Round Table: Hell and Universalism
If “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) and “desires that all be saved” (2 Tim 2:4), how are Christians to make sense of hell? Is hell undoubtedly eternal (as passages like Matt 25:41 suggest), or is it possible that God’s Love will eventually conquer even the staunchest of resisting wills? Finally, what is the role of doctrine about hell in living the Christian life, in training new Christians, or in proclaiming the Gospel? Today our authors reflect on whether a Christian can be a universalist, and whether a doctrine of hell is central to the universal Christian faith. In doing so they address the following questions: “Is Hell eternal?” and “Why is necessary for Christians to teach about hell?”
Kenneth A. O’Shaughnessy, Eastern Orthodox
The Bible isn’t about you and your destiny; it’s about Christ and his victory.
If there is an Orthodox view on Hell, this is where it must start. By the way, if anyone tells you that they have the Orthodox view on something and it doesn’t directly involve Jesus Christ, you can safely assume they are at the least uninformed. For example, the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God has everything to do with God becoming man through Mary—the divinity and humanity of Jesus—and little to do with Mary herself. This is not to minimize who Mary is and what she did, given how prominent the Theotokos is in Orthodox worship, but the focus of all Orthodox doctrine is the person of Christ.
That being said, how do we answer these questions: “Is Hell eternal?” “Why is it necessary for Christians to teach about Hell?”
We know from Scripture that God is “everywhere, filling all things”, and that all things will be put under his feet. There is not a separate location, as it were, in which Hell exists apart from God. There is “in Christ”, and “not in Christ.” There are captives led in his train, and there are the rebellious bound for “outer darkness.” But even this outer darkness is only defined by its relationship to God, and is still at all times under his control and in his presence. Christ has “destroyed death by death,” having descended to Hell and led out those awaiting him.
I’m not going to go into the intricacies of the ways the word “Hell” is used in the English translations of the Bible, nor the convolutions one must endure to get the “correct” understanding of what “eternal” means contextually. Let’s just look at Revelation 20:14: “And death and Hell were cast into the lake of fire.” So, whether you take the word “Hell” to mean the grave or a place of divine punishment, the Bible tells us they both have an endpoint. It might be worth noting, however, that the next verse indicates that those who are not found in Christ will be cast into the same “lake of fire” alongside death and Hell—after death and Hell have already been destroyed.
Perhaps one simply wants to know whether the punishment for sin is eternal? The answer is, of course, yes—and Christ became that sin for us, and took that punishment from us.
But why is it necessary for Christians to teach about Hell?
For the second question, I’m going to reference a legendary quote from William Tecumseh Sherman: “War is Hell!” The good news is that Christ has conquered death and Hell, freeing us from their tyranny. We can either cling to these defeated foes and keep fighting, or live as free citizens of the kingdom of God. If we choose war, we choose Hell. It is necessary for Christians to teach about Hell to remind ourselves of Christ’s salvation and declare the same to those who have not yet heard of their ransom from death. This is good news for now, not simply a hope—or a promise of destruction—for the future.
To some degree, this still leaves us with the question of the potential eternality of Hell. Wouldn’t somebody who wound up there want to leave if he had the chance? Isn’t God’s love enough to forgive and pardon anyone—even the worst of sinners, even if they don’t want it? A teaching about Hell in the story of the rich man and Lazarus is instructive here. The rich man, after a lifetime of living only for this life, woke up in Hell. He asked for two things: a fingerful of water from the beggar to whom he’d never given any aid, and that somebody would warn his brothers to avoid winding up like him. He didn’t ask for a way out for himself.
One might rightly respond, however, that this passage is about believing the good news now and changing one’s life, not about what Hell is actually like. Absolutely—and this is why it is so important to teach these things now, before it’s too late.
Sterling Oakley, Baptist
It is of utmost importance that Christians teach and expound on the consequence of Hell for several reasons. Jesus taught many times about heaven and hell, and in personal interactions with people seeking truth he continuously pointed out their spiritual need of salvation. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and the consequence of that sin is death (Romans 6:23). Before salvation all are spiritually dead, but does that death extend into Hell for all eternity?
Jesus explained to Nicodemus that God loves all the world in John 3, and Peter taught in 2 Peter 3:9 that God desires “that all should reach repentance.” However, Jesus further explains that those who do not believe in the Son of God are condemned and God’s wrath remains on them. The presence of the Lord is completely holy and sin cannot be in His presence. When an unsaved, sinful person dies their soul cannot be “present with Christ.” His justice demands a verdict for unbelief, but God cannot destroy that which bears his image (Genesis 1:26-27) as that would be an attack on himself. Hell is the only place an unrighteous person can go.
Certainly this dire consequence of unbelief ought to fill Christians with zeal in spreading the gospel of Christ. We all know friends, family, and neighbors who have not confessed Jesus. His desire for bringing people to repentance must be ours as well: Matthew 25:41-46 speaks of an “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” for those who do not serve the Lord in this lifetime, and the Great White Throne Judgment found in Revelation 20:11-15 indicates that those not identified by name in the heavenly Book of Life will face a second death, the lake of fire. This passage certainly lends weight to the belief that Hell is eternal.
Scripture is filled with examples and passages proclaiming God’s love for the world, and that He desires for all people to come to him. Does the idea of Hell negate God’s love and keep him from having what He desires? The Lord’s love is made manifest in Jesus, and when humans outright reject His beloved Son, Scripture makes clear that that decision carries consequences. There are some who would argue that Hell is a waiting place for those who do not confess Jesus in this lifetime and that the Lord’s love will, eventually, win all people to Him. This argument certainly sounds preferable and logical in light of God’s mercy, but the fact is that we cannot know for certain if it is true.
Even if Hell is temporary until unbelievers acknowledge the Lord Jesus, we still ought to be diligent in sharing the gospel. Indeed, even the prospect of a short time of separation from the source of holiness and goodness ought to be a sufficiently sobering motivation for us to obey our Lord. The knowledge of glory and destruction must speed us on our way to making disciples and bringing the gospel with us throughout the world. Jesus taught his apostles the importance of eternity so that they would be empowered on their way to spreading Christianity all through the earth—and his followers ought to continue doing so today.
Wesley Walker, Anglican
The question of Hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment is a controversial one. While I find this issue to be of great importance, my position can best be described as “hopeful-ist” because my only answer to the question “Will all be saved?” is “hopefully.”
Some of the modern, Western visions of an eternal Hell where God sends people for eternity require incredible hermeneutical gymnastics around passages that make it clear his will is for all people to be saved (Ezek. 18:23; John 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). While some verses may indicate punishment for unbelievers after death, it seems necessary to contextualize those passages in light of God’s mission, as revealed in Colossians 1:20, “and through him [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Hell, as a space ontologically separated from God for eternity with no hope of reconciliation, seems to mean that God has conceded. Would God seek victory in the whole world only to quit when he gets to Hell?
C.S. Lewis seems correct when he stated, “The doors of hell are locked from the inside.” It seems people are in hell because they get what they want: freedom from God. Nevertheless, to me, it is a question of the extent to which God will go to save the lost. St. Matthew gives us an answer in 18:12-14 by telling the parable of the lost sheep. In it, the shepherd has 100 sheep but one goes missing. He leaves the 99 so that he can find the lost. It seems difficult to fathom that the God described in this parable—a God willing to go to great lengths to save the lost—would immediately forfeit a human soul merely because it has passed from death to life, or, even worse, would become an eternal torturer of that soul because it somehow brings him “glory.”
So then does this mean everyone gets a “free pass”? I cannot believe that either. God’s justice is an insurmountable barrier to accepting this mentality. People must be held accountable and must be made holy. So at the end of the day, I am hopeful that God will win, but I cannot be certain how it will happen or what it will look like. So I have faith, pray, and participate with him in bringing his Kingdom to fruition.
Benjamin Winter, Roman Catholic
[Adapted from “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?“]
In his General Audience of 28 July 1999, Saint Pope John Paul II stressed that hell is “the state of those who definitively reject the Father’s mercy, even at the last moment of their life.” Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1033 teaches that “to die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called hell.” Hell is primarily a “state,” rather than a “place.” Hell is thus the experience of those who condemn themselves—by rejecting God—to separation from God. Whether this experience can be permanent (i.e. whether the human will can “hold out” forever against God) is not readily knowable, and there are good arguments for either side.1
Regardless, the Catholic Church definitively teaches that, if a person dies in a state of mortal sin (rejecting God, sinning against the Holy Spirit), then condemnation to hell follows:
The Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs (CCC 1035).
These facts, however, should not stop Christians from praying that 1) any particular person repented before his or her death, or that 2) God’s mercy will prevail, in a general sense. In John 12:32, Jesus says that his sacrifice on the cross will “draw all people to himself.” The crucifixion was a universe-changing event. Because of Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice, and in light of God’s overflowing love that provides the offer of salvation to all, it is possible to pray that all will be saved. Indeed, such prayer is an exercise in loving even our worst of enemies.
Christ’s command, “do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matt 7:1) applies to us when we are tempted to direct passages in Scripture about eternal punishment against other people. Rather, we should really be looking to ourselves. We are the ones who need to repent! So in humility, let us turn to the Lord. In humility, let us consider others better than ourselves. In humility, let us dare to hope that God will save all people—not naively, in the sense of a “blanket” of universal salvation thrown over the recalcitrant—but in the sense that all will eventually come to their senses and stop placing obstacles in the way of God’s love.Show Sources
1 Consider the following line of reasoning in light of both Scripture passages quoted above: If God desires something, then that something must be good. If God desires something good, it seems very hard for me, as a human, to say that God can’t have what God wants! God isn’t like a child (or even an adult human), who often wants something that is not truly good. What God wants (or what God “wills”) is only thwarted by the freedom God has granted to rational creatures. Yet if we are too insistent about the power of this disobedience, it would seem as if we are placing the human will to rebel on par with God’s loving will to curb or redirect that rebellion. The situation wherein a person is continually rebelling forever and ever against God’s desire is theoretically possible (again, given human freedom), but highly implausible. Hence my stance on the issue is that we are in no position to go about saying that God can’t get what God wants. In fact, it makes more sense to align our “wants” to God’s “wants,” and pray that all be saved.
Jacob Quick, Anglican
My understanding of hell has mostly been influenced by C.S. Lewis’s portrait in The Great Divorce. I find that Lewis’s depiction makes sense of biblical testimony regarding hell and the character of God by depicting hell as a state of isolation, a place arrived at by personal choice and where the doors are “locked on the inside.” I remain agnostic as to whether all humans will inherit eternal life. While there are passages which seem to speak against universalism (Matthew 25:46; 2 Thessalonians 1:9), there are other passages which appear to support universalism (1 Corinthians 15:22; Colossians 1:19-20; Romans 5:18-19; 11:32). The nature of life after death—whether heaven, hell, purgatory, or some other form—is still shrouded in mystery.
I would like to focus on the question of why the doctrine of hell is important for instruction and godliness in Christian life. The gospel gives precedence for not only considering hell as a reality after death, but also as a reality experienced during this lifetime. In the crucifixion, Jesus became the place where hell and earth overlapped: Jesus was shut out from the presence of God (Matthew 27:46).
Hell and earth overlap all around us. Any discussion of the doctrine of hell needs to take that into account.
For example, the incarceration culture in the US is an effective tool administering hellish experiences. America is home to less than 5% of the world’s population, but holds at least 22% of the world’s prisoners. Recent investigations and testimonies have verified that the experiences within American prisons serve as a palpable realization of the absence of God. Months of solitary confinement, physical and sexual abuse, and unpaid labor in torturous conditions characterize the very industry which claims to act in the name of justice. These are cruelties that we would not wish on our worst enemy, and our broken system guarantees that conviction process is fraught with corruption, racism and exploitation, prompting Kendrick Lamar’s lament, “Some of us never did wrong but still went to hell.”
Hell is not only experienced in our prison system, but infused into our possessions. Just one example are Apple devices, repeatedly shown to be produced through a milieu of human rights violations in the rush to churn out iPhones and iPads at the cheapest rate possible. There have been mass suicides at iPhone factories motivated by the working conditions, which have sparked outcries but little effectual change.
I raise these few examples to demonstrate why the doctrine of hell is necessary for the formation of our ethics. The idea of hell should raise our awareness of the places where God’s absence is felt, and how these hellish realities are embedded in our lives. This is not to say that Christians should avoid discussing the importance and nature of the afterlife. We should devote time and energy to discussing the doctrine of hell as it pertains to this life and the next. However, I have learned that my zeal for “living conditions” in the next life has often overshadowed the living hells around me, overshadowing even the hell out of which the device that I’m using to write this piece was produced. Jesus discussed the afterlife, but also healed the suffering and broken in this world, and calls his followers to do the same. May our discussions of hell, and the actions that result from them, reflect the holistic salvation of Christ, who experienced hell on our behalf.
We invite your participation in charitable discussion of these viewpoints—and others—in the comments section.