If you grew up in any way like me, the words “universal” and “salvation” in the same sentence automatically raise a number of red flags. “But God is just, he has to punish sin,” “we deserve hell,” “Jesus talked about hell,” and “what about the lake of fire in Revelation?” But also, if you’re anything like me, all this eternal damnation business makes you wonder: “how can a loving God send people to suffer eternal torment?” “What about people who have never heard of Christ?” “Does grace really win the day if a large percentage of humanity is lost forever?” This certainly is a sticky bunch of questions. However, some reading I have been doing lately has forced me to consider that maybe the case isn’t as open-and-shut as I had once thought. Consider the following.
Precedence in Church History
The idea of universal salvation was not a new one for the early church. Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius the desert monk, and St. Isaac the Syrian were all early Christian writers and proponents of the hope of universal salvation. Origen was condemmed at the Fifth Ecumenical council, and while most people assume it implied a condemnation of his universalism, it should be noted that he held other strange and un-orthodox beliefs such as the pre-existence of souls and a pre-cosmic fall. His student, Gregory of Nyssa, abandoned Origen’s ideas about the pre-existence, but was still an outspoken universalist. Not only was his teaching never condemned, he remains a beloved saint in the Eastern Orthodox church to this day.
The Demands of Justice?
Much of the debate surrounding universalism centers on the idea that wrongdoing demands punishment and therefore eternal conscious torment is just as a punishment for our sins. Bishop Kallistos Ware outlines Origen’s analysis of punishment in his piece, “Dare we hope for the salvation of all?” The first is the retributive argument: those who have done wrong should suffer in proportion to their wrongdoing (hence the “eye-for-eye” formulation in Leviticus). But, Christ rejects this principle in the Sermon on the Mount. “If we humans are forbidden by Christ to exact retribution in this way from our fellow humans,” writes Ware, “how much more should we refrain from attributing vindictive and retributive behavior to God. It is blasphemous to assert that the Holy Trinity is vengeful.” Not to mention that eternal hell would be exacting an infinite punishment for a finite offense.
The second view of punishment is as a deterrent. The threat of hell-fire is the best way to hold us back from wrongdoing. But wouldn’t a threat of bad, but not eternal, punishment work just as well as a deterrent? In any case, it appears that the threat of eternal hell-fire is working badly as a deterrent. One only needs to read a couple testimonies from disgruntled fundamentalists to see that this teaching many times has the opposite effect!
The third view Origen outlines is the reformative understanding of punishment, which he considers the only view to be morally acceptable. It is a punishment that is not retaliatory, but remedial. Parents punish their children to change them for the better, states put criminals in prison (for the most part) to rehabilitate them. Just as a doctor may sometimes have to subject us to painful treatment and amputate a limb, so God is the physician of our souls.
Hell: a Refiner’s Fire
If we are to subscribe to this third vision of justice, how do we apply it to hell? Richard Beck, a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University suggests that hell will be us exposed to the natural consequences of our behavior, like in the parable of the prodigal son. Once we get tired of living in the muck and are completely ashamed of ourselves, we will come home, no coercion required. St. Issac the Syrian calls hell, “the scourge of love…the contrition that comes from love is the harsh torment.” God will expose us to the consequences of our behavior, but he will always give us the opportunity to repent. C.S. Lewis espoused a view similar to this in The Great Divorce and remarked that hell would be locked “from the inside.”
In my opinion, this is a much more morally coherent way of viewing hell and God’s punishment. In theology we are faced with a challenge: to reconcile a God who is eternal self-giving love within himself with a God who has been wronged and demands justice. Traditionally, Christians have reconciled these two things by comparing God to a parent. Yes, he is angry, but the more important thing is that he loves his child. However, this analogy seems to break down when we approach the subject of punishment. We instinctively know that any parent who would beat their child for stealing a candy bar should NOT be a parent, but we still think it’s ok for God to torture people FOREVER for something they did in their 80-something years on earth. Moreover, what parent could be happy if any of their children were lost forever? William Barclay makes this point in his essay, "I am a Convinced Universalist."
"If God was no more than a King or Judge, then it would be possible to speak of his triumph, if his enemies were agonizing in hell or were totally and completely obliterated and wiped out. But God is not only King and Judge, God is Father - he is indeed Father more than anything else. No father could be happy while there were members of his family for ever in agony. No father would count it a triumph to obliterate the disobedient members of his family. The only triumph a father can know is to have all his family back home. The only victory love can enjoy is the day when its offer of love is answered by the return of love. The only possible final triumph is a universe loved by and in love with God."
Lost in Translation
What then, may you ask, of those pesky passages that talk about eternal punishment? There are many passages in the Bible that deserve a better treatment than what I can give them, obviously, but I do have one brief translation note. The Greek word aionios, which we translate “eternal” in fact means simply “age-long.” It could be eternity, or just the next age or two. Who knows.
The Triumph of Grace
For as little as I know about hermeneutics, I know it is quite the balancing act. You have two passages that seem to contradict each other, so you weigh them each in context and decide which one you’re going to go with. My point is, that for as many passages that talk about God’s apparent wrath, there are a wealth of passages that speak of God’s mercy and his desire that all people be saved.
Ezekiel 33:11 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die?
1 Timothy 2:4 [God] wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
1 John 4:9-10 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
John 3:17 God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
John 12:32 But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.
1Corinthians 15:21-28 Since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive... The last enemy to be destroyed is death... so that God may be all in all.
Romans 11:32 For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
2Corinthians 5:15 Christ died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
2Corinthians 5:19 God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them.
Ephesians 1:10 [God will] bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. 1John 2:2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
While it would be foolish to underestimate the reality of punishment and consequences for our sins, I think it would be even more tragic to limit the scope of God’s grace. We should hope for the salvation of all, and pray for the salvation of all. While it is true that Universalism has been the minority position throughout Christian history, it doesn't mean we should discount it. (May I remind you, dear reader, that women were one precious step above swine for most of human history according to majority opinion.) Especially as Reformed Christians, we should be examining our teachings to see if they square with the biblical witness and God's revelation in Christ. Am I completely biblically and theologically convinced that God will save everyone? No. But I wouldn’t put it past him. ;)
And I leave you with this poem by Anne Bronte:
And, oh! there lives within my heart
A hope, long nursed by me;
(And, should its cheering ray depart,
How dark my soul would be!)
That as in Adam all have died,
In Christ shall all men live;
And ever round his throne abide,
Eternal praise to give.
That even the wicked shall at last
Be fitted for the skies;
And, when their dreadful doom is past,
To life and light arise.
I ask not, how remote the day,
Nor what the sinners' woe,
Before their dross is purged away;
Enough for me, to know
That when the cup of wrath is drained,
The metal purified,
They'll cling to what they once disdained,
And live by Him that died.
Could Hell be Redemptive?
The Fire and the Rose: Universalism in the Blogesphere
William Barclay: I am a Convinced Universalist
Universalism and the Bible