One of the things that has surprised me in the Bell’s hell controversy is the assumption behind much of the criticism that the denial of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment amounts to an endorsement of universalism—or at least as a “preliminary step” in that direction as it was put to me by Steve Hays on the Triabloggers site. Practically speaking, Steve has a point—consider, for example, this personal testimony from The Beautiful Heresy:
In my mid-40s I discovered Universalism about mid-2004 and immediately began reading all I could about it. I was raised as a Pentecostal Fundamentalist and could never quite grasp why G-d was so angry with me and the rest of the world that He wanted to condemn us to Eternal Torment. G-d seemed weak, angry and schizophrenic to me. This journey is about my discovery of G-d’s universal and inescapable love.
But universalism is not at all an inevitable corollary of the argument, on the one hand, that the supposed “hell” texts in the New Testament mostly have reference to historical events, and on the other, that the final destiny of those whose names are not written in the book of life is simply destruction, death (Rev. 20:15). In fact, it seems to me that the historicizing hermeneutic that locates the wrath of God in history—judgment on rebellious Israel, judgment on an aggressive, idolatrous and over-bearing paganism—also weighs heavily against the universalist position.
I can only offer a very limited response to the universalist argument here, prompted by a question about my statement that universalism “like much traditional evangelical thought, it is premised on the priority given to soteriology”. I will not look at the various texts usually put forward as evidence for universalism. I will simply outline some general lines of thought.
It may help, in the first place, to establish a distinction between two ways of defining Christianity.
1. The traditional understanding has been that Christianity is essentially a general religion of salvation, which makes the primary task of the church the salvation of the lost, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that as many people as possible escape the punishment (or perhaps annihilation) of “hell” and gain eternal life with God in heaven. In this construction personal salvation precedes the corporate existence of the church—and very often we find that neither ecclesiology nor missiology develops beyond a simple multiplication of this primary function.
2. The alternative approach regards “Christianity” (the quotation marks indicate reservations about the validity of the term) as an intrinsic continuation of the calling of Abraham, against a background of persistent and escalating human rebellion, to be the progenitor of a people marked out by a more or less exclusive covenant commitment. My argument in Re: Mission is that the people of God was from the outset determined as “new creation”: Abraham is promised the original blessing of creation, he is told that he will be made fruitful, that he will multiply, and that his descendants will fill the microcosm of the land of Canaan. The Christ-event lay at the heart of a massive convulsion in the historical existence of this “new creation” people, but the basic “missional” purpose remained intact: to bear concrete, embodied and prophetic witness amidst the nations and cultures of the world to the redemptive presence of the creator and to the final hope of renewal. In this construction things are the other way round: the corporate and political existence of the church precedes the “salvation” and incorporation of individuals.
Under the first option there can be a reasonable debate about whether all humanity or only part of humanity will be saved. That is what I meant by the statement that universalism is “premised on the priority given to soteriology”.
Under the second option this debate makes less sense. The people of God is by definition a limited set. It is a people called out of the world—chosen, elected, set apart, transformed, sanctified—let us say, for the sake of the Mission Dei. When that people gets into trouble, it needs to be saved—from Egypt, from Babylon, from Antiochus Epiphanes, and critically from the condemnation of the Law that finally brought the wrath of God upon it in the form of the war against Rome. The manner of that final salvation opened up the door to Gentiles (Eph. 2:11-22), but it did not thereby transform the renewal movement into a general religion of salvation.
Most of the “salvation” or restoration texts in the New Testament, I would suggest, have to do with this deliverance of the historical community of Israel from destruction or obsolescence. Within the covenantal and narrative-historical framework the question naturally arises whether all or only part of Israel will be saved. So Jesus is asked as he makes his fateful journey towards Jerusalem, “Lord, are those being saved few?” His answer suggests that he thought it unlikely that many would find the narrow path leading to life (Lk. 13:22-24; Matt. 7:13-14). It seems to me that Paul was equally pessimistic about the fate of his “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3), though his quotation of Isaiah 59:20 in Romans 11:26 suggests that he held to the hope that following judgment—following the “punishment” of the war—all Israel would repent and be saved.1 It didn’t happen, and both Jesus and Paul were proved right.
There is also in scripture the prospect of a final restoration of all things—leadme.org (what a name to give your son!) points this out and draws the conclusion that this “involves the reconciliation of each human soul”. But I wonder whether that conclusion can be defended exegetically. Colossians 1:19-20 is the obvious text to consider here:
because in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things to him, making peace through the blood of his cross, through him whether things on earth or things in the heavens.
The idea of cosmic reconciliation achieved through the cross is not easily accommodated into Paul’s thought, though Romans 8:19-21 certainly has a bearing on the matter.2 But the point to note is that this reconciliation is framed precisely in cosmic rather than human terms.
In Ephesians 2:11-22 it is Jews and Gentiles who specifically are reconciled and find peace through the cross. In Colossians 1:15-20 it appears to be the larger structures of the cosmos that are reconciled: “whether thrones or dominions or sovereignties or authorities” (1:16). This is in some sense an extension or expansion of the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the renewed people of God, but neither here nor in Romans 8:19-21 do we clearly have the thought that the restoration of the cosmos includes the “salvation” of all people.
In John’s symbolic vision of the new heavens and new earth it appears that the unrighteous, those whose names are not written in the book of life, “the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars”, are explicitly excluded from the restored cosmos. This may raise numerous other questions about the “ethics” of final judgment, but it is difficult to reconcile with the “beautiful heresy” of universalism.