This is part four of a series on the various Christian doctrines of the afterlife.
I grew up from about age 5 in an evangelical church environment, and I don’t think it’s possible for any good evangelical to not know all about heaven versus hell, and streets of gold versus fire and brimstone, and to vigorously defend those concepts and then use them to convince people to repent and believe to avoid eternal punishment. But those views are not universal to Christianity, and I just began to realize this in the last couple years. So I’m writing these posts to provide some awareness of the alternatives, and to discuss the doctrinal positions which I believe are probably more correct.
To very briefly recap part 1, the Bible contains four dramatically different Greek and Hebrew concepts of the afterlife, Tartarus, Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna. Taken together and assumed by many Christians to refer to the same thing, together with a misreading of the Greek word “aionion” as “forever and ever and eternally without end,” the doctrine of hell tries to fuse them into a single concept of a place of eternal punishment. Based on the preferred interpretation of these four words and the understanding of aionion, there are three different, and mutually-exclusive, main doctrines about what happens when we die: Eternal conscious torment, annihilationism, and universal reconciliation.
To very briefly recap part 2, the Bible is often interpreted by evangelicals to mean that once we die, any chance of redemption disappears, but there are plenty of places in the Bible that this topic is challenged. Also, I concluded that Eternal Conscious Torment has a lot of bad fruit, and Universal Reconciliation has a lot of good fruit.
To very briefly recap part 3, the Bible also contains many references to the post-death experience of humans, and I discussed fire and brimstone, the finality of death, the duration of punishment, the concept of eternal death versus eternal life, who is targeted by the judgement of fire, and whether God is vengeful.
This time, I’ll discuss how we tend to find what we want when we read the Bible in all its complexity and diversity, and then I’ll address some common charges leveled against people who believe in universal reconciliation.
As I discuss these concepts, I’m going to be quoting from a fairly wide array of websites, and that’s a little tricky to address verbally on a video, so I’ll be providing links in the video description. Also, those links and details on the Bible verses discussed here are linked on the blog version of this presentation.
Scripture and Confirmation Bias
As I hinted in the previous episodes, we tend to get what we expect when we read the Bible. Perhaps better stated, when we read the Bible we usually find plenty to support our preferred dogma, even if others find the opposite in their reading. And recognizing that confirmation bias in ourselves is very important when we want to probe our understanding of a difficult and controversial topic like the one we are considering here.
In our context, then, if you go into reading (or translating) the Bible with the expectation that anything relating to punishment in the afterlife is eternal (in our modern sense of “without end”) then whenever you encounter the Hebrew word olam or the Greek word aionion, you will choose “eternal” or “everlasting.” If you go into it with an expectation that God’s punishment is retributive and vengeful, then when you read the word ekdikesis, translated vengeance, or the word basanizo, translated tormented, you’ll see well-deserved torture. Whenever you read the words “eternal fire,” you’ll conclude that sinners eternally remain in that eternal fire. When you read about God’s judgement, you’ll conclude that it needs to be infinite unending punishment for even the smallest sin.
But if you go into the same reading (or translating) with the expectation that God will redeem all, and that the fire is purifying, and that the judgement is restorative, you’ll come to sharply different conclusions from the same verses.
As such, it should be clear that a preexisting conclusion will result in a certain translation and a certain understanding from that translation. But if we want to truly and honestly understand the duration and nature and scope of God’s justice, we have to start from a broader view of Scripture, and do our best to strip away any bias before we begin.
I’m certainly not immune to this confirmation bias. And I’m fully aware of that fact. For this reason, I’ve decided to pay a lot of attention to my existing biases. I discovered that I used to operate from a number of specific biases when reading and studying the Bible:
- I was fearful of losing my salvation
- I was fearful of going to hell if I believed the wrong things
- In particular, in this context, I was (ironically) deeply afraid of going to hell if I didn’t believe in hell
- I was certain that God’s judgement needed to be deeply painful for eternity, to satisfy God’s perfect honor
- I was biased towards my own modern American English understandings of the words in the Bible
- I was biased towards my own preferred translations of the Bible
- I was biased against even considering any alternate translations or doctrines
However, lately I’ve been rather deliberate about changing those biases, or at least carefully accounting for them as I work. In fact, given my understandings of the entire Bible, I have deliberately chosen a few new biases that I have concluded will result in a more accurate understanding. I can then weigh the results of the new biases against my old ones, and consider which results in a reading that seems to more closely align with my overall understanding of God.
- I choose to believe in a God who communicated through the entirety of the Bible to primarily embody the attribute of love before that of judgement
- I choose to believe in a God who is restorative, not retributive
- I choose to believe in a God who extends forgiveness without limit or measure
- I choose to believe in a God who extends forgiveness even before we turn to God
- I choose to believe in the perfect judgement of God, that only applies exactly enough pressure and pain to redeem and restore and bring about repentance
- I choose to be humble about the translations I read, and recognize my potential for misunderstanding based on my biases
- I choose to keep in mind my cultural understandings that affect my interpretations
- As a side effect of those chosen biases, I find these results:
- I’m unafraid of losing my salvation, or of anyone else losing theirs
- I’m unwilling to believe in a “hell” that eternally captures the majority of humanity
- I’m deeply motivated to share God’s love and God’s desire for a restored relationship with those around me
- I’m deeply disinclined to use fear of hell and punishment as a motivation towards a loving God
With all that in mind, what I see when I read the same Bible as anyone else is a God who has promised to redeem literally everything on earth, and literally every human soul, from death and destruction. I conclude that it would be an error to believe that God destroys any soul, or condemns any soul to a literal eternity of torment, because that would reject the very clear teachings about Jesus’ TOTAL victory over death and the grave.
The charges of heresy: Universalist Thinking Misunderstood
As I’ve pursued this matter, I’ve been accused of heresy many times – usually by people who have literally no idea how far back in church history this thinking goes, and how deeply common it was in the early church fathers and theologians. But at any rate, the objections take several forms.
Rejecting punishment for evil
The most common response I get to this discussion of hell – the false doctrine of hell – is that I reject God’s punishment for evil.
That is absolutely false.
I would hope that by this point, my understanding of the nature of God’s punishment is quite clear: that it’s redemptive and restorative. As such, it’s not something that I wish to avoid for either myself or anyone who is still incomplete in their life before God. Instead, it’s something that I believe is extremely real, likely quite painful, and yet very desirable to apply where it’s needed.
If my goal is to be more Christ-like, I need to discover, admit, and repent of my sin. And then I need to submit to whatever process is necessary to purify and redeem.
I certainly hope and pray that this will take place during my lifetime, when I can willingly and graciously repent and thus avoid the painful but necessary refining fire. But it certainly won’t be complete during my lifetime, and as such, I’m quite willing for God to continue it after my bodily death. I do believe that if that refining process takes place while we are still alive, it’s going to be much easier on us. But if God is unwilling to throw people away who die without submitting in this way, there is still a need for this redemptive process. And it will likely be much more painful later.
Rejecting Jesus’ sacrifice
The second most common response I get is that denying hell would eliminate any need for Jesus’ sacrifice.
That too is also absolutely false.
Denying eternal torture for sin doesn’t deny restorative punishment. It also doesn’t deny that the punishment may feel like torture or torment or vengeance. It merely rejects the idea that the punishment is unending.
The difference might be described as between an abusive raging father who beats their child every night regardless of the child’s behavior, or a loving parent who judiciously provides exactly the correct discipline to change bad behavior without harming the child or their relationship. And if you think this makes God out to be abusive, I’d say, yes, most people who reject eternal conscious torment do believe it describes an abusive deity, and that is a significant reason for rejecting the doctrine of eternal hell.
Instead, I find that opponents of eternal hell do believe there will be punishment for unconfessed, unrepentant sin. Call it, if you wish to keep the word “hell,” a purgatorial limited-duration hell. But the Bible is also very clear that Jesus made a pathway for us to avoid that punishment when our sins are confessed and repented during life.
Just as any Christian who believes in eternal conscious torment believes that Jesus’ death and resurrection cleared the way for restoration of relationship to God, universal reconciliation (at least as I believe it) also fully admits this fact. But in my case, rather than believing in a nearly magical instantaneous change once one simply believes and confesses, it seems to me that turning to Jesus opens the door to restoring that relationship with God in such a way that entering the presence of God’s holy, fiery furnace of purity will not be painful, because all the sin that would be painfully burning away in God’s presence has been taken out of the way ahead of time.
Furthermore, much of Jesus’ ministry involved restoring people on this side of death, into fully functioning members of His Kingdom. He focused on temporal salvation far more than discussing eternity. As such, Jesus’ death and resurrection are vital to bringing the Kingdom into existence on this earth.
And finally, the Bible seems quite clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished all this permanently, for all mankind, all at once. Evangelical teaching seems to break this down, by making it only effective for those who confess and believe (referred to as “limited atonement,” especially by Calvinists). But this seems to cheapen the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection – by limiting who it applies to. I find, instead, that a universal reconciliation understanding makes it even more potent and amazing – even if many will require purification and redemption through possibly long but definitely not eternal suffering after death.
So Jesus’ sacrifice is still vitally important – just perhaps understood a bit differently, but in my view even more amazing than Calvinist predestined limited atonement.
The third most common response is that universal reconciliation eliminates any need for evangelism.
This too is false, although it springs perhaps from a certain pillar of evangelical understanding with which I no longer fully agree. My understanding of “evangelism” and the “gospel” have quite a different sense than before. Specifically, I don’t believe that the “good news” is a matter of saving them from hell, or sending them to heaven. Instead, it’s critically about restoring their relationship with God here and now. And for those I cannot persuade, it’s to at least model Christ so accurately that even after death they’ll remember my example and reconsider their choice against God.
I certainly wish for as many people as possible to come to a vital, living, restorative relationship with Jesus while they are alive, so that (as noted above) they can contribute to the growth of the Kingdom here on earth.
So I do not any longer think in terms of saving them from hell, because (as should be quite clear above) I don’t believe that the evangelical doctrine of hell is correct. I do, however, believe (also as indicated above in this section) that bringing them into a vital relationship with Jesus will reduce the amount of painful purification they must endure after death. I’d much rather that they met God and decided to follow Jesus while they’re still alive and able to grow and mature here before death.
Rejecting Righteous Judgement
Another common response is that Universal Reconciliation presents a reckless grace that makes God’s righteous judgement unnecessary, because God will eventually affirm and accept everyone, and that this means all the verses in the Bible about justice and righteousness are of no value. This, too, is completely false.
An excellent article on the Journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life discusses this idea at length.
It concludes that in fact universal reconciliation finds God’s justice and holiness to be even more important and emphasized than for the other two doctrines. It says:
“On the contrary, there is good reason to think that apokatastasis, the term of art for universal salvation in Origen of Alexandria and his heirs, entails a concept of judgment just as exacting, just as rigorous, and every bit as righteous as the sort of purely punitive punishment on offer in any version of the doctrine of eternal damnation. To make this case is both to defend the strong claim that all shall be saved and, just as importantly, to chasten those for whom this restoration is already a foregone conclusion. The ancient Christian teaching of the apokatastasis, in other words, is no romantic reverie; it should, quite literally, scare the hell out of you.”
“Consider Origen’s gloss on the “eternal fire” of which Jesus warns in Matthew 25:41. The Alexandrian exegete characteristically connects the mention of “fire” here to another place in scripture where the word also appears – in this case, Isaiah 50:11. “Walk in the light of your fire and in the flame which you have kindled for yourself,” says the prophet. Origen takes the intercanonical injunction as a clue to what kind of punishment Jesus promises. The eternal fire cannot be something that precedes the sinner himself, as if lit by someone else. Rather, it must be that “every sinner kindles for himself the flame of his own fire,” with his own sins providing the tinder.”
“Origen, notice, describes an eschatological judgment fitted to – indeed, furnished by – the specific sins of individual souls. Unlike the indifferent inferno in which the massa damnata supposedly languish, punishment is here figured as a radically personal affair – which is, to my mind, just as terrifying a prospect for those of us who have already stockpiled enough sins to keep a fire burning for many ages to come.”
I think that makes the point pretty well, so I’ll leave it to you to read the rest of that well-reasoned article if you wish.
Tolerating Sin in Others
Another common claim is that universal reconciliation gives us liberty to tolerate any and all sin in others, because we expect they’ll end up in heaven someday anyway.
There is a sense in which this charge is correct – but not at all what the critics believe.
For one thing, this is already covered previously in the sense that we wish no man to suffer punishment for sins, which must surely come to all; the sooner we turn people towards God, the less sins they’ll need to purified in God’s eternal and holy presence.
For another thing, many believers in universal reconciliation have in fact concluded that it is not our job to make others sinless. We introduce them to a loving God who truly desires relationship with them, but we cannot control their choices, and it is not our job to build fences around their behavior in a misguided attempt to prevent them from walking over some imaginary cliff and falling into hell. We deeply trust the work of the Holy Spirit in them, and have taken quite seriously Jesus’ words about dealing with the log in our own eyes before we even think about dealing with whatever splinter we imagine in their eyes. We also have learned quite a bit of humility about our assumptions about what is sinful for them, based on what God has told us personally about us. So yes, we tolerate what we believe is sin in others, but that does not mean that we approve of it or affirm it. We’re simply more humble about how to deal with it.
Similarity Between the Doctrines
So while my doctrinal understanding of hell may differ sharply from the evangelical understanding of eternal conscious torment, I don’t believe my goals as a Christian in relation to those around me and in relation to God are all that different from any good evangelical. We both seek to draw others into relationship with God, we seek to continually repent of what the Holy Spirit identifies in us as sinful; we seek to become more Christlike; we both seek to accurately represent God to the world around us. I just have abandoned any need to control others through a message of fear for their eternal destiny, and I have abandoned any such fear myself.
So where does this all leave me?
Much of my present theology springs from verses like Romans 8:38-39, which says “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Or, “as through one offense the result was condemnation to all mankind, so also through one act of righteousness the result was justification of life to all mankind.” Or, “God is unwilling that any should perish.” Or, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.“
Some in their determination to believe in eternal torture of sinners may choose to add to those verses, saying instead “nothing will be able to separate us BELIEVERS from the love of God.” “Through one act of righteousness the result was justification of life to all mankind WHO BELIEVE IN CHRIST.” “God is unwilling that any should perish, BUT HE LETS THEM PERISH IF THEY DON’T BELIEVE IN JESUS BEFORE THEY DIE.” “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more FOR THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN JESUS.”
One must do SO much violence to Romans 5 to inject so many qualifiers against grace for ALL mankind. Please, go back and read Romans 5 and deliberately avoid adding any qualifiers to the entire chapter, and you’ll see something completely different than if you read it from a mindset that God tortures sinners forever.
As for me, I’m unwilling to play those games any longer, simply to maintain a dogmatic perspective on hell that would condemn the vast majority of humanity to eternal torment and torture, in most cases simply because they were born into a culture with no contact with the Gospel. I no longer believe it’s an appropriate reading of the Bible, or a proper response to the love and justice of God.
I fully realize exactly how hard it is to change one’s perspective on these matters. I lived there for 45 years, and it’s taken me a couple years to begin to break it down and understand it differently, and come to peace with it, and reject my own fear of being tormented forever for refusing to believe in being tormented forever. The doctrine of hell is so deeply foundational to much of the church’s theology today, that it touches nearly everything else in some way. It took me many long sessions of wrestling with the Bible and the Holy Spirit and my inherited traditions. And I don’t think it would have been possible without quite a bit of groundwork that preceded it, where God was addressing quite a few of my very dogmatic, fundamentalist understandings of the Bible. But I’m glad God was patient with me through that process.
If you’re on the fence about this, I’d suggest that you consider taking a very dangerous step, yet one which everyone ought to take if we truly are surrendered to God: give God your explicit “yes” to challenge literally any doctrine you hold that might be at odds with God’s character and nature. In a nutshell, tell God you’re willing to repent of literally anything. Anything. It may be painful at times, and it WILL cost you, but I promise you that God will be gracious and gentle as you are led through whatever change is necessary. And I testify that it’s worth every moment of the challenge. It’s been very hard, and I’ve lost much, but I have gained so much more, and I wouldn’t go back for anything. I hope this has been helpful to you. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this, and I’ll entertain any polite and honest discussion on the matter.