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.