A new perspective on universalism and hell

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.

Richard | Wed, 03/16/2011 - 13:08 | Permalink

Could the gates of the New Jerusalem always being open serve a dual purpose of demonstrating that the city is secure and that if those defilers, etc (which we all once were) would choose to be washed, they could enter in, afterall the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations which seems to suggest an ongoing work? 

This is an important distinction between streams of universalism, one allows for judgment and separation but doesn't necessitate permanency of that judgment/wrath and the other forces all in.  Afterall, if God's historic acts of judgment were to lead his people back to him (both Israel and the nations), why would his MO change in the new creation?

I think the former is compatible with historic Christianity and the latter is more of a "all dogs go to heaven" cultural distortion.

Interesting. I have to say, I’m not sure of the significance of the relation between the new Jerusalem and the nations, which walk by its light, and the kings of the earth who bring their glory into it. The absence of threat may be part of it. There is clearly some sort of “traffic” through the gates, basically in the form of glory and honour brought by the nations. But again at this point, those whose names are not written in the Lamb’s book of life are explicitly excluded (Rev. 21:24-27). I rather think that part of what is being said here is that the theme of the vindication of the people of God is structurally carried over into this final state of renewal. There is nothing to suggest that those who have been excluded ever repent and are rehabilitated after the final judgment. That seems to me to be reading too much into the text.


Thanks for the post.

Although questions about the final fate of humanity may command more attention from contemporary evangelicals than the New Testament itself, the questions about the fate of humanity still strike me as hugely important. Even after learning to be more historically aware and not read heaven and hell into every passage of Scripture, the question inevitably arises, “What is the final fate of humanity?” Even if the birth narratives are not primarily concerned with a universal message of good news to humanity in general, the question still arises, “Does the Christian message actually offer good news to humanity, or is it more conducive to news of the destruction and exclusion of its most of its members?” Ought the Christian to adopt a hopeful optimism about the fate of all of humanity in light of the sovereign grace and love of God? Or should the Christian remain at arm’s length from such a hope, taking more seriously the possibility that a significant number of our brothers and sisters will finally be consigned to exclusion and annihilation from which there is no hope of redemption?

My own sense from reading Romans is that Paul did not really know what to think about Israel’s redemption. I get the impression, however, that he thought that the eschatological punishment was itself at the service of God’s redemptive purposes. “And so all Israel will be saved...For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (Ro 11:26, 32). If God’s punishment is ultimately always at the service of his redemptive purposes, then I think that should strongly incline us toward universalism and against its serious rivals.

Concerning the new heavens and the new earth, I don’t have very much to say. But something quite strange has been pointed out to me before about Revelation 22. In that chapter, the “nations” and the “kings of the earth” are in the new city. Throughout the book of Revelation, however, the “nations” and the “kings of the earth” have been depicted as those who have warred against God, been destroyed by the sword of Christ’s mouth, have worshipped the beast, etc. They have been, throughout the book of Revelation, the proper objects of God’s furious wrath. And yet, when we arrive at Revelation 21, we find them in the city of God being healed by the river of life. Now clearly the author does not think that anything impure will enter the city. Perhaps the nations and the kings of the earth have been redeemed by God, have had their impurities washed away, and have at least entered the city of God.

I’m not completely persuaded by that interpretation, but I’m not yet persuaded that there’s nothing to it either.



Thanks for the clarification, Andrew, and I consider your interaction here to be an honor!

I certainly understand the exegetical hangups with universalism, and at times I lean more toward annihilationism than universalism.  But I think Richard has made a great point above, that God's historic acts of judgment are not, finally, about exclusion but rather about calling his people to repentance.  Does he at some point finally give up?  Universalism, it seems to me, doesn't exclude the notions of judgment and refinement, it simply reframes them as being in service to the eventual restoration of all things.

It seems a stretch to me to hold that the restoration of the cosmos does not involve the restoration of all people.  Are humans somehow fundamentally "other" from the rest of creation?  Of course, we have the ability to choose evil and separation, but can we maintain that choice indefinitely, throughout the ages?  If so, annihilationism makes sense to me.  But it seems more plausible to me that no one could withstand God's wooing and refining forever.

Also, as JW has pointed out, the idea that few will be, in the end, saved--that is, included in the restoration of the cosmos--strikes me as very odd.  Was there something so deficient in God's creation of humanity that so few humans should be reconcilable?


But I think Richard has made a great point above, that God’s historic acts of judgment are not, finally, about exclusion but rather about calling his people to repentance.

Yes, but in the process, to put it crudely, part of the people is excluded or destroyed. It seems to me that these arguments work at the national or corporate level but not necessarily at the individual level. The restoration of Israel historically obviously does not include the restoration of those who were judged unrighteous. Surely Isaiah 66:24 implies that those who rebelled against YHWH are simply and permanently dead?

It seems a stretch to me to hold that the restoration of the cosmos does not involve the restoration of all people.

That would depend on how we understand the final renewal. Is it a restoration of what was? Or is it a complete remaking of heavens and earth? This is getting a little speculative, but Revelation 20-21 rather suggests the latter. In any case, humanity rebels against the creator; the cosmos doesn’t—it is the victim of human rebellion.

But it seems more plausible to me that no one could withstand God’s wooing and refining forever.

But is there any reason to think that this is a biblical point of view?

Again, Andrew, thanks for the interaction!  And you'll have to forgive me if this strand of discussion is wearing a bit thin by this point, but I'm not arguing just for the sake of argument.  I genuinely respect your opinions and insights and am still trying to sort through my own thoughts on the matter.

I heartily agree with you that one of the overarching biblical themes is that of the people of God, which throughout the old and new testaments looks to be a limited subset of humanity.  But is that the biblical ideal?  1 Cor. 15:20-23 says "all will be made alive" "but each in turn."  Couldn't it be that the function of the people of God is not simply to exist in its own right but to grow in an ever-widening circle that eventually encompasses all of humanity?  Galatians 3:28 arguably implies something like this.  One closely related issue that hasn't been discussed yet:  Do you see any merit to the notion of postmortem evangelism/sanctification?

I realize that I'm still heavily influenced by the reformation mindset and that I don't yet have a very solid handle on the new perspective.  So it could well be that my concerns here are somewhat beside the point.  And again, I do see and appreciate some of the specific exegetical hangups with universalism. 

But there's an even deeper issue I'm struggling with, related to the OT conquest narratives, which appear to situate the people of God as an instrument by which to forcibly take back creation and eradicate rebellion.  I just can't wrap my head around the notion that God would command his people to engage in the wholesale slaughter of entire peoples--men, women, children, even animals.  Frankly, I'm horrified by such a thought.  But it's not just an intuitive, emotional objection.  I believe that a very strong ethical case (not to mention a Christocentric case) can be made against the notion that God would command humans to carry out such acts.  Of course, who am I to speak for God, but I find it much more likely that my concept of biblical inspiration needs some rethinking than that the conquest narratives actually are an accurate depiction--if, perhaps, an incomplete or superceded one--of the function of the people of God.

And at this point, our discussion is at risk of getting quite a bit more complicated, perhaps even too complicated for this discussion thread.

Good thoughts. Thanks for pursuing the conversation.

I don’t really see how the whole of humanity is embraced in 1 Corinthians 15:22-23. It is those “in Christ” or those “of Christ”—and quite possibly those who have died specifically because of their testimony to Christ—who are raised at his coming. My view is that what is in view here is not a final state of affairs but the vindication of the suffering church (see The Coming of the Son of Man). A similar situation is addressed in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17. But even if that argument is rejected, there is still the very close association of the resurrected dead with Christ.

Galatians 3:28 that diverse people groups have been reconciled in Christ, but where is the thought of an “ever-widening circle”? The whole argument about becoming Abraham’s offspring (3:29) sounds rather exclusive to me. This would be an odd way to assert the hope or expectation that all humanity will eventually be included in this people.

And frankly, it just seems very unlikely.

Postmortem evangelism? Where does that idea come from? What motivates it? How is it not just a matter of clutching at straws? It may not be quite “beside the point”, but I do struggle to see how that would naturally fit into a New Perspective reading of the New Testament.

As for the conquest narratives—yes, massive problem; yes, off topic. As far as an intrinsic biblical theology goes, there are two things to take account of: 1) the fact that YHWH frequently uses one nation to judge another and generally that involves war, destruction and loss of life; 2) the reclaiming of a portion of a corrupt creation is quite appropriately (as far as the biblical narrative goes) presented both as a judgment on a wicked humanity (cf. the flood) and as the recovery of a good and prosperous world in microcosm. I wrote a rather controversial post a while back on the subject of the “Canaanite ‘genocide’ and the renewal of creation”. You’re welcome to add something there. The original debate that it sparked can be found here. Whether this “justifies” YHWH is another matter.

Re: postmortem evangelism, is it an idea that clearly surfaces in the NT writings?  No.  Although it arguably can be inferred (and even perhaps supported, in the form of a handful of admittedly ambiguous references), and I don't see it as being ruled out by the NT.  Is it correct to say that one could make a stronger church history case for it?  Or have I misunderstood the concept of purgatory as it was originally conceived (that is, long before the perversions of Tetzel et al. had disfigured the concept)?  Is the entire topic mere speculation?  Perhaps.

And your "Canaanite 'genocide'" post is actually how I found you in the first place.  I suppose I'd lean toward C.S. Cowles' view.

In any event, thanks again for the discussion, and I'll keep wrestling with all of this...

Brian MacArevey | Thu, 03/17/2011 - 13:37 | Permalink


I really enjoyed this post, and the conversation that has ensued. When you said, in the comment above, "It seems to me that these arguments work at the national or corporate level but not necessarily at the individual level," I find myself agreeing with you to a large extent. That said, I think that the overwhelming emphasis of the scriptures is on that corporate level, and thus (if I am correct to say that), this leaves a lot of room for discussion w/ regard to what actually does happen on an individual level.

In light of the corporate inter-relatedness of sin (Genesis 3, Romans 1) God's partiality towards a specific group of people that ultimately serves an impartial and inclusive purpose for humanity and the cosmos (which includes the hardening of some as a means of mercy to others), the nature of the ministry of Jesus, concluding in crucifixion and ressurection, which ensures the continuance of the people of God through whom God is working to bring about his universal reconciliatory purposes (for the cosmos), the love of God and forgiveness of God for all men (even in spite of His hatred of sinners who destroy His creation), the power of God to be able to ensure that His purpose will stand, I think that it is right to say that, from a corporate perspective, universalism is a very plausible position (though not a necessary conclusion).

I also think that mercy and love, as well as an imartial attitude towards humanity, are what makes the God of Israel different from the gods of the nations. Also, from a pastoral perspective, I think that it is important to know who God is, and that he is for them, and that he will depart them, and that the way thathe says to live is good for the world, and good for them as individuals. It seems like the people of God are called to suffer on behalf of the world to show who God is and how he feels about them, as well as what His purpose is for the world, so that the world does not destroy itself. Mercy appears to lead men to repentance, not fear and terror.We want to preach the inevitablity of judgment, but also the inevitablity that God will accomplish his purpose, and that no man falls beyond the bounds of God's love and mercy.

I am interested to hear what you have to say to my somewhat random thoughts. :) Thanks again bro.


I think that the overwhelming emphasis of the scriptures is on that corporate level, and thus (if I am correct to say that), this leaves a lot of room for discussion w/ regard to what actually does happen on an individual level.

This may be true, but we have to be careful not to draw too sharp a distinction between the corporate level and the individual level. Nations and communities are made up of individuals; and individuals, even in our own society, find identity and purpose within the frame of corporate narratives.

…I think that it is right to say that, from a corporate perspective, universalism is a very plausible position (though not a necessary conclusion).

I can see the force of the argument, but two things still count against it in my mind. First, the exclusion and destruction of the wicked seem to me to be fundamentally permanent states of affairs throughout scripture (viz. Is. 66:24 as I mentioned above). Secondly, the way the theme of resurrection emerges in scripture suggests to me that it is conceived essentially as a reward for those who give up something—above all, their lives—out of loyalty to the creator God. I appreciate the fact that in much of this we are pushing the limits of what the New Testament addresses explicitly and unequivocally and that it is hard to be dogmatic, but it still seems to me that universalism, like modern evangelicalism, is driven by an impulse that rather goes against the grain of New Testament thought.

It seems like the people of God are called to suffer on behalf of the world to show who God is and how he feels about them, as well as what His purpose is for the world, so that the world does not destroy itself. Mercy appears to lead men to repentance, not fear and terror. We want to preach the inevitablity of judgment, but also the inevitablity that God will accomplish his purpose, and that no man falls beyond the bounds of God’s love and mercy.

That first statement is a very good one. But I’m not convinced that “the inevitability that God will accomplish his purpose” is an inevitable corollary. It seems to me much more in keeping with the realism of scripture to accept that humanity persistently rejects the notion of a creator who calls people into relationship with himself. It is wishful thinking to suppose that somehow this trend will ultimately be bucked.

Jim Hoag | Mon, 03/21/2011 - 02:50 | Permalink

A question that is emerging for me and the talk on some posts I've been reading is the "supposed" early church consensus on eternal suffering for the unbelievers in hell. What I'm wondering is if a) this is accurate, and b) if so, is there some discernible gap in early church reasoning that might have caused them to miss some of this - that is, to not be "early" enough in their thinking; not nuanced/sophisticated enough in their understanding about eternal punishment, “hell”, etc.

Jim, I don’t really know the answer to this question. I tend to assume that the transition to Hellenistic Christianity introduced a significant disjunction into the development of the early church’s theology.

Having said that, it is not at all clear that the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, for example, support the traditional understanding of hell. I don’t have time to develop the argument here. There is certainly the expectation of an impending judgment that will mean the deliverance and vindication the righteous and the punishment of the unrighteous according to what they have done, but it is envisaged in very public and concrete terms.

Consider, for example:

All the generations from Adam to this day have passed away, but those who by God’s grace were perfected in love have a place among the godly, who will be revealed when the kingdom of Christ visits us. For it is written: “Enter into the innermost rooms for a very little while, until my anger and wrath shall pass away, and I will remember a good day and will raise you from your graves.” (2 Clem. 50:3-4)

The quotations from Isaiah 26:20 and Ezekiel 37:12 tell the story of the people of God living through the judgment of the nations and being “raised” to life again subsequently. The coming of the kingdom of Christ is a historical event that will see the vindication of those who are currently suffering. It may not be too difficult to re-read the Apostolic Fathers in the light of that sort of eschatological narrative.

Jim Hoag | Mon, 03/21/2011 - 18:12 | Permalink

Thanks Andrew that helped. I guess my question was more along the lines of did the early church believe in eternal conscious torment after death (which many Reformed bloggers are posting on and giving a hearty "yes" to) or did they avoid reading the NT and other writings a-historically?