As with so many of my long-held evangelical beliefs, I’ve been carefully thinking about the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment. I grew up understanding it as an absolute certainty, and something that orthodox Christians had believed since Jesus apparently taught the doctrine in the Gospels.
But, I’m not so convinced any more.
As I’ve considered the entirety of scripture, how God presents Himself to mankind through the Bible as a whole, and looked at the specific verses used to define and support the doctrine of hell and punishment, I’ve come to the fairly strong conclusion that what I grew up believing is not supportable.
Thousands of pages have been written on this topic by a great many extremely intelligent and careful authors and theologians, and I don’t think I can add significantly to the existing body of work. I am, however, convinced that a careful survey of all the available writings without insisting on a given starting position will not consistently lead to the traditionalist evangelical view of eternal conscious torment (ECT).
So rather than repeat that work, I instead recommend these excellent articles for a different perspective. The author repeatedly points out in responding to various comments that his intent is not to make a definitive case for a particular doctrine, but instead to make it abundantly clear that a fiery hell intended for ECT is not the only defensible doctrinal position, and more to the point may actually be a very weak position.
The author does a very thorough job of responding to tons of comments challenging his viewpoints. The comments sections are FAR longer than the articles, and full of good challenges but even better responses, so I think it’s worth reviewing them carefully.
Also, some verses that support universalism are here; he points out that there are just as many verses supporting the salvation of every human as support eternal punishment or annihilation.
Having read many comments opposing this “universalism” viewpoint, and plenty of articles both pro and con, I think the gist is that people from the evangelical faith generally want God to eternally punish bad people, and they cannot come to grips with the idea that God is overwhelmingly portrayed by the Bible as a restorative God, not a punitive God.
I won’t dig into the finer points of these arguments here. I encourage you to do your own research with open eyes to what the scriptures actually say – all of them. I will, however, tell you a short story that may catch your attention.
First, let me frame things a bit.
I have decided that the universalism position is most consistent with what I read in the entirety of the Bible, and most consistent with God’s presentation of His persistent and diligent love for man, and His being “unwilling that any should perish.” And above all, I firmly believe that Christ paid the penalty for sin for whoever makes Him their Lord and Savior. But with that said, I also very much do believe that scripture is clear about punishment after death. But even then, Revelations 20 describes even Hell itself being cast into the lake of fire. So what to do with all of that complexity?
God is a god of restoration, not destruction. By far the most consistent picture which the Bible presents to us is God diligently and persistently working to restore man to relationship with Himself, and to restore the relationship between humans. In fact, more than a few theologians assert that the word most commonly translated as “punishment” with regard to the afterlife could better be translated as “correction” in every case. Correction is about restoration, not destruction.
And the Greek word always translated “eternal” or “everlasting” by most modern Bibles (aiṓnios) is really better translated “age to age,” a long period of time but not without end.
As the Strong’s Concordance says,
aiṓnios (an adjective, derived from 165 /aiṓn (“an age, having a particular character and quality”) – properly, “age-like” (“like-an-age”), i.e. an “age-characteristic” (the quality describing a particular age); (figuratively) the unique quality (reality) of God’s life at work in the believer, i.e. as the Lord manifests His self-existent life (as it is in His sinless abode of heaven). “Eternal (166 /aiṓnios) life operates simultaneously outside of time, inside of time, and beyond time – i.e. what gives time its everlasting meaning for the believer through faith, yet is also time-independent. See 165 (aiōn).
[166 (aiṓnios) does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age (165 /aiṓn) it relates to. Thus believers live in “eternal (166 /aiṓnios) life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now as a present possession. (Note the Gk present tense of having eternal life in Jn 3:36, 5:24, 6:47; cf. Ro 6:23.)](from https://biblehub.com/greek/166.htm)
When I put all these facts together, I see a picture of an infinitely just yet eternally patient Heavenly Father.
Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost sinner Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:16 NASB)
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not willing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
The picture, in fact, may be best represented by the father of the prodigal son, looking longingly down the road, anticipating His child coming home, despite that child previously rejecting all that his Father stood for. But failing to live with Christ as our Lord and Savior has consequences. And those who die after a life on Earth having rejected Christ do not deserve to enter directly into the Father’s presence. But, unwilling that any should perish, God submits them to a restorative punishment, and patiently waits.
I think one very important concept that often appears in the Bible is that the punishment and the sin are related in magnitude – “an eye for an eye,” in Old Testament terms.
So here’s the picture that God gave me one day while discussing these concepts with my wife. It was so powerful that I literally broke down in tears as I shared it in that moment, and have choked up each time I share it again.
Many Christians simply LOVE to use Hitler as the proof of the need for hell. After all, under his leadership, six million Jews and five million others were tortured and slaughtered, and about twenty million more died trying to defeat or support his attempt at empire-building in the European Theater.
In some sense, I must agree with that argument: Hitler deserves to pay for his crimes against mankind and God. Assuming he stole on average 50 or 60 years of life from each victim of the Holocaust and the war in Europe, Hitler probably deserves about two billion years of punishment to repay his sin. Two BILLION years. By any human measure, that length of punishment is effectively eternity. Because God is infinitely just.
But equally so, God is eternally patient.
So I imagine God the Eternal Father standing at the gates of His heavenly city, watching down the road for that human He created to love, the very last child not in His presence, the bearer of the Image of God despite his sins. And one day, far, far, far in the future, a bedraggled shell of a sad little man appears on the horizon. It took literally billions of years.
But God is eternally patient.
And Adolf Hitler, after this seeming eternity, finally and irrevocably confronted with a God of justice but also a Father of eternal love and patience, recognized what he had refused while alive on earth: that Christ’s love and sacrifice paid for the sins of ALL mankind. Even him. Especially him.
And he finally surrendered to that love and sacrifice and patience, and started his long walk home.
And God is eternally patient.
Now imagine the joy of the billions of other humans, having lived in the rich glory of God’s eternal presence for that near eternity, watching as, one by one, each of their lost loved ones also finally accepted Christ’s sacrifice and came home.
But one has always been missing.
And on this monumental day, they join in wonder and praise as this one final long-lost sheep appears on the horizon, and God runs to Him and embraces him, this sinner who has finally completely surrendered to Christ, finally having paid for his sin for which he did not accept Christ’s payment. Imagine the roaring, wondrous shout of joy as those billions of humans rejoice together in the ultimate fulfillment of all those verses about the unquenchable, immeasurable, eternal love of God, that Christ’s work was shown to not just be finished, but perfect and totally complete – this time in utter reality, not just in principle.
Because God is eternally patient.