3. Hell and Punishment: Universalism

What will happen to your generous and gracious but unredeemed grandmother after judgment? Eternal, conscious punishment in the lake of fire next to Hitler, Stalin and Mao? Universalists say no. They claim to have a better and Scriptural option.

This post is about the unredeemed, not the saved. When one receives Christ and remains in union with him, hell becomes a nonissue.

Further, universalism, fully taught, assumes that hell is real. But it challenges the notion that God leaves everyone in there. Somehow he redeems everyone, after their just punishment.

So please note carefully: this theory, fully and accurately taught, does not deny the existence of hell or people’s punishment there. Instead, the theory says that after people’s just punishment, they will be restored and reconciled to God because their punishment in hell will have been sufficient to teach them a lesson and purge them.

Let’s look at this theory calmly, without calling it heretical or making it a test for orthodoxy. Personally, I consider the doctrine of punishment in the afterlife to be a secondary issue in Scripture and compared to the proclamation of the gospel and to the whole range of other biblical doctrines.

Therefore, in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty, in all things, charity (love).

The problem

As noted in the other articles in the the three-part series, the problem can be stated in this expanded version: We misunderstand God’s justice and his love when we conclude that your kindhearted grandmother, who was charitable and generous, but who never proclaimed Christ as Lord in her heart and with her words, will be bobbing up and down in the lake of fire, next to Hitler, Stalin, or Mao (and others like them). This scenario is unjust, even if the lesser degree of punishment applies to her, because she feels less pain than they do (is there a “jacuzzi section” in the lake of fire?). It is still eternal and never ending and out of proportion to her crime of unbelief in her brief life on earth. God is the just Judge, yes, but he is also the loving Father.

Are there other options than punishment that adds up to eternally conscious torment and torture in the fires of hell?

Yes, say the universalists.

Definition

Universalists, when they properly teach their doctrine, say that after a time of punishment in hell fire or in some other state (outer darkness?), proportionate to the unredeemed human’s good and bad works, God will eventually restore the person to have fellowship with him.

It is also known as Christian universalism, Evangelical universalism, restorationism, or universal reconciliation.

As Steve Gregg wrote in his balanced and thorough treatment of all three theories (this one, terminalism and traditionalism): “Evangelical universalism … is the view that God intends to save every person, whom He originally made in His image and for His glory, and that no opposing power can prevent God from fulfilling his sovereign purpose” (p. 238; also see Robin A. Parry in Four Views on Hell).

Brief overview of church history

Contrary to the opinions of its critics, this theory was a held not only by Origen, (c. 185-c. 254), whom many today consider heterodox (Gregg), but by others. A sample follows.

Clement of Alexandria (c. 195), predecessor to Origen, has several key passages advocating this option.

Even Irenaeus (flourished c. 175-c. 195), claimed by traditionalist and terminalists, in his book Against Heresies, did not say it was a heresy. In a fragment ascribed to him, even he seemed to teach universalism.

In the Council at Constantinople, Gregory of Nazianzus (330-389), a universalist, was appointed to lead the council.

Gregory of Nyssa (330-c. 395) participated in the Council, and he was an advocate of extreme universalism.

Hippolytus, a contemporary of Origen, wrote a treatise against thirty-two heresies, but did not include universal reconciliation. (Gregg, pp. 117-20).

However, then it was anathematized by the Roman Catholic Church in the sixth century at the Council of Constantinople (553), under the earlier theological influence of Augustine (354-430). But even he wrote in his Handbook that many who believed in Scripture also believed in universalism or terminalism, yet he did not anathematize them or call them heretical. They simply needed correction.

According to Robin A. Parry, a recent defender of universalism, here are additional premodern church theologians who held this view: Bardaisn of Edessa (154-222), Theognostus (c. 210-c. 270), Pierius (d. 309), Gregory the Wonderworker (c. 213-c. 270), Pamphilus (d. 309), Methodius of Olympus (d. c. 311), Eusebius (c. 260-c. 340), Athanasius (296-373), Didymus the Blind (d. c. 398), Evagrius Pontocus (345-99), Diodore of Tarsus (d. c. 390), Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428), Jerome the younger (c. 347-420), Rufinus (c. 340-410), Dionysius the Areopagite (sixth century), Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), Isaac of Nineveh (d. 700), John Scotus Eriugena (c. 815-c. 877), Augustine in his younger days, though he rejected it later (Parry, p. 102).

Prominent modern adherents: William Law, George MacDonald, Hannah Whitehall Smith, F. W. Farrar, William Barclay, Jacques Ellul, Thomas Talbot, Rob Bell (?), and of course Robin A. Parry!

The main point in this quick survey of church history is that many people believed in universalism (and terminalism) in the first few centuries of the church. And at that time traditionalists (those who believed in eternal hell-fire and conscious torment there) did not call them heretics until after the church condemned the doctrine. However, despite the Council’s condemnation, no one today should call a universalist a heretic.

Key ideas

Here are some basic ideas, with the supporting Scriptures coming in the next section:

1.. God desires all people to be saved, and Christ died to save the whole world.

2.. If Christ does not redeem the whole world, he will be a “cosmic Loser,” and the devil will have won.

3.. The Bible proclaims universal salvation and restoration (see below).

4.. After people die, they will be punished in proportion to their guilt or until they repent. They don’t just get accepted immediately to heaven. See my post on the degrees of punishment: Are All Sins Equal?

5.. Why would God declare death to be the cut-off point for repentance and forgiveness? It seems arbitrary in light of his love and justice. Everywhere in Scripture judgment served a purpose or redemption.

6.. This teaching does not contradict other cardinal doctrines of the evangelical faith, particularly those who believe God calls everyone to be saved, even when they refuse in this life.

7.. Death and the devil and hell fire will not win in the end. God will win.

(Gregg, pp. 12-13).

Key Scriptures

Now let’s review a sample of Scriptural support for the doctrine. If readers would like to see the following verses in many translations and in their contexts, they may go to biblegateway.com, and type in the references.

2 Sam. 14:14: All humans die, but God does not desire this. He worked out a way that all banished persons do not remain banished forever.

Ps. 103:8: God is merciful and gracious, abounding in mercy and slow to anger (cf. Ps. 145:8-9; Jonah 4:2; Mic. 7:18-19).

Ps. 136:1: His mercy endures forever (repeated 26 times in the psalm).

Is. 42:1-4: The Messiah (or Servant) calls all the nations to God.

Is. 45:22: all the ends of the earth will be saved.

Is. 53:11: It speaks of universal salvation and justification.

Ezek. 18:23, 32: God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked. He wants them to turn from their wicked ways and live (cf. Ezek. 33:11).

John 1:29: John calls Jesus the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

John 3:16: God so loved the world ….

John 12:32: When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, he will draw all people to himself.

John 12:47: Jesus came to save the world.

Rom 5:18: transgression was brought to everyone through one man (Adam), so righteousness will be brought to everyone through one man (Christ).

Rom. 11:32: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”

1 Cor. 13:4-8: Love never fails.

1 Cor 15:24: God will destroy every enemy, even death itself. Those in hell who experience the second death will no longer be subject to it.

1 Cor. 15:54-55: As noted, in the end, death will be defeated and our victory over it is in Christ.

2 Cor. 5:19: God in Christ reconciled the world to himself.

Eph. 1:9-10: God purposed that in the fullness of time he would gather in unity all things in Christ.

Col. 1:19-20: The fulness of deity dwells in Jesus and through him God is pleased to reconcile all things through Christ, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood.

Col. 2:15: Christ triumphed over the enemy through the cross, so he is not the cosmic loser.

Phil. 2:10-11: At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue acknowledge that he is Lord.

1 Tim. 2:3-6: God desires all people to be saved, and Christ Jesus gave himself a ransom for all.

1 Tim. 4:10: God is the Savior of all people, especially among those who believe.

Titus 2:11: The grace of God appeared and is bringing salvation to all people.

Heb. 2:14: Jesus triumphed over death and the devil that held it.

1 John 2:2: Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for the church and for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 3:8: Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil.

2 Pet. 3:9 God desires that all should come to repentance.

Even though those verses are summaries without analyses, the reader can judge their effectiveness. If readers would like closer analyses of them, they can go to Steve Gregg’s book about hell (see Sources, below).

Or they may click on this Bible website and read them biblegateway.com.

Additional key points

The word Greek adjective aiōnios (pronounced eye-oh-nee-oss) does not always mean “eternal” or “everlasting” or “endless” in every context in Scripture. Its basic meaning is “without a determinate horizon” that one can see, or “enduring” (without eternity necessarily) or “a long age,” “pertaining to an age,” or “divine origin and character.” Even the destruction of Sodom was accomplished by aiōnios fire (Jude 7), which was actually completed in a short time. Rather, aiōnios in Jude 7 speaks of intensity and the everlasting results of judgment fires, not that the fire itself lasts forever. It was of divine origin and character.

So hell may not be eternal—only God is and so are the redeemed who derive eternity from him. Having a soul does not add up to being immortal, automatically. That’s an idea borrowed from Plato and Greek philosophy, but not Scripture. Unbelievers are not eternal or immortal, until they repent and receive eternal life from God.

See my related post: What Do Words ‘Eternity,’ ‘Eternal’ Fully Mean in the Bible?

Next, the image of fire in the context of hell could be metaphorical, but let’s say that it is real. Universalists claim that it is an acceptable method of punishment, but they believe that fire and punishment will not be eternal or everlasting; instead they will last an age or as long as the unredeemed need to undergo a just punishment, before repenting and being saved.

On the other hand, Charismatic theologian J. Rodman Williams (d. 2008), a devout and Bible-respecting Presbyterian minister, says fire and darkness are just metaphors for separation from God and punishment. They cannot be taken literally. He writes:

These two terms, “darkness” and “fire,” that point to the final state of the lost might seem to be opposites, because darkness, even black darkness, suggests nothing like fire or the light of a blazing fire. Thus again we must guard against identifying the particular terms with literal reality, such as a place of black darkness or of blazing fire. Rather, darkness and fire are metaphors that express the profound truth, on the one hand, of terrible estrangement and isolation from God, and on the other, the pain and misery of unrelieved punishment. It is significant that Jesus in His portrayals of darkness and fire often adds the statement “There men will weep and gnash their teeth.” This weeping and gnashing … vividly suggests both suffering and despair. So whether the metaphor is darkness or fire, the picture is indeed a grim one, even beyond the ability of any figure of speech to express.

One further word: both darkness and fire refer to the basic situation of the lost after Last Judgment. However, we have already observed that there will be degrees of punishment; hence in some sense the darkness and fire will not be wholly the same. Some punishment will be more tolerable than other punishment: some people will receive a greater condemnation, while some (to change the figure) will be “beaten with few blows” [Luke 12:48]. Thus we should not understand the overall picture of the state of the lost to exclude differences in degree of punishment. Even as for the righteous in the world to come, there will be varying rewards, so for the unrighteous, the punishment will not be the same. (Renewal Theology, vol. 3, 470-71).

For the record, Williams did not believe in annihilationism (or terminalism) or universal reconciliation (or restorationism).

Scriptures repeat the theme that God’s judgment on earth is a function of his love and mercy and serves a purpose of teaching and restoring, while there are no Scriptures that say his judgments are only and merely retributive and have no merciful end or goal in view. Throughout Scripture, all of his judgments have a positive purpose of redemption (e.g. Lev. 26:23-24; Job 5:17-18; Is. 4:4; Is. 26:9; Jer. 9:6-7; Hab. 1:12; Zeph. 3:8-9; 1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:19-20). Therefore, it is out of sync and unsuitable to claim that the few Scriptures about hell teach that it is endless and retributive without an ultimate, divine and redemptive purpose, which is best described in Scripture as repentance and salvation (Gregg pp. 250-54).

Objections and replies

First, Heb. 9:27 teaches that all men die, and afterwards the judgment. This refutes universal reconciliation, doesn’t it?

Reply: No. Universalists discuss what happens after judgment.

Second, one major drawback to this theory is that horrendously evil men like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao (and many others) will eventually get to spend eternity in heaven with the rest of us. Wide-scale murders of the twentieth century on an industrial scale makes universalism less acceptable. I told one Christian academic who believed in universalism, “Can you at least put those three men in hell-fire one year for every life they snuffed out?”

Reply: He didn’t answer, but he could have said yes. The unredeemed get punished, but their punishments fit the crime. Some get lighter sentences; others get heavier ones. Only then will they experience restoration.

I also wonder if we can combine terminalism and universalism. Men like Hitler and Stalin and Mao get snuffed out into nonexistence after a suitable time in hell, while people like the kind and generous but unredeemed grandmother eventually get reconciled to God. This would solve the issue of people who are so reprobate that they still refuse to spend eternity with God, even after a long time in hell, and those who are soft hearted after their punishment in hell. The first group passes into nonexistence, while the second one experiences redemption. Now the seemingly contrary sets of Scriptures supporting the three theories can be reconciled.

Further study is needed here.

Third, doesn’t universalism “demotivate” Christians to share the gospel and people to receive it?

Reply: No, because scaring people with hell is not the best preaching method, either. People need salvation because God is good and wants a relationship with them and to fill them with his cleansing, renewing Spirit. They need deliverance from Satan and their destructive sins, right now. And in Christ, they can be assured of escaping any form of painful punishment after judgment, whatever it entails, so a brief mention of punishment in hell may indeed be in order for the unredeemed. Nowadays, with the worldwide web, it is difficult to imagine that numerous people will get saved with fire-and-brimstone preaching. They simply need a new life, and Christ can offer it.

Conclusion

If all sins deserve infinite punishment, then no sin is greater or worse, because infinite punishment denies degrees of punishment, because all sins are equally bad—infinitely bad. As Robin Parry says in Four Views on Hell, if an employee steals a sheet of paper from work, then does he deserve infinite punishment, just like the man who tortures and kills children (p. 53)? No. God makes distinctions about sins. So there is a problem with the view of eternal, conscious punishment.

See my posts:

Are All Sins Equal?

Are There Degrees of Punishment, Rewards after Final Judgment?

If punishment in hell-fire is endless, then there is no redemptive purpose or closure to the judgment, and it is far out of proportion to the just Judge and the loving Father.

Universalism solves this extreme view of God because in the end the condemned are redeemed, after a just punishment in proportion to each individual’s sins.

Ancient Israel spent centuries sinning against an infinitely holy God, and he did indeed judge them, but their punishment was not endless; he restored a remnant, while the others simply died. So punishment in the OT does not go on forever.

How does this post help me grow in my knowledge of Christ?

You will meet an extra-sensitive believer who refuses to accept the traditional view of hell (eternal, conscious torment) because he is clever enough to see that suffering in eternal hell-fire is a disproportionate punishment. The human law courts teach him that punishment is proportional—a first degree murderer is treated humanely before he is executed; he is not tortured for twenty years while he is waiting on death row. The believer will not accept the claim that sinning against an infinitely majestic and just God requires an infinite punishment for a finite human with a finite lifespan. He will tell you that God is also infinite in love and mercy and forgiveness.

You can now tell the extra-sensitive believer that there is a growing momentum towards accepting alternative options about hell and punishment, like universalism, which has at least some biblical support. In a few decades, it may be the more popular view after more exegesis of the seeming “hell-fire verses” and the “universal verses.”

You can then quote for the concerned believer from Gen. 18:25, which, fittingly, comes in the context of the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” The Judge is God and the answer is yes.

However, stricter Evangelicals may call you heretical, so be careful. Just tell them that universalism has enough Scriptural support. Buy Steve Gregg’s book, which treats all three views fairly, to find out what this support looks like in more detail. It is stunning how much weaker is their view of eternal torment in the flames of hell, weaker than they may think or have told us.

God may have allowed these options because the afterlife is not fully revealed, such that everyone agrees on it. Let’s allow Steve Gregg, whose book on the three versions of hell and punishment is superb, to counsel us.

The fact that the Bible actually exhibits sufficient ambiguity on the subject of hell as to allow three very disparate viewpoints to be maintained by Christians of equal intelligence and sincerity raises the question whether God even thinks it is important that we reach final conclusions on the matter. It may be that God, in His wisdom, has chosen not to satisfy our curiosity about the fate of others, so that we might redirect our energies to fulfilling our own assigned tasks. When Peter, wondering about John’s destiny, asked Jesus, “But Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “What is that to you? You follow me” (John 21:21-22). (p. 301)

Therefore, once again, in essentials, unity; in nonessentials liberty; in all things charity (love). And therefore, let’s stop making the debatable doctrine of hell and punishment a test for orthodoxy.

ARTICLES IN THE “HELL AND PUNISHMENT” SERIES

1. Hell and Punishment: Eternal, Conscious Torment

2. Hell and Punishment: Terminal Punishment

3. Hell and Punishment: Universalism

RELATED

What Do Words ‘Eternity,’ ‘Eternal’ Fully Mean in the Bible?

Rich Man and Lazarus: True Events or Just a Parable?

Are All Sins Equal?

What Happens to Children after They Die?

What Happens at Judgment to People Who Never Heard Gospel?

Are There Degrees of Punishment, Rewards after Final Judgment?

SOURCES

Works Cited

Click on that link and scroll down to find Steve Gregg’s excellent book.

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