This post is part 3 of the series Four Views of Hell which summarizes the Counterpoints book of the same name. My goal is to faithfully represent each of the four views as described by their authors, keeping my view out as much as possible. In my previous post, I covered the Terminal Punishment view.
Robin Parry provided the chapter which describes the perspective that all people will one day be reconciled to God.
Christian universalists do not teach that people can be saved apart from Christ, but that, in the end, all will be saved through him. “Christian universalism is the view that in the end, God will reconcile all people to himself through Christ” (101). Christian universalists believe in an eschatological punishment, “but ‘in the end’ there will be deliverance” (101).
Reading the Bible through the gospel story
Debates on hell “often get bogged down in proof texting” (102). All sides can point to proof texts which seem to prove their position. Traditionalists point to Matthew 25:45, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Revelation 14:11, and Revelation 20:1-15. Annihilationists point to Matthew 7:13, 10:28, John 3:16, Romans 6:23, and Hebrews 10:39. Universalists point to Romans 5:18, 11:32, 1 Corinthians 15:22, Philippians 2:11, and Colossians 1:30. Therefore, all sides must interpret some texts against their “obvious” meaning.
Instead of proof texting, we need to read the Bible in the context of its bigger picture. This “bigger picture” is the theological framework knowns as the “rule of faith.” The rule of faith is the “gospel narrative of the triune God manifest in Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and return” (103).
In the Context of Christ-Centered Biblical Narrative
Our exploration of the “gospel narrative” begins in Colossians 1:16-20. Here we see the creation-to-new-creation plot by which we can make sense of hell. The text says that “all things” were created through Christ and that God will reconcile the same all things through Christ. Non-universalists must interpret reconciliation in this passage in a way that is at odds with how Paul uses the word. “Being defeated and condemned is not being reconciled” (104).
God created all things. “[T]he doctrine of creation is not simply about origins… but about purpose and destiny” (105). We find humanity’s destiny and purpose in Christ. God made us to be conformed to the image of Jesus. Will God bring creation to its intended destiny?
All people sin. “Sin corrodes humanity at every level and makes it impossible for us to reach our destination” (105). We all deserve to be punished. We don’t deserve God’s grace. But, the questions remain: “Will God allow sin to thwart his purposes to beautify the cosmos?” and “Does Christ undo all the damage caused by sin, or does he only undo some of it?” (106)
In the incarnation, Jesus came to represent all humans in his humanity.
He died to atone for the sins of all people. 1 John 2:2 says that Christ is the atoning sacrifice for the whole world. 1 Cor. 5:14 says that Christ died for all. God wants all people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:3-6). Jesus suffered death to taste death for everyone (Heb. 2:9). We know that God wants to redeem all people. “Will God’s desired to save all people be satisfied or eternally frustrated?” (108)
Christian eschatology is rooted in the resurrection, the inauguration of new creation. Since Jesus represents all humanity, his resurrection, like his death, is effective for all humanity.
Already/not-yet of new creation
We live in the already/not-yet of new creation. Already, all people are justified through the death of Christ. “However, it is only as we respond in obedient trust to the gospel and are united to Christ by the Spirit that we participate subjectively in this justification” (109). Even here, our experience is partial. We still await the resurrection.
Current in-group/out-group designations are temporary. God can make those who are dead in their sin (the out-group) alive in Christ (the in-group). For instance, in Romans 9-11 Paul sees Israel as currently cut off from Messiah. Nevertheless, he looks forward to a time when “all Israel will be saved.” So, “Paul sees a current division between the in-group and the out-group within Israel itself, but it’s a division that will be overcome in the new age” (110).
The church functions as a “prophetic foretaste” and “an anticipation of the grander fulfillment” (111) when all people from all nations will come together in Christ.
In this story, universal salvation, as we see in places like Ephesians 1:9-10 (“to bring to unity all things in heaven and on earth under Christ”) seems like a fitting end. Any non-universalist ending is a “tragic partial failure for God” (112).
Hell: “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here”?
Divine judgment serves various ends in the Bible, including retribution. But retributive justice isn’t the whole story. “Biblical justice is about putting wrong things right” (113) and retribution cannot, by itself, undo harms. Punishment can also be used as a deterrent, warning, or correction (restorative justice). These different goals aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. God can judgment both because punishment is deserved and to bring ultimate restoration.
This is consistent with the normative pattern we find in the way God relates to his people, the pattern of judgment followed by restoration. The book of Jeremiah is an example. “This pattern – judgment and salvation, exile and restoration, death and resurrection – is God’s way with Israel” (114).
Does this only apply to Israel? No. We also see cases where the prophets apply this to the nations, including Elam (Jeremiah 49:37, 39), Sodom (Ezekiel 16:53), and Egypt (Isaiah 19:22).
The pattern of punishment/restoration can be applied to final judgment so that hell is “more than retributive; that it is also restorative” (115). This view fits within the broader story of Scripture and aligns with God’s goodness, love, and justice.
Can One Come to Christ After Death
This version of Christian universalism only works if some can be saved after they have died. The possibility is “highly consistent with the doctrine of divine holy love and the doctrine of God’s eschatological victory over sin” (117).
But, does the Bible teach a view of hell that necessarily excludes post-mortem salvation and universalism?
First, we observe that this text draws its background imagery from Jeremiah (Gehenna/hell equals the Valley of Ben Hinnom, known as a place of idolatry) and Isaiah (the worm that does not die comes from Isaiah 66:24). We should let Jeremiah and Isaiah set the backdrop instead of going to Jewish texts that occur after the destruction of Jesus which describe Gehenna as a place of everlasting punishment.
Second, “that the fire will not be quenched and the worms will not die need not mean no more than that the dire and the worms will be unceasingly and unstoppably active until they have finished their work” (119).
Third, the phrase “everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49) is suggestive of purification consistent with the universalist view that could occur in the fires of Gehenna.
The word here translated as “eternal” (aionios) refers to the “age to come.” So, eternal punishment is “punishment belonging to the age to come” and eternal life is “life belonging to the age to come.” We aren’t told how long that age will last, but we are given a hint in Jude 7 where Sodom and Gomorrah suffer “eternal (aionios) life.” In that case, the fire lasted for a single day. By contrast, we know that “eternal life” lasts forever, not based on this passage, but because it is grounded in participation in Jesus’s incorruptible resurrected life.
2 Thessalonians 1:5-10
The phrase “eternal destruction” can be rendered as “ruin/punishment belonging to the age to come.” As in Matthew 25:31-46, we need not assume that this punishment will last forever.
Revelation 14:9-11 and 20:10-15
We must consider these texts within their literary context. In both cases, the judgment texts are followed by universalist post-scripts. Revelation 14:9-11 is followed by Revelation 15:3-4 which states that “all nations will come and worship before you.” “The nations” in Revelation are always depicted as the bad guys who are the objects of God’s judgment, but who here come and worship before the throne.
Likewise, Revelation 20:10-15 is followed by 21:24-45. Of the New Jerusalem, it states: “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.” Like the nations, the “kings of the earth” are Christ’s enemies defeated in the last battle. Yet here, they are entering the New Jerusalem. These passages suggest post-damnation salvation.
In the end, God will accomplish his purposes. He will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). Christian universalists argue that final destruction or eternal torment of the damned cannot constitute such a victory, but only in the final reconciliation of all of creation.