “Psalm 16 in its way, and Psalm 73 and 49 in theirs, are alone among the biblical texts in hinting at a future of which the rest of the ancient Israelite scriptures remain ignorant” (RSG, 107). In other words, there is a sense in which most of the OT expresses a form of “annihilationism” far beyond the view of any Christian annihilationist. 

Everlasting Contempt

Most of the OT, yes, but not all of it. The clearest exception is Daniel 12:1-2, which pictures a great reversal of fortunes after death, the vindication of Israel’s martyrs and the judgment of their enemies by way of bodily resurrection:

“And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” 

This passage does not reflect an annihilationist perspective in any sense. No, for true justice to be served, according to this text, not only will the persecuted saints rise from the dead to receive their eternal inheritance, but their oppressors will also rise and receive a sentence of shame and everlasting contempt. From this apocalyptic seedbed springs the whole tradition of eternal conscious torment.

Fudge argues that because the Hebrew word translated “contempt” in Daniel 12:2 is the same word translated as “loathsome” in Isaiah 66:24, Daniel must be referring to unburied corpses the same as Isaiah. In a fantastic display of puzzle-piecing hermeneutics, Fudge claims that the simplest explanation is to see Daniel 12:2, Isaiah 66:24, and Revelation 20:10-15 as describing three different phases in the same process of eschatological destruction:

“Daniel shows us a scene earlier than the second death—the general resurrection of good and evil. The destiny of the wicked will be ‘shame and everlasting contempt,’ but between Daniel’s resurrection and that final destiny there is the second death and the scene we saw in Isa 66:24” (The Fire That Consumes, 81).

Once again, by harmonizing all of the data Fudge has denied the biblical writers the basic dignity of expressing their own thoughts. The simple fact is that Isaiah 66 envisions no resurrection for the wicked, and Daniel 12, the first passage in Scripture to clearly speak of a resurrection for both the righteous and the wicked, gives no hint that the wicked are destroyed after being raised. This is the conclusion of John J. Collins, one of the most respected scholars of apocalyptic literature:

“The sinners in Isaiah 66 are not restored to life to experience their humiliation… [And] Daniel does not elaborate on the punishment of the damned and makes no mention of a fiery hell, but he does seem to go beyond Isaiah 66 in having the sinners restored to life to experience their disgrace” (Daniel, 393). 

Within Daniel’s apocalyptic framework, the purpose of the resurrection of the wicked seems to be that they should experience “shame and everlasting contempt” as their just recompense in contrast with the “everlasting life” of the saints. But both parties are raised, and the contrast is not between everlasting life and everlasting death, but between everlasting life and everlasting ignominy. 

It’s important to note, however, that while the earliest stratum of the OT expresses a form of “annihilationism” more universal than the later Christian position which bears that name, Daniel 12:2 expresses a form of eternal suffering much more limited than traditionalism. “Daniel does not envisage universal resurrection,” says Collins. “His concern is focused on the fate of the faithful, especially the ‘wise,’ and of their perfidious counterparts in the crisis of the Hellenistic age” (Daniel, 392). Nowhere in the OT do we see the eternal suffering of all the wicked. 

Seeds of Hope

So we can see the roots of both annihilationism and traditionalism in the OT, even though neither view became a fully developed eschatology there. But what about universalism? Do we see anything in the OT that supports the hope for the ultimate reconciliation of every human being? 

Yes and no. Many universalists believe there are straightforward and explicit references to universal salvation throughout the OT. I think such proof-texts are tenuous at best, just like most of the texts used by annihilationists and traditionalists. But although there doesn’t seem to be any direct support for universalism in the OT, there are two important developments toward the end of the OT era which together lay the groundwork for the universalist expressions which we find in Paul and other NT writers. While no OT writer puts these two thoughts together, they did plant the seeds that, as we will see in later posts, would eventually grow into something more.  

The first of these developments, which we see most clearly in the prayerful contemplation of several Psalms, is the increasing sense that the love of Israel’s God is so powerful than even death itself cannot overcome it. The Hebrew word for this kind of love is chesed: faithful, steadfast, relentless, never ceasing. According to Wright, it was the personal experience of this love, rather than any theory about innate immortality, “that gave rise to the suggestion that, despite the widespread denials of such a thing, YHWH’s faithfulness would after all be known not only in this life but in a life beyond the grave” (RSG, 103). Yes, the wicked will be consumed in Sheol, but the beloved saint can trust that “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (Ps. 49:14-15). 

The second development, which we see most clearly in the prophets, is the growing conviction that the saving love of Israel’s God extends beyond Israel to the entire world. The Israelites were often tempted to think of YHWH in the same way that the surrounding nations thought of their gods: tribal deities interested only in the victory of their little group. But the prophets remind Israel that YHWH is not a tribal deity; he is the creator of heaven and earth, and he didn’t choose Abraham’s family for their own sake, so that they could be saved while the rest of the world is damned, but so that they could become conduits of his saving grace to every tribe, tongue, and nation. As we see in one of Isaiah’s Servant Songs:

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” - Isaiah 49:6

Standing alone, neither of these developments require that God will continue to seek and save the lost after death. But what happens when they are combined? If the love of Israel’s God is stronger than death, and if the same love extends to every human being, then what does that say about the ultimate fate of the lost? These seeds may be small, but the good news is all about small seeds that don’t stay small. When these developments are considered in the light of the OT’s broader theology of judgment, and in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the hope of ultimate reconciliation becomes, not just a small seed, but a great tree towering above all the other plants of the garden.

A Biblical Case For Universalism: The In Christ Project

“There can be no doubt that the desire for a neat and simple argument in support of a truth may dispose even able men to offer some little violence to evidence that points in the direction of complexity. What we consider neatness and simplicity is not always a characteristic of Divine working, or Divine teaching. A passion for simplicity of statement has often blinded men to facts that indicated more complexity than might at first have been supposed.” - Edward White

Landscape with the Journey to Emmaus by Pierre Patel the Elder, 1652

Landscape with the Journey to Emmaus by Pierre Patel the Elder, 1652

What is the biblical view of hell? 

That’s the question on the table here. It’s a big question about the whole Bible, which means it’s not a question that can be answered by the quick and easy appeal to one or two verses. It’s an all-inclusive question: an historical, exegetical, and theological question. 

And it’s a difficult question to answer, for at least two reasons. 

First, as we mentioned in the introduction, there are several different words in Scripture which have regularly been translated into the one English word “hell” (Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, etc), and then there are several other images which are routinely assimilated into that traditional portrait (unquenchable fire, undying worms, outer darkness, etc). This has resulted in a great deal of confusion, as we are automatically inclined to misunderstand what those words and images would have meant in their original historical contexts.   

But the bigger reason why the question What is the biblical view of hell? is difficult to answer is because of the assumption it carries about the nature of the Bible itself. 

A False Premise

The premise behind the question is that there is such a thing worthy of being called the biblical view of hell — a single, monolithic thread that stretches from Genesis to Revelation — and our task as interpreters is to simply locate this thread and call it what it is. If any passage seems to contradict what we believe to be the unified voice of Scripture, we are then bound by our prior commitment to explain the apparent contradiction away and harmonize that passage with all the others. 

This is the major weakness of Edward William Fudge’s otherwise praiseworthy defense of annihilationism in his book The Fire That Consumes. Fudge’s instincts are often on target, but his prior commitment to a particular view of the Bible sometimes inhibits him, in principle, from following the evidence wherever it leads. This is what he does when he gets to Revelation 14:9-11 and 20:10-15:

“Although simplistic, it is almost fair to say that this whole debate rests finally on one question: should we interpret dozens of straightforward texts throughout the Bible to match the literal sense of two symbolic texts in the Apocalypse, or ought we to interpret the two apocalyptic texts symbolically to conform to the many others” (The Fire That Consumes, 84)?

Conform — that is the operative word here, and the biggest problem with Fudge’s whole case for annihilationism. Fudge begins with a general truth about what kind of book God would write (“without error in anything that it teaches”) and then deductively applies that general truth to all the available data (The Fire That Consumes, 4-5). This is not the place to launch into a full discussion of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy (for that, see this post). But suffice it so say, in agreement with Craig C. Hill, that the idea is “thoroughly circular; its conclusions are written into its premises, so there is nothing to prove and nothing to doubt... Unless one is willing at some point to think inductively, to weigh and to test, the general truth is unassailable” (In God’s Time, 17). Furthermore, 

“The Protestant Reformers were right to insist that the whole counsel of Scripture ought to be consulted, but their dictum, ‘Scripture interprets Scripture’ all too easily becomes license for harmonizing according to one’s prejudices. How often have we selected the biblical view that we prefer and then used it as the key for interpreting out of existence the views with which we disagree? Challenging or controversial texts are dodged; in the process, the theological distinctiveness and integrity of individual biblical authors are lost” (25).  

Being faithful to Scripture, if it means anything at all, must mean giving the writers of Scripture the basic dignity of expressing their own thoughts, even if those thoughts are sometimes different than those of other biblical authors. If we are bound by some prior commitment to make two authors agree with one another, then we may boast of having a “high” view of Scripture — so long as “Scripture” remains a cipher for our own system and only occasionally intersects with the intention of the biblical writers themselves — but we cannot say that we have been faithful to the sacred text of Scripture.

If, however, we approach the Scriptures inductively, as the work of real human beings inspired by the Spirit for a specific purpose at a specific time and place, we are then liberated to acknowledge both the unity and the diversity, both the consistency and the inconsistency, of the biblical testimony concerning hell and divine judgment.

So in response to the question, What is the biblical view of hell?, it must be said, first of all, that there is no single model for understanding the fate of the wicked in Scripture, and “the attempt to assemble one inevitably diminishes the multilayered, multidimensional witness of the Bible” (In God’s Time, 74).  

Three Strands of Data 

So does that mean the Bible has nothing clear to say about hell and final judgment? Not at all. The unified voice of Scripture concerning God’s judgment is that it is real and that it really matters how we respond to him on this side of death. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). But there are at least three different ways of envisioning postmortem judgment throughout Scripture. 

The first way, which is by far the most common, is the language of annihilation: death, destruction, perishing, being consumed, vanishing like smoke, and so on. If there was such a thing as a unified voice in the Bible’s portrayal of hell, annihilationism would surely have the strongest argument for calling itself the biblical view. 

The author of 2 Peter gives clear expression to this view when he compares the fate of the wicked to that of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19: 

“By turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly... But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed... will also be destroyed in their destruction” (2 Pet. 2:6, 12). 

But there are several passages which seem to express something like the traditional view of eternal torment, most notably Daniel 12:2, Revelation 14:9-11, and Revelation 20:10-15. I have argued for an annihilationist reading of all of these passages in the past, but I’m no longer convinced that such a reading works for all of them. Take Revelation 14 as an example: 

“If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand… he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Rev. 14:9-11).

Annihilationists are right to emphasize the symbolic form of John’s vision; indeed, I will argue for a slightly nuanced reading of this passage later on. But I find it hard to believe that anyone could read “they will have no rest, day or night” as referring to the destruction of the wicked unless the maintenance of their particular theological system required them to.     

Besides annihilationist and eternal torment texts, however, there are quite a few passages which seem to support the wider hope of ultimate reconciliation, such as Romans 5:18, Romans 11:32-36, and Philippians 2:8-11. Some of the imagery in Revelation may also point in this direction, most notably Revelation 21:24-25, which pictures the “kings of the earth” (the same guys who were previously slaughtered by the sword that came from the mouth of the rider on the white horse) bringing their tribute through the perpetually open gates of the holy city. It’s a small but significant detail which hints at a remarkable reversal of the barring of mankind from the garden of Eden. Gates are meant to keep things out, and these gates are always open.

But perhaps the clearest expression to this wider hope appears in the climactic hymn of Colossians 1: 

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created… All things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:15-20). 

We’ll explore some of these passages in more depth later, but the point at present is this: Ultimately, every attempt to find a unified voice for “what the Bible says about hell” is inevitably selective, either bending annihilationist and universalist texts into the shape of eternal torment texts or vice versa. So it won’t work to simply point to this or that text and say “Case closed! This clearly supports my view.” There are always other texts to be found, and no single view has the monopoly on biblical support.  

A Better Way

So what do we do? How do we decide between the various strands of data? Is there a better way than the “proof-text arms race”? 

I believe there is. Given the fact that these three different types of passages do not lend themselves to an easy harmonization, the pertinent question is not which type of language represents the greatest percentage of the data, or which one is the hardest to explain away, but rather which one reflects a deeper insight into God’s redemptive plan according to the overall trajectory of the biblical narrative

In order to arrive at something that might be called “the biblical view” of postmortem judgment, I believe more attention should be paid to the character of Israel’s God as it has been revealed throughout Scripture and to the outworking of this God’s redemptive-historical purpose in Christ. 

This is, after all, how we instinctively approach many difficult subjects in Scripture. Consider, for example, the plurality of the biblical witness concerning slavery. Most of the Bible simply assumes the existence of slavery, and many passages (including several NT passages) offer tacit support to it (e.g., Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1). We have recently developed the habit of ignoring these texts, but for nineteenth-century slaveholders they offered clear biblical support for their livelihood. On a much deeper level than individual proof-texts, however, we can see a God who loves to set captives free, a God who breaks in pieces the doors of bronze and cuts through the bars of iron, and we can see the biblical narrative moving on a trajectory towards a kingdom in which “there is neither slave nor free” (Gal. 3:28). It was to this deeper biblical truth that the abolitionists appealed.

The same thing could be said about many other subjects of doctrinal and ethical importance, such as genocide, circumcision, justification, or resurrection. In all of those cases Christians regard a few central NT texts as being more decisive for Christian theology than a large number of OT texts that point in opposite directions. In none of those cases would we say that the few texts at the end of the Bible should be made to conform with the majority of earlier texts.

Craig C. Hill develops this hermeneutical model in his phenomenal book In God’s Time: The Bible And The Future. After discussing the many weaknesses of the harmonization model, he suggests that we ought to regard biblical authority as something derived from Christ and that Christ himself is God’s primary revelation, the centerpiece and climax of the biblical metanarrative. 

“Believers today are employed at the same essential task as the New Testament authors, namely, the attempt to make sense of their world in light of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus. I call this the ‘But in Christ’ project. Like us, the writers of the NT were located at particular moments in time and in specific cultural environments. Like us, they accepted much of their situation as given; however, at certain points they realized that their world was challenged by what they had seen of God in Christ. Those are the ‘But in Christ’ moments. Yes, first-century this and first-century that about women, but in Christ ‘there is no longer male and female’ (Gal. 3:28). I would contend that it is precisely at these junctures that the New Testament is most important and most revelatory” (25).   

Applying this model to the question of hell and final judgment, it must be said that passages like Philippians 2:8-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 have not usually been allowed the place in court which they clearly deserve to have. Indeed, only a cursory glance at these and other “universalist” texts would show that they appear at the theological high points of the New Testament, revealing in breathtaking panoramic view the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan in Christ: all things will be reconciled, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. 

In other words, the “universalist” passages are to the question of hell what texts like Galatians 3:28 are to the question of slavery: just as there is neither slave nor free in Christ, so every knee will bow in the name of Jesus. In both cases we see Paul reaching beyond the nearsighted categories of this broken world and catching a fresh glimpse of what might be possible in the wake of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  

Conclusion

There is obviously a lot more that needs to be said, but the foundation has now been laid. Once we acknowledge the diversity of the biblical witness concerning hell and final judgment, the relevant hermeneutical question shifts, from finding the unified voice of Scripture to finding the theological high points of Scripture. The strength of universalism lies in its ability to honestly account for the texts that don’t fit while focusing on the larger biblical testimony concerning God’s character and on the overall direction of the biblical narrative towards the reconciliation of all things in Christ. It is on this basis that I believe universalism does more justice to the biblical data than either traditionalism or annihilationism. 

A Biblical Case For Universalism: Getting Our Bearings Straight

Introduction

A section of the 1853 painting The Great Day of His Wrath by John Martin

A section of the 1853 painting The Great Day of His Wrath by John Martin

A few weeks ago Fuller Theological Seminary hosted the annual Rethinking Hell conference. The theme of this year’s conference was “Conditional Immortality and the Challenge of Universal Salvation”. The goal was to create a space for proponents of the three major views on hell and final judgment to engage with one another in an open, intentional, and charitable forum. More specifically, the conference allowed traditionalists (who see the ultimate fate of the wicked as eternal punishment) and annihilationists (who see it as destruction) to engage with the views of universalists (who see it as restoration). 

Universalism might still be the black sheep of evangelicalism, but this conference signals a major shift in the tone of evangelical discourse. For an event like this to be held at such an influential evangelical institution as Fuller stands as a testimony to how open evangelicals are becoming to considering alternatives to the traditional view of hell. Indeed, Jeff Cook, a professor of philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado and one of the speakers at the conference, went so far as to say that “the traditional view of hell will not last as a dominant theory among scholars for much longer.” According to Cook,

“The arguments for the traditional hell fail so spectacularly and their conclusions are so repugnant that the traditional view is only carried in the popular mind by assumption and convention.

No, the conversation about hell in the 21st century among those who study will shift and the debate will focus on two morally-coherent views of hell: annihilationism and universalism.”

If Cook is right, it means annihilationists and universalists can no longer pretend the other view doesn’t exist as they prop themselves up against the much less coherent arguments of traditionalists. It’s time for annihilationists and universalists to come into direct conversation with one another.  

In light of this shift in the conversation, I want to spend the next several posts here at Fifth Act Theology looking at the biblical and theological considerations which have led me to move away from annihilationalism, a view which I held for several years, and toward universalism, a view which I previously thought had absolutely zero biblical support. 

There seems to be a wide impression that universalism is philosophically strong but exegetically weak. I want to challenge that impression. My goal in these posts is to explain how someone who takes the Scriptures seriously could come to believe that universalism does more justice to the biblical data than either traditionalism or annihilationism. 

Defining Our Terms

First, hell: When I speak of “hell” I’m referring to what the subtitle of one recent study of the subject calls “God’s final solution to the problem of sin”. I think “hell” works fine as a shorthand for that eschatological reality, provided we keep in mind (a) that that is what we are referring to, and (b) that that is not always what the biblical authors had in mind when we find the word “hell” in our English translations. 

Part of the reason this debate tends to get so easily convoluted is that there are several different words in Scripture which have regularly been translated into the one English word “hell”—Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, etc—and then there are several other phrases and concepts which are routinely assimilated into that traditional portrait. This has resulted in a great deal of confusion, as we are automatically inclined to misunderstand what those words and phrases would have meant in their original historical contexts. 

In order to understand what the Scriptures have to say on the subject, we have to cut through all of the anachronistic baggage which has crept up around the biblical phrases like moss on an old building; we must approach the text on its own terms, as it would have been heard in the time and place in which it was written. 

Second, universalism: The word “universalism” can be just as misleading as the word “hell”. When N. T. Wright wrote that “one cannot forever whistle ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ in the darkness of Hiroshima,” he was criticizing the “cheep and cheerful universalism of Western liberalism,” the kind of universalism that blindly denies our need for God to judge sin and injustice and set the world right once and for all (Surprised By Hope, 180). He was not criticizing the much more orthodox and robust universalism which believes that God will rescue and restore every lost soul through the loving fire of his judgment. 

Unfortunately, many evangelicals tend to get these two very different positions confused with one another, and so they often end up criticizing traditional universalism as if it were the same thing as religious pluralism, the idea that every single person will be saved regardless of his or her particular religious beliefs or actions. 

To be absolutely clear, I am not a pluralist. I do not believe that all roads lead to the top of the mountain, but that “narrow is the gate and hard is the way that leads to life” (Matt. 7:14); and neither do I define God’s love as his unqualified acceptance of sinful humanity, but rather as his relentless commitment to sinful humanity. Hosea’s picture of a jealous bridegroom shows us the heart behind all of God's judgments: it is like the love of a husband for his wayward bride. A God who doesn’t judge is not a God of love, but a God of indifference, which is just another word for hate. 

But because I believe that the driving motive behind God’s judgments is always redemptive love, a love that seeks the best for the beloved, I must believe that his judgments are never purely retributive, never destructive, but always creative. This is one of many considerations which has led me to reject the dominant view of hell as a place of irreversible punishment. I do not deny the realities of hell and divine judgment, but I do not believe these realities will be permanent fixtures in God’s new world.

Third, traditionalism: When I refer to everlasting punishment as the “traditional” view, I mean that it has been the dominant perspective in the West since Augustine, but I do not mean that it is thereby the most “historic” or “orthodox” view. 

All three views are well attested in the first five centuries of the church prior to Augustine, and universalism in particular has deep roots going back to some of the greatest theologians of the early church, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and the Cappadocian Fathers Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa (see, e.g., John R. Sachs, “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology,” Theological Studies 54). The Cappadocians are particularly noteworthy for their major contributions to the First Council of Constantinople and the Nicene Creed, so it especially relevant to note that they were vocal exponents of universalism.

In fact even Augustine, whose towering influence effectively secured the status of everlasting punishment as the dominant view in the West for the next fifteen hundred years, acknowledged that there were “very many” Christians in his time who did not “oppose themselves to the Holy Scripture” but who nonetheless rejected his view of hell as eternal punishment (Enchiridion, 112). Yet Augustine did not condemn these universalists or bid them “farewell” like John Piper did with Rob Bell. 

On the contrary, Steve Gregg observes that because Augustine’s view of hell was “not yet regarded as an established orthodoxy in his day, he found no occasion to anathematize those who challenged it. He clearly believed them to be mistaken, but he did not regard them as heretical—nor even as opposed to Scripture” (All You Want To Know About Hell, 124). And while Augustine’s unparalleled influence eventually made eternal torment the dominant view on hell in the Western church, universalism has remained a live option in Eastern Orthodoxy.    

Finally, annihilationism: Some annihilationists prefer to call themselves “conditionalists” because that term highlights their belief that eternal life is contingent upon God’s grace in Christ and is not something intrinsic to humanity. I agree with annihilationists on this point. God alone possesses intrinsic immortality and we are sustained only by his continuing grace. But annihilationists are often unfair in their representation of the other views, suggesting that the only alternative to annihiliationism is the Platonic belief in an innately immortal soul. That may have been true for the likes of Origen or Augustine, but it isn’t true for everyone. 

Most universalists base their hope for ultimate reconciliation in what the Bible says about the steadfast love of God, not in anything intrinsic to the human make-up. Besides, most annihilationists already believe that God will sustain the wicked in some sort of conscious existence after death for the sake of rendering the appropriate amount of punishment to each. But if God can do that for the sake of punishment, why can’t he do it for the sake of salvation? That’s a question I don’t see annihilationists answering. Indeed, it’s a question that brings us to the heart of this whole debate. 

The Big Question

Much of this debate hinges on the question of God’s character. In a historical survey of the subject, Richard Bauckham observes that “the issue of hell and universalism is closely interconnected with other difficult and debated theological issues… [most centrally] the nature of God, the meaning of and the relationship between His love and His justice” (Themelios 4.2, 47). Whatever we think about God has a profound affect on what we think about the eternal fate of the lost, and vice versa. This isn’t about abstract philosophizing or liberal humanistic reasoning; it’s about letting what the Bible says about God’s character and will stand on its own two feet and not arbitrarily quarantining it off from a subject where it is so especially relevant.

This question will remain in the background of our investigation of what the Bible has to say about hell in subsequent posts. For now, I will simply register my agreement with Steve Gregg: 

“I believe that many Christians have simply assumed that they already know what the Bible teaches about hell, and have formed their notions of the character of God to accommodate their theory. My suggestion is that this is doing things backwards” (All You Want to Know About Hell, 300-301). 

Peering Through A Mist

Renowned New Testament scholar William Barclay famously called himself a “convinced universalist”. I am not a convinced universalist, for the simple reason that I do not think the nature of the subject allows me to be. While I have come to believe that universalism represents the most faithful reading of the whole biblical narrative, I remain open to other interpretations, recognizing that “all Christian language about the future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist” (Surprised By Hope, 132). I think this is especially true of Christian language about hell. 

Whenever the biblical authors talk about hell and final judgement, they use the same stock imagery that the prophets of Israel used to speak of God’s judgment against nations within continuing history. I will argue later that this fact encourages us to read the biblical passages on hell within a universalist framework, but the relevant point to note here is that the reason the biblical authors used this stock imagery was because they were themselves squinting in a fog, peering through a mist, and thus they could only speak of the judgment to come by way of analogy to judgments past. 

Rather than simply proof-texting the relevant passages on hell, therefore, we are encouraged by those very passages to enter into the whole biblical story of God’s dealings with humanity. Only by lovingly immersing ourselves in the previous acts of that story can we begin to talk about what the final act might hold. Only then can we talk about anything being the “biblical” view of hell.

A Super Nerdy List of Old Testament References in Revelation

It’s a fact widely acknowledged that the book of Revelation contains more references to the Old Testament than any other New Testament book. Indeed, some scholars have found as many as 635 echoes and allusions in John’s apocalypse. 

As a Jew who was thoroughly versed in the ancient Scriptures, it seems that John couldn’t help but make associations with God’s previous revelations as he himself was given the climactic vision of God’s redemptive plan. Granted, sometimes those associations seem to be less of a conscious action on John’s part, and simply reflect the way his mind was furnished so entirely by Israel’s sacred texts. But sometimes his allusions do reflect a conscious parallel, calling on an OT passage in order to say “This is that!” in some way or another.

Whether conscious or unconscious, however, John’s many echoes and allusions constitute our single greatest aid in understanding the way that he, the seer, understood his own vision. If we want to see things through John’s eyes and understand his vision the way he understood it, therefore, we should pay close attention to the many references he has left for us.

I compiled the following list of OT references in Revelation by combing through G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, a fantastic resource that really should be in every Bible student’s library.

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IHOP-KC and the Problem of Demonization

I’ve decided not to respond to most of the negative comments, messages, and emails I’ve received in response to my recent post about my time at the International House of Prayer, mostly because I don’t want to waste my or anybody else’s time. 

There is one response, however, that I do want to interact with, because I think it reflects a deeply harmful way of looking at the world, one that sadly pervades much Christian thinking well beyond the walls of IHOP.  

This response presented me with a very clear dilemma: 

“[Your view of IHOP] can only be explained the way you would explain the brainwashing that goes on in a true cult like Mormonism… demonic activity that produces blindness. [You must believe] people at IHOPKC (all) are blinded by strong demonic powers bent on incapacitating thousands of believers from engaging in spreading the ‘true' gospel. You see the only answer... is that we are all wildly deceived. Otherwise there is no explanation for a company of thousands of (many of them not all of them) mature believers who have real and vibrant relationships with the Lord, who commune with the Holy Spirit, who love the Word of God… to so completely and utterly miss it.”

I mean, I get it. I used to see the world like this too. And I used to think the Bible encouraged me to see the world like this, not realizing that this was exactly the kind of thing which Jesus regularly deconstructed. 

The religious leadership of Jesus’ day was a fear-based exclusivism, obsessed with drawing battle lines and declaring this group “out” and this group “in”. They constantly tried to get clear statements from Jesus on all the hot-button issues of the day, to choose a side in all their little skirmishes. But he routinely sidestepped their questions and reframed their debates into the terms of a story in which the battle lines of “out” and “in”, “us” and “them”, and “clean” and “unclean” are all erased by the recognition that we are just as broken and guilty as they are and God’s kingdom is just as much at work out there as it is in here.

For me, coming to grips with Jesus’ words has made me realize that, more often than not, labelling people or organizations with the either/or, black-and-white terms of “demonic”or “not demonic” only keeps us from seeing the more complicated and nuanced realities of human fallenness in our broken world. It keeps us from seeing the many ways in which God’s grace is at work outside of our group, and it keeps us from seeing areas of brokenness in people or institutions we love, which can often result in turning a blind eye to injustice.      

Samantha Field, author of Defeating the Dragons, recently made a similar point in a heartbreaking post about rapists titled “The Lie That Made Me Give Up”. The post is filled with explicit content, so I will try to briefly (and inadequately) summarize. 

Samantha starts by stating what one might think would be a fairly straightforward conclusion: “I was raped twice.” But she immediately stops herself: “And that statement, right there, as straightforward as it seems, is fraught with the complexities and ambiguities and lies and mixed-up realities of living in an abusive relationship for almost three years.”

Why was that statement so difficult? Because her fiancé “knew that I wouldn’t think of the word rape and apply it to what he’d done. And he was right – I didn’t realize he raped me until years later. Even though I’d said no, stop, please don’t, I don’t want this.”

Like many people caught in similarly abusive situations, Samantha simply didn’t know how to name what had happened, because she didn’t have the categories to process it. 

The day Samantha posted this on her blog, someone (a man) commented:

“Men who rape are not men… but coward animals.” 

Seems like a fair assessment, doesn’t it? Kind of like labelling a deviant or controlling organization “demonic”. Well, Samantha (the victim) didn’t find it helpful, and I think her response shows a level of insight and sensitivity to the complexities of human nature that many Christians lack:  

“I understand what drives this sentiment, and I appreciate the sympathy.

However, statements like this only contribute to helping rapists get away with it. Rapists are men and women. They look and act and seem just like everyone else in the world. They’re your friend – possibly the best friend you have. They do all the things good people do. They give to charity, they volunteer.

They’re completely human and they make the choice to abuse and rape people and there’s nothing about them that makes them easy to spot. Saying ‘they’re coward animals’ makes it difficult for victims to be believed – after all, they know the gal, the guy, they’re not animals they’re my friend.

It also made it harder for me figure out I’d been raped. After all, rapists are animals and my fiance could be a wonderful man some of the time.

So, thanks, but please don’t keep saying this and if you see/hear someone saying this, correct them.”

If you’ve spent any length of time at IHOP and you’ve googled “Mike Bickle” or “The International House Prayer”, I’m sure you know how much ill-informed and/or misconstrued information there is out there in the sensationalist quagmire called the internet. I heard a radio program last week in which the person being interviewed actually called IHOP “occultic”. This kind of thing is the heresy hunter equivalent of saying “Men who rape are not men but coward animals.” For someone who’s been there, or is still there, it just doesn’t add up. It keeps the people who have been there from being able to name the real issues with grace and clarity, and it keeps the people who haven’t been there from ever being able to see the many beautiful aspects of the community.  

As different as they are, the two most popular reactions to injustice — demonizing the perpetrator or turning a blind eye to the wrong — have at least two things in common: they’re easy, and they only serve to perpetuate the cycle of injustice.

The Big Story (According to Luke)

We’ve been talking a lot about the “big story” of Christianity recently. Continuing in that vein, I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at the way that one New Testament writer tells that story. 

Luke has long been identified as the standout historian of the New Testament, often drawing comparisons to the works of Josephus. Many have inferred from this that, because Luke is good at collecting eyewitness sources, he must be less interested in theological or artistic expression than, say, Matthew or John. This misunderstanding stems largely from the naively positivistic split between history and theology in the Enlightenment, but another reason is that the canonical order of the New Testament has kept many readers from approaching Luke’s writings in the way that he intended.  

Recent narrative analysis of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles has shown that their author is a much better storyteller than is often supposed. Luke begins the book of Acts by referring to his earlier volume as dealing with “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1), suggesting right away that the present volume concerns things that Jesus continued to do and teach. As I. Howard Marshall puts it, “The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were intended by their author to be regarded as Part 1 and Part 2 of one single work” (Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary, 59). 

The narrative unity of Luke-Acts has huge implications for how the two books should be interpreted. Reading them together reveals the theological and artistic brilliance of their author. Luke was a historian, but he was also a literary artist who wished to present the founding story of the church in a particular theological light. One of the ways he does this is by presenting his story in the form of a giant chiasm, a type of inverse parallelism commonly used by ancient writers to highlight details of particular importance. 

It is widely recognized that Acts 1:8 provides a rough geographical outline for the events narrated throughout Luke’s second volume: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” What is less often recognized, however, is that Luke’s first volume follows the exact same geographical progression, only in the reverse order. This inverse parallelism, or chiastic structure, is apparent from the geographical references throughout each volume.

While the events narrated in Acts move outward from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, eventually reaching “the ends of the earth” in Rome, the events narrated in Luke's Gospel move inward from Galilee, through Samaria and Judea, climaxing with the cross, resurrection and ascension of Jesus in and around Jerusalem.

Craig C. Blomberg explains the significance of this for Luke’s overall theological emphasis: “One expects to find the most important part of a chiasm, or inverse parallelism, at its center, and one is not disappointed. The resurrection and ascension, twice narrated, form the heart of the Christian ‘kerygma’ (proclamation) for Luke” (Jesus and the Gospels, 162).

Not coincidently, we find this same narrative emphasis articulated in the early evangelistic sermons which Luke records. There are ten or twelve evangelistic discourses in Acts, and in each of them the cross, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus are all central themes (e.g., Acts 2:22-36; 13:27-39; 17:18). And yet, conspicuously absent from both Luke’s larger narrative and the sermons which he records are many of modern evangelicalism’s favorite subjects, such as hell, penal substitutionary atonement, or the details of the end times.    

Returning to our larger point, however: Luke was not haphazardly writing two separate books with different intentions for each, but rather a highly sophisticated two-volume work of sacred history with one overarching goal. While Mark focused purely on the ministry of Jesus from his baptism to his resurrection, Luke’s aim was much larger. As Marshall puts it, Luke “gathers together the story of Jesus and the story of the early church, and sees these as forming together the foundational narrative of the church” (Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary, 20).  

The story of Luke-Acts is our origin story. It tells us who we are. And at the center of this story lies the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. That’s the turning point of Luke’s whole narrative because, as far as Luke is concerned, it is the turning point of human history.


Recommended Resources In This Post

Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary [TNTC]
Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary [TNTC] By I. Howard Marshall / IVP Academic

In Acts, renowned and ground breaking Evangelical scholar I. Howard Marshall has provided lay persons, teachers, and ministers with an invaluable and accessible resource for studying the book of Acts.

Readers will find that although Marshall is one of the most important scholars of the last 3o years, he delivers his insights and research in a clear and concise manner without compromising details or content. Prepare to be taken on an expert historical journey around the Mediterranean World in this informative and revealing study of the expansion and spread of the Christian faith. This series is an excellent resource for Christians looking to build a solid foundation in Scriptural knowledge.

Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, Second Edition
Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, Second Edition By Craig L. Blomberg / B&H Books

This second edition of Jesus and the Gospels prepares readers for an intensive study of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the events they narrate. Craig Blomberg considers the historical context of the Gospels and sheds light on the confusing interpretations brought forth over the last two centuries. The original 1997 book won a Gold Medallion Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, and this updated version, factoring in new scholarship, debate, critical methods, and the ongoing quest of the historical Jesus, ensures the work will remain a top tool for exploring the life of Christ through the first four books of the New Testament.

All You Want to Know About Hell by Steve Gregg: Buy This Book Now!

678302: All You Want to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God"s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin

As most of my friends know, I have been thinking a lot about hell and final judgment over the last year, reading as many books as I can on this controversial subject and having many of my former assumptions challenged by the evidence of Scripture. Of the dozen or so books that I've read over the last year, this comparative study by Steve Gregg, entitled All You Want to Know About Hell: Three Christian Views of God's Final Solution to the Problem of Sin, is hands down my favorite.

Gregg treats the subject with reverence and humility and he doesn't back down from asking the hard questions. At the same time, he takes great care to represent each view in the best possible light, something which many treatments of this subject fail to do. He brings together several decades worth of research and distills it all into an easy-to-understand introduction to the strengths and weaknesses of each of the major views (traditionalism, conditionalism, and restorationism) while at the same time introducing the reader to some of the best scholarship behind each position. The last few chapters dealing with restorationism (or universalism as it is sometimes called) are filled with some of the keenest insights I've seen. Those chapters alone are worth the price of the whole book. 

All of that to say, christianbook.com is currently offering this title at 70% off the cover price ($5.99 instead of $19.99), which is lower than the price Gregg himself has to pay the publisher when he buys copies. So if you are interested in familiarizing yourself further on the question of hell and final judgment, you won't find a better opportunity to get this outstanding survey of the debate. 

Here are a few quotes to whet your appetite: 

“The one fact, above all others, which I have desired to get across is that our view of hell is inseparably joined to our view of God. I believe that many Christians have simply assumed that they already know what the Bible teaches about hell, and have formed their notions of the character of God to accommodate their theory. My suggestion is that this is doing things backwards.”

“If we wish to criticize the reticence of modern preachers to place an emphasis on hell in their evangelism, we must first account for the same reticence found in the preaching of the apostles and evangelists of the early church.”

“All can see that these two sets of texts exist and that some tension exists between them, requiring harmonization. The traditionalist and the conditionalist take the damnation texts to be determinative, and seek to interpret the universalistic texts in harmony with each one’s respective take on that theme. The universalist does just the opposite, arguing that the sovereignty and benevolence of God are the primary themes revealed in Scripture and in Christ, in harmony with which the relatively few texts about damnation ought to be required to conform.”