Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

Why Some Christians Are Universalists (Letting Go of Hell Series)

Continuing the discussion on hell we started yesterday, I was asked to show the third option that exists beyond eternal conscious torment (the traditional hell), and annihilation. The third option that exists, of course, is universalism.

Yes, there are Christian Universalists– and they’re not a new thing. Christian Universalists existed among the early church, contributed to Christian thought well throughout the rest of history, and seem (by my unscientific observation) to be a growing number today.

I think this is an important position to discuss because of how quickly it is dismissed– often because of the word “universalism” and some of the connotations that has. When weighing this position, it’s important to note that Christian Universalism and Unitarian Universalism or simply a vanilla use of the term “universalism” are not the same thing. When we traditionally hear the word, we often associate it with the premise that “all flights lead to Rome”, or “all trails lead to the top of the mountain”.

Admittedly, I have a hard time with the type of universalism most think of when they hear the term. The idea that “all paths lead to the same God” is just completely illogical in my opinion, especially when you consider that the various paths themselves don’t even make that claim. Essentially, this type of universalism violates the principle that states two opposing truths cannot be true at the same time. Christian universalism however, is quite different which is why I prefer to refer to by the theological term, “universal redemption theory” so as to not confuse it with the other type of universalism.

The Christian form of this belief, instead of saying everyone is saved is better understood as the belief that everyone will be saved, eventually– not because all flights lead to Rome but because all will eventually turn to Christ. This view often maintains a belief in hell, but with the belief that hell is for the purpose of refining instead of eternal punishment– almost more of a Catholic purgatory than a Southern Baptist hell. Some do not maintain a concept of hell but rather see the “fire” as being metaphorical for God’s love which will purify everything.

For example, where as an annihilationist would argue that the purpose of the fire is to consume, universal redemption theory would argue that the purpose of fire is to refine. Though one would be separated from God, this view holds that God continues to invite repentance postmortem, and that eventually, all will willingly repent and come to Christ (“every knee shall bow” is seen not as a forced recognition of Christ, but of universal reconciliation with Christ). This question was perhaps most famously discussed in recent times in Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, but even folks like CS Lewis held similar positions/asked similar questions, such as Lewis’ concept that hell is locked from the inside.

One of the hinges of this debate is on the Greek term aion, which is often translated into English as “eternal”. Some scholars have made compelling linguistic arguments that aion need not only/always be used in the same way as we use “eternal” in that it can  also be properly translated as “age” or “age-long”– a period of time that has a completion. This alternative or deeper understanding of the word supports their belief that hell may not be a permanent state, and that people can still be redeemed postmortem.

Those who believe in a universal redemptive theory do have some scripture which they feel directly supports their view. As you look at some of these familiar passages (emphasis in each is mine) consider the passage from the position of universal redemption theory and you’ll see why they find many of these passages to be compelling support:

John 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted upfrom the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Romans 5:18: “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.”

Col 1:19-20  “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

There are some others used as proof texts, but the few examples I’ve given are just to demonstrate where this concept of universal redemption comes from– it is possible to see these verses and come to such a conclusion, which is why people who believe this are still orthodox Christians. Universal redemption theory still affirms all the key things that make one Christian– the only key difference is that the fires of hell (whether literal or metaphorical) are seen as having refining and redeeming qualities, instead of being designed simply as punishment (eternal conscious torment/ECT) or to consume (annihilation). What keeps this view within Christian orthodoxy is that it affirms that salvation is only through Christ and that there are in fact, consequences after death for the unjust. Again, the area of difference is a differing opinion on the purpose of it, and what that looks like– the purpose of the fire is redemptive in nature, leading to repentance and reconciliation with God through Christ.

Here’s my take on all of it:

While I don’t believe in universal redemption, I actively hope and pray that it is true.

If I am wrong, and every human being is ultimately redeemed by God and spends eternity in harmony with him, it will cause me to love him more not less.

The fact that I don’t believe it reflects my view of humanity, not God.

As my friend Ryan astutely put it, my reason for disbelieving is not because I believe God is unwilling or unable to save all, but because I don’t believe that every person will ultimately choose him. Even Rob Bell affirms this in Love Wins, so I essentially share his sentiments on this. I just don’t believe everyone will choose God– some, I believe, will resist him until they no longer exist. Scripture repeatedly talks about some who will experience a “second death”, and I simply cannot reconcile this with the idea that hell is 100% empty.

The concept of there being an opportunity for postmortem reconciliation makes sense with what we know about God’s character.

If we know that God is altogether good and wonderful, if we know that he is the complete expression of love… then it’s not a big jump to the concept that there will be an opportunity to be reconciled even after death. The difficulty with this, is that it cannot be explicitly proven using scripture– we’re certainly crossing over into the category of “opinion” (as is most of the discussion on afterlife in general, since scripture only lightly touches on this). However, I must also admit, that I know of nothing in scripture that explicitly prohibits it, either. What about people who never heard about Jesus? People who never had the opportunity to “see God for who he REALLY is?” What about the people who rejected Christianity because of horrible Christians (such as slaves owned by Christians, children of fundamentalists, etc.)? In these cases, the opportunity for postmortem reconciliation is the ONLY option that seems to account for God’s love and mercy. It’s certainly how I would do things… which begs the question: am I more merciful and loving than God? Surely, no. Which means, God is either RIDICULOUSLY generous with who gets in to begin with, or there is an opportunity to reconcile prior to the second death.

I really appreciate the take of my good friend, Kurt Willems, in a series he wrote on hell:

“If I were to give language for my view, until I come up with something better, I call this “purgatorial conditionalism.”  This reflects that Judgment Day will be a time for all to enter the metaphorical fires of God’s love, that will burn up the bad and refine what is good.  For those who have not received the gift of immortality, there might be an opportunity to endure God’s loving wrath unto reconciliation with Christ.  For those who yet refuse, they will experience the second death.  This is because immortality is conditional upon reconciliation with God through Christ.  An eternal hell is a Greek construct but the possibility of not receiving salvation remains.”

Reality: something that might shock both fundamentalists and progressives alike.

I’ve done a lot of processing in the last day, so here’s where I (currently) land:

I think everyone might end up shocked. I think Evangelicals will be shocked that things don’t turn out as neat and clean as they thought, and that there will be a lot of people in heaven who they didn’t think would get there. Conversely, I think progressives will be shocked that there actually was some criteria we needed to heed to avoid judgement for our sin. If there is no coming judgement, then half of the New Testament doesn’t make sense– and the imperatives don’t make sense either: change the way you live (repent), believe (faith), make disciples, care for widows and orphans, etc. If there’s no judgement, no potentially negative consequences for rejecting God, then the teachings of Christ and the early church really become quite irrelevant.

Neither side has a compelling narrative that strikes me as altogether true. The conservatives close the door to God’s creative grace and mercy while the liberal side seems to overlook the seriousness of sin and the sense of urgency we see in scripture to believe and be reconciled with God through Christ.

How will things play out? I think the most likely scenario is a middle ground between annihilation and universal redemption as my friend Kurt described above. I think the opportunity for postmortem reconciliation is a likely, but not guaranteed scenario, but those who continually resist reconciliation with God through Christ will most likely cease to exist at some point (the “second death” that seems clear in scripture) as a result of their own choices.

So, here’s a summary of Universal Redemption (Christian Universalism): all are either saved by Christ or will be saved by Christ. The fire described in scripture is either descriptive of a finite time at the end of which people will choose reconciliation with God through Christ, or the fires are metaphoric of God’s love which will refine and lead one to finally see God as he truly is– thereby prompting the choice of reconciliation with God.

It is an interesting concept, and many parts make sense to me, but my concern is that there are clear imperatives in the New Testament that cannot be ignored without writing off a ton of scripture– including the words of Jesus himself– and I think this would be a critical error. So, universal redemption/postmortem reconciliation? Maybe. But in the meantime, we must not ignore that scripture prompts us to be reconciled with God in the here and now, and that one shouldn’t wait for the risky notion that there might be a second chance.


Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

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116 Responses

  1. There is no Hell as we know it. Sheol/Hades/Tatarus all mean grave and in the Bible even David said God would be with Him in the grave. Gehenna, used by Jesus, refers to a valley outside of Jerusalem where they would burn stuff all the time, hence why Jesus talked about Gehenna (“Hell”) burning.

  2. It seems to me that the debate misses a vital point. The Gospel is not just about personal salvation. It is not a “get out of hell” free card for those who claim to believe. Lord Jesus said that the gospel is of the Kingdom God. Only those who are born again can even see the Kingdom of God. All people are born dead in trespass and sin. I imagine that most would agree with that. How many people would invite a dead person to their home? Not me, for sure. So those who die apart from Christ will face God as spiritually dead people. There is a second death for those who reject Christ in this life. I’d be surprised if “hell” is anything like the traditional idea (which came from Dante’s “Inferno”, not from the bible). However, living with eternal regret at making the worst possible decision ever, would be tough. People are not entirely evil. The Tree of Knowledge was of both good and evil. I realise that our very best behaviour is still filthy rags to God. Good works wont get us into heaven. But perhaps there is an existence that is much like we have here on earth, except that the evil part of man’s nature is destroyed. The Lake of Fire was for the entirely evil devil and his angels, not for man. If man is annihilated, there is little incentive for anyone to be saved.

  3. There is a scripture that says Jesus is the second Adam. If by Adam all humanity is cursed and Jesus is the second Adam, it would seem that through Christ all are redeemed. However, that’s not what Jesus taught. Consider the parable of Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham vs the rich man who was begging for something to quench his thirst and they were separated by a chasm. The other issue, is the issue of time and the translation of the word eon or age. These concepts might change the interpretation of eternal punishment.

  4. Universalism is stronger logically than it is biblically (however, it’s still the strongest of all biblical positions to take IMO).

    You see, when God sits in final judgment over all that He made, how can He, in making said judgment, not judge in so doing the final result of His own creation, the work of His Own Hands?

    I believe the judgment was rendered long ago, and it was this: “very good”. We know that the Great Day of God’s Rest has not yet happened, for Jesus said the Father has been working every day from creation until now. Thus can the words said just before: “very good” also yet be future.

    I know that a sure guide to God is that He is beyond the greatest, most beautiful, most good, most right, most wondrous of all concepts. So if I can envision two supposed versions of Him, and one is more perfect, more good, more right, and more successful at His intentions, then that one is closer to the truer concept of Him. If this were not so then reasoning about Him at all is futile and this discussion is vanity.

    Those who fear they’d become lazy if they believed in universalism are still stuck in fear. Universalism is the theology you develop when Love has cast the last drops of fear out of you. When agape burns in your heart more fiercely than any youthful lust ever did then you find you’ve become universalist.

  5. This article is a hack job on Bible truth. Mr. Corey is cherry picking verses here and there, to support his false premise. Romans 5:18 works only if you ignore Romans 5:17. Colossians 1:19-20 works only if you ignore the previous 18 verses.

    The real fly in the ointment of universal redemption is this: Why did Jesus die, if everyone is going to come around, anyway? It seems to me to be a waste of a perfectly good life. Either God is not telling us the truth about the existence of an eternal hell, or Benjamin Corey isn’t. My money is on Mr. Corey. Better get right, folks, eternity is a LONG time!

    t F. B. Meyer once said in a meeting shortly before his earthly departure. Here is a section of it: “This is an amazing fact that never has there been so much spiritualism outside the church of Christ as is found today . . . Is it not factual that in the lower part of our human nature the stimulation of the soul is quite prevailing? Nowadays the atmosphere is so charged with the commotion of all kinds of counterfeit that the Lord seems to be calling the church to come to a higher ground.”* Today’s situation is perilous. May we “prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess. 5.21). Amen.

  7. That’s kind of where I am at, with the author of this article. Just a little broader than the typical notion. Do, I know? No. Do I hope imperfect people like myself whom I have loved are not viewed by God with the kind of strict interpretations some have advanced for these centuries. You better believe I do.

    Do I believe God has a little better judgement than we do? You bet.

    Do I believe certain phrases in the bible, true though they may be, are not like magical incantations that if not uttered absolutely correctly makes you sol. I do.

    What the typical fundamentalist does not understand is that these worries are not to excuse himself the person with universalist tendencies to cavort, it is out of worry for their loved ones who the Good Lord has seen fit not to give us certain knowledge of in the afterlife. I have faith, I have what I believe, but I am a mortal with a mortal’s uncertainty just like some of the apostles.

    We don’t know. We don’t get to know until it is over. But not allowing people with these fears to have some form of hope creates stumbling blocks. What’s in the back of the mind? May as well say it, God knows it even if unspoken. If my loved ones aren’t in heaven…. But I believe they are saved.

    I guess some people in America just don’t have the kind of enduring family ties to understand this any more.

    I am going to go further and say Protestants, which I guess I am, have lost a lot with their resistance to prayers for the dead. I love the Orthodox, Catholic, and even Jewish beautiful, hopeful prayers for loved ones. I say them every day, many times a day even. And I mean them. It gives me hope, it makes me feel connected, and proactive. It preserves my memory spiritually.

    It gets me through the long, lonely nights when everyone is supposed to be home safe and nagging each other. When it is so damn quiet you want to scream.

    Do they do my loved ones any specific good? How do I know? I hope so. I know they have helped me far more than any stranger’s glib, “sorry for your loss.”

    I have more faith in God’s sense of justice and forgiveness than I do in man’s. Because man is more interested in cliques and obfuscation and vindictiveness. I know this because I am a man. Unlike many men, though, I know it.

    1. I too agree with the a lot of what the author is saying. Be careful with your last bit of the comment though. It seems kind of prideful.

      God bless.

  8. Your issues with Universalism seem linked to the view that the soul and body are not seperate. The second death, for example, could reference a stripping away of flesh and the earthly stuff we cling to post mortem. Like the chiropractor mentions in the middle of the movie Jacob’s Ladder where the demon things chasing the protagonost around only seem like demons to him because he won’t let go of his life and their seeming malice is only a matter of his perception (granted, the movie leaves the truth of it up to the viewer).

  9. I am pretty sure the 3 scriptural references given are a prime example of taking scriptural interpretation out of context. Universalism is OUTSIDE the pail of Orthodoxy for sure. It makes God out to be a liar. Jesus talked more about Hell than anything else.

    1. Some might call Him a liar for calling Himself a Good Shepard and a Father when He loses almost all of the sheep and damns most of His children to eternal torment.

  10. Ben, thank you for a very interesting article. I was raised fundamental apostolic pentecostal, my parents both actively involved in national leadership. I know the journey and it hasn’t been easy. I will briefly share with you my understanding given to me by the Holy Spirit. While I don’t claim to have all the answers, I have found safety in God’s love. I realize there are many mysteries of which we will never understand.

    Obviously, God is love. To know how God behaves, one would need to understand how love behaves.

    Firstly, love always does what’s best for the beloved. This is why God cannot sin, because he is always working toward our good. A loving parent would never destroy, annihilate or excommunicate their child because of “bad” behavior. When love disciplines, it always works toward the good and maturity of the beloved. It always has a future goal in mind. Love never takes delight in the punishment of the beloved, if discipline is rendered, it is always to facilitate growth and maturity. It seeks transformation and reconciliation. Love never divorces. “I will never leave you nor forsake you”.

    Secondly, Love’s justice and man’s justice is not the same. Man’s justice is an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, you steal my dog, I’ll take your cat. Man’s justice is punishment for the crime. However, love’s justice is reconciliation and restoration. God destroys his enemies by making them his friends. This is why forgiveness is the essence of love’s power, one cannot be reconciled without it. When love judges, it doesn’t annihilate, it transforms.

    God’s justice is displayed in the rulership of King Solomon. When the two prostitutes fought over the infant, Solomon waited to hear from love. Love never steals; (it never takes what doesn’t belong to it). Love says “I want what’s best for you, even if it doesn’t include me”. Love always sets free. So was the voice of love spoken from the mother of love. “Spare the child, even if I cannot have it.” God’s justice always restores us back to where we belong. It takes what’s wrong and transforms it into a right. Not all things work toward our good, only those who walk in love and serve the purpose of love find such delight. 1 Kings 3:28 When
    all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had handed down, they
    feared the king, for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him to
    administer justice.

    This was the dilemma Jonah faced when confronted with God’s justice. How is it possible to be merciful to the unmerciful? He could not comprehend love’s justice. How could God actually seek to forgive his enemy? He became angered by love, insomuch that he sought death before love. So it was in the life of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, Love judged him and transformed him.

    Do I believe in a place of suffering? Yes, absolutely. Call it what one may; Hell, Sheol, Grave, Darkness, Sickness, Affliction, Hardships, etc. whatever. Suffering is love’s discipline, and will be experienced either in this life or the life to come as needed, to remove the offense of sin and purify our hearts to love.
    …for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.”

  11. Unlike other denominations whose questioning ended once they staked a static position, Unitarian Universalism has gone way past this debate. When Unitarians questioned the Trinity, they could have stopped there but didn’t. When Universalists questioned Hell, they could have stopped there but didn’t. The questioning continued in both churches, leading to their union. Questioning is the only constant for us UU’s.

  12. The really tough part about religion,e.g., worshiping the God of the Jews or Adam and Eve, is that Christians will tell you that you cannot know God without accepting Jesus. For those who believe the second death, it is rather that according to the NT Gospel that Christians get judgment first, and others wait a time but are then brought before God along with Jesus and judged and accepted into the fold. Those who refused or continue to refuse God die the second death which is by all appearances just going into hell which is literally the garbage pit along with Satan for 1000 years…. It really is too bad that Christians reject other’s belief in God without Jesus; it is problematic and a source of never ending engagement.

    I prefer to be in a community with practicing Jewish or Christian people rather in the World without God’s presence in people’s lives; the intolerance of the tolerant is stifling but the crime and deceit is worse.

    Of course, too many of those who feel their acceptance of Jesus ensures their entry into heaven have neither stopped their unChristian ways and continue to live lives full of lying, cheating and hurting anyone in their paths…. Holier than Thou.

  13. Excellent post, and one of the most generous and thoughtful on hell I’ve ever read. Like you I would very much like salvation to be universal, but I don’t believe it is because of what I know of the nature of God. I don’t mean the traditional “God is so holy that he can’t stand an ounce of sin in his presence” kind of stuff. I mean my understanding that God, being the source and essence of love, doesn’t use coercive power to force people to love him.

    He certainly could if he wanted to. He could snap his fingers and have every person on earth in an instant fall down in worship and adoration. Likewise he could use a refining fire to purge people of their evil over a long period of time and then lead them to him. But both those things essentially take away any human will or choice, and I believe true love demands choice. Choosing whether or not to follow God is one of the most oft repeated themes in scripture. I think we all have a choice, and that some people will not choose God.

    What always interests me about universalists is that they completely ignore what people of other faiths have to say on the matter. I remember reading that a study was done several years ago that asked non-Christian religious leaders, if traditional Christian teaching was right, and Jesus was truly the only way to salvation, would they want to be saved? Most (not all) said no, they’d rather not be saved by Jesus. I take them at their word.

    One more point about judgment in scripture. The vast majority of times the Bible talks about God’s judgment, it is against a group of people, or rather a kingdom. I believe the final judgment will be the same, that when Jesus returns he will judge the kingdoms of this world. The problem is, those who ally themselves with any other kingdom other than the Kingdom of God will be swept up in the judgment like the Israelites who were sent into exile. That’s why it is so important that we choose this day whom we will serve. God will not force us to make the right choice.

  14. One of the problems with Christianity is what we don’t know and pretend we do. We don’t know who or what God is. We have no idea what heaven and hell are or where they are. We have no idea what life after death is like. We have a collection of ancient and early Christian writings called the Bible most of which to make any sense at all has to be understood as being allegorical. To compound the problem we have a large group of Christians who believe the Bible is God’s inerrant Holy Word and should be taken literally. This same group then proceeds to take literally the portions they like and make up excuses for what they don’t want to take literally.

    1. We not know many of the specifics of heaven are like but we are told that whatever sacrifice you make for it here (turning from sin and pursuing Christ) is well worth it in comparison to what you suffer here for it. In a sense its not an even comparison given that the riches of heaven far out distance the best this world has to offer.
      Much of what Jesus taught is not allegorical. Its almost as if human language is inadequate to describe it.
      The Bible is a collection of 66 books of different genres. That must be taken into consideration as the context of each book. So to say Christians take it “literally” is not correct. Better we are to take it as each author means it to be taken.

    2. I don’t know what ” Christianity”YOUR’RE talking about, but it’s a gross caricature of authentic Biblical Christianity. Better do a little more studying my friend.

  15. OK…So our Supreme Creator wanted to give us a message on how to live and attain union with him and gain eternal life..This message was given to a Jewish peasant living in Judea that spoke Aramaic who wrapped this message in riddles and parables before he was killed only three years into his mission. No one thought to record his words and they were passed around for decades until some Greek fellows in another country with little understanding of the Jewish tradition decided to write them down but added a Hellenistic twist. Then, since their was no Office Depot or copiers, scribes had to make each page and the errors were endless and only copies of copies of copies survive today with no original transcript. And if you had the misfortune to be born on the wrong continent, well, tough luck !! This just doesn’t sound like a very good delivery system to me..

    1. It must be the best “delivery system” ever given that His messages is believed by hundreds of millions over the centuries not to mention the over billion who believe in His message today. There is nothing like it in history.

    2. You’ve got an appropo moniker,”DCRambler”, because you’re spouting incoherent drivel.What are you talking about? Are you trying to be funny? Because you’re not; you just sound idiotic.

  16. I think there is a different and arguably more sophisticated way to look at this “all different religions are paths to the same mountaintop” bit. It starts by recognizing that no religious belief system is literally true. That’s a big step, I realize…

    If religious dogmas (any of them) are treated as literally true in all details, then each is incompatible with all the others. What are the chances that the church in which a person grew up somehow “got it right” in every detail, while all the other local variations “got it wrong”? (Watch “Around the world in 80 faiths” on YouTube for a great tour of worldwide variations…illustrating that every single local religion is a custom built hybrid).

    If, on the other hand, religious belief systems are not literally true, if they are expressions of human feelings and experiences but not intended as verifiable maps of external reality, then there is nothing wrong with enjoying them the way we enjoy science fiction and other mythical narratives. They are not true in a scientific way, but they are expressions of human experience and fantasy. They are metaphors as the word was used by Joseph Campbell. They are all equally true (as expressions of people’s experience) and also equally false (as scientific theories).

    Universalism, by this interpretation, is accepting all religions as true manifestations of human experience, as fictions-to-enable that function for at least some people. Will this satisfy you? No! Most people want their religion to be true in all senses of the term. Along with this, typically, goes the conviction that the individual’s own viewpoint represents the One True Religion. You won’t get agreement on which one is true, if you compare notes with people from other traditions, but you will probably find they have the same insistence that their own is the “one true path.” Could they really feel otherwise? The only alternative to picking one and discarding all the others is to see that “all paths” have some value while also recognizing that none of them is true in the way that scientific theories are true.

    How exactly are scientific theories “true” in ways that religious narratives are not? That turns out to be the key point usually misunderstood by religious people. A scientific model generates non-trivial predictions (precise, surprising, or important predictions) that can be tested and replicated by skeptics if they so desire. This criterion for scientific truth was itself a discovery and was in full effect by the early 1900s when quantum mechanics was discovered (using math) and verified (using non-trivial predictions and experiments) even though it made no sense to anybody! That was a turning point (IMHO) from thousands of years of philosophy and religion during which other criteria of truth dominated: reasonableness, rationality, common sense utility, and most importantly consistency with authority and revealed truth. For all those years the truth was assumed to be fixed, and the energies of true believers went into defending a fixed truth, a revelation that by definition could not change, because it was the word of God or it was simply declared to be true as stated (perhaps the author being guided by God’s hidden hand).

    The change to a reliance on “guess and test” (science) was huge, and the implications are still rippling around the world. Once belief systems are based on evidence, and once the correction of ideas is given paramount importance over fixed beliefs and dogmas, progress starts to build on itself and change occurs ever faster. We are all living with the consequences of that process, and the result is a “clash with modernity” going on in every civilization all over the world. Things have never changed so fast, thanks to science, technology, and especially information technology.

    No religion rises to the scientific criterion of truth (none produces a model that can produce non-trivial predictions or be verified by skeptics) so all can be regarded as “equally true” metaphors that suit their believers just fine and function well in their lives. None can be judged superior to other religions unless you have a special attachment to one of them (as most people do) because of your own personal history, or unless you have taken a hard look at the beliefs and behavioral requirements and found them to your liking (as some people feel about Mormonism, Unitarianism, and all the other variations). Then of course you will regard the one you grew up with, or the one that seems so lovely to you, or the one that produced your life-changing conversion experience, as superior. Anybody would. You can look around and see all the people who feel great about their own religions.

    But don’t dare suggest to a true believer in one specific religion that they are “all equally valid paths to the mountaintop.” They will be obliged to tell you how wrong you are! They can feel in their hearts that their OWN religion is the One True Religion. It could hardly be otherwise.

    1. Science is not the final arbiter of truth. Christianity is true because Jesus said it is and He was God incarnate.

      1. I am not saying you are wrong, but outside of Biblical mythology what proof do you have to support your statement.

        1. There is plenty of historical evidence that the gospels are true historically. They are not myths. The experience of Christian also is proof that it is true. Some examples of this would be answered prayers and miracles.
          There are no factual reasons not to take the reports about Christ in the gospels as not being true. Since Jesus said He was God in the flesh and demonstrated it by His life, death and resurrection, Christians are on solid grounds to say that Christianity is true.

          1. I tend to agree with you. However, A myth is not a falsity. A myth is a truth which has been wrapped in a story to make the truth memorable. You did limit your “truth” to the gospels, which still leaves Paul’s opinions expressed in his letters. Clearly the creation story is a great truth told allegorically and as such meets the definition of a myth. I find it encouraging the sequence in the Bible is almost identical to the scientific “myth” of the big bang.

              1. No, there’s a big difference. Read the Bible scholarship that has been accumulating for over a century, from Schweitzer on through to modern people like Ehrman. Historians have to rely on evidence, not faith, and there is loads of evidence from independent sources about Greece, Rome, etc. Jesus OTOH is much more problematic. I won’t review the evidence here but it is complex and fascinating. However, it is more or less hidden from members of conservative Christian congregations. I have a friend who is probably typical of the latter. He assumes the books of the Bible were written by the people in their titles (although John, for example, was written in elegant, literate Greek) and he never even heard that “virgin” was a mistranslation of “maiden,” something known even a few centuries after Jesus. The fundies of the blog’s title live in one world, Bible scholars live in another, and their paths do not cross much (except when stones are tossed back and forth).

  17. This was fascinating read from my perspective, a Mormon. Mormonism teaches a variant of universal redemption, having anticipated many of the doctrinal and logical puzzles discussed in this article. Thanks.

  18. Hi Benjamin,
    Great post and discussion; I appreciate your work. The thought that what you “hope and pray … is true” (universal eternal redemption for all) is actually true “will cause [you] to love him [God] more not less” suggests that you now love him less because of what you still believe (conditional/annihilation). I realize that you were just wanting to say that you wish it were a scriptural perspective though you don’t think it is, but the implications of the way you put it seem oddly God disrespectful.

    I have long thought that neither ECT nor Universal Salvation were New Testament teachings/beliefs. The farther one gets into the Old Testament and Inter-testamental
    foreshadowings and specific contextualizations of the New Testament the more one may appreciate the also realistic expectation that not all will believe and obey, and that these are the criteria for inclusion among the redeemed.

    1. Biblicaly only the elect go to heaven and they were chosen by God before they were born. If I am one of the elect, it doesn’t matter what I do I am going to heaven. If I am not one of the elect there is no hope for me so again it doesn’t matter what I do, and John 3:16 is wrong.
      Your use of 50 cent religious words tells me you believe what you want to believe. Please try to explain to me in common language with common logic how my above statement is wrong or right.

      1. You are right that God has elected some to salvation. To some He gives mercy and others justice. John 3:16 is not wrong. God did give His Son and those who would believe in Him will inherit eternal salvation in heaven with Christ.

        1. But whether you will choose Christ has been fortold. You are elect or you aren’t. If that isn’t the case then that makes us more powerful than God by allowing humans to deny Him victory over sin and death. He is a puppet who dances on strings we hold. I am not comfortable with that conception of God. I am also not comfortable with predestination.

  19. If there’s no judgement, no potentially negative consequences for rejecting God, then the teachings of Christ and the early church really become quite irrelevant.

    As I chew on this something else occurs to me – how is the annihilationist position a ‘conseqeunce?’ Why would I care if I just cease to exist? If I am an atheist, I believe that anyway so nothing lost, nothing gained there. In fact faced with a capricious G*d that demands that there is only 1 way to get to G*d for the 7 billion people currently alive and countless others who have already died or are yet to live, annihilation actually looks like a better alternative…

  20. While I appreciate your attempt to validate Christian Universalism or ultimate reconciliation (or whatever you want to call it) as a real option within Christian orthodoxy, I’m not sure your conclusions are entirely warranted. Most notably your suggestion that embracing Christian Universalism means writing off a ton of Scripture. If that’s the case, then perhaps the eternal torment or annihilationism (a.k.a. conditional immortality) positiions should be rejected for the same reason, because no matter which position you choose (including the hybrid position you seem to have landed on), you’re still going to have to deal with the passages of Scripture that apparently contradict your view. “Writing them off” is certainly an option, but it is far from the best one. And if you’ve taken any time at all to read the works of Thomas Talbott, Robin Parry (a.k.a. Gregory McDonald), Richard Beck, John Kronen, Eric Reitan, Sharon Baker, Jaime Clark-Soles, Brad Jersak and other Christian Universalists (all of whom have doctorates in theology, philosophy or biblical scholarship), you’ll know that far from writing off potentially problematic passages, they embrace them the same way other Christians do. They simply interpret them differently. Furthermore, no Christian Universalist would disagree with your claim that we should be reconciled to Christ (and each other) in the here and now. But rather than be motivated by fear (Careful, guys, God might not be as good as we hope he is), they are motivated by the fact that their lives have been transformed here and now through their relationship with God, and they want others to walk in that freedom.

    All that to say, while I’m thankful you have chosen to address this issue and to lend some credence to the position, I urge you and your readers to go much deeper on this topic, because all of the questions you’ve raised about Christian Universalism have been asked and answered. Any of the authors above serve as great starting points. However, my favorite of the bunch is John Kronen and Eric Reitan’s new book “God’s Final Victory,” which offers a systematic comparative case for Christian Universalism that is as accessible as it is comprehensive. Of course, I also recommend you check out my documentary “Hellbound?”, which offers an introduction to the topic and features voices from a wide variety of positions.

    1. Thanks, Kevin– great points. I loved your film and highly recommend it. I’ll definitely keep going deeper, and don’t mean to sound unnecessarily critical of the position, there are just concerns that I haven’t had satisfied yet– but the resources you pointed out seem like a good start.


    1. That’s a really good question– I suppose they would answer by saying that because Jesus died, all will be refined/redeemed. I just don’t agree with the universalist position, however.

  21. You said, “If there’s no judgement, no potentially negative consequences for rejecting God, then the teachings of Christ and the early church really become quite irrelevant.”

    Is not virtue its own reward? Why must there be punishment? I try to live the example Jesus set because all the grace & love I’ve been given overflows & motivates me to do so.

    As a parent, I want my kids to do the right thing because they want to & doing right feels good – not because they will be punished for not doing the right thing. Punishment is rather ineffective to motivate character & values – discipleship though, is very effective in changing people.

    Hell is not something taught or preached in my experience as a Lutheran (ELCA)

    1. I said that because Jesus actually talks about the judgement, and even issues warnings. My point was we’d have to simply pretend that Jesus never said that stuff which I think is inconvenient to the universalist position.

      1. Have you read any Lois Tverberg? Jesus often spoke of ‘eternal life’, ‘hell’ & ‘the kingdom of heaven’, but when interpreting those conversations within the historical context & understanding the language/idioms used, those conversations refer to our life here and now, not things that happen after we die.

        It’s not pretending Jesus didn’t say these things, it’s understanding what he said in a different way.

        1. Is Lois Tverberg Jesus’equal? Does she have a Hell to put anybody into, or a Heaven to keep anyone out of? What’s the name of her Bible? When did she remake Almighty God in HER image, or did she just make her own puppet”god”?

  22. Consider the parable of the workers hired, all received the same reward. I think it points to Salvation for all, even those who sign on at the very last moment. When is that last moment? Like Ben I am unsure but I trust that He who made us and knows even the number of hairs on our heads will also know who will join Him and He has a plan. Is the death of our physical body really the last moment?

  23. I consider myself a Christian universalists, but the idea that all roads lead to heaven does not make complete illogical sense to me. It depends on how we understand that statement. If we mean that all religions are true about all things, then obviously, no, that’s a contradiction. If we mean that all religions teacht he correct way to get to heaven, then we have another contradiction. If, however, we mean that all religions have glimpses of the truth, in different ways, I can agree with that. Unfortunately other religions are missing Jesus, but they still may be experiencing the reality of eternity or other truths. Because I believe that God is bigger than what we believe, I call myself a universalists, and I believe one day every knee will bow and worship God.

    1. Christian universalism is a soteriological doctrine that all will eventually be saved, even if they have to pass through hell to be redeemed there. It is an orthodox belief. This is contrary to the “all paths lead to God” notion that says you can get to heaven without Jesus, which is not Christian. Christian universalists believe that everyone will accept Jesus eventually.

  24. I became obsessed with the issue of Universal Reconciliation (another term for Christian Univesalism) after stumbling on the idea, quite by accident, over a decade ago. I’ve probably put in an easy thousand hours of study on the bible’s teachings on hell, the teachings regarding hell in the early church, the philosophical and theological arguments, etc. (A touch of OCD and a mom who would have fit right into a research lab who is stuck home with the kids in podunk america sometimes has surprising results.)

    Anyways, the result of all that study was that I became convinced that the teaching of Universal Reconcialition is pretty well iron/copper/kryptonite/dried cheese on a pot clad. I’ve yet to run into an objection that can’t be easily explained. Including the question of human nature. Human nature is very good. God said so. We are made in his image after all. Sin obscures and hides the truth of who we are created to be. When we live out of our sin, we are living out of a false self. The fire of God, as Corey and the bible says, is a refiner’s fire. It burns off all the dross and filth and leaves behind what is good and pure. So once the sin and it’s results are burned off and the truth of all things is seen clearly, we will naturally lose as desire to resist God. Besides, if the effect of sin cannot be refused (ie the work of the first Adam), why are we so convinced that we can opt out of the effects of salvation (ie the work of the second Adam, as Paul refers to Jesus in Romans and elsewhere)? Far from working against Universal Reconciliation, the reality of human nature, being the image of God, is God’s ace in the hole for ultimately reconciling humanity to himself. There’s no way he can lose a human being since there’s no way his original design for us can be undone. It may have to suffer through fire to be revealed, but it’s still there.

    At any rate, for anyone who is looking for a solid, easy to read, and academically sound explanation of the biblical and Christian case for Universal Reconciliation, I wrote a brief series making that case a while back. I don’t cover every possible objection in it, but there are links throughout to more explanation and evidence for virtually anything I missed.

    You can read the series here:

    I apologize for the shameless self promotion. I know it went out of style right about when women were starting to work up the nerve to give it a go. But being just a housewife in Wisconsin (ie clearly not someone with anything important to say, not having been noticed and approved by important people already), I have to do what I can to share what I know. (Yes, I’m dealing with some issues here. But we’re Christians so you have to forgive me or give Jesus a good excuse.)

    Even if you don’t want to take 30 minutes to see what a thousand hours of study can produce, I hope people will consider the bible verse that started me on this particular quest:

    “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” ~ 1 Timothy 4:9~10

    1. Thanks for the links! 🙂
      Out of curiosity, one argument I often hear against universalism is this: “if you don’t believe in eternal hell/annihilation, there’s nothing special about this life.”
      So…if you don’t mind me asking, how would you respond to this?

      1. Well, there are two things. One is this idea that if we all end up in the same place, what difference does it make what we do here? Which is a bit saying, “I could make the journey across the Atlantic in a row boat or by using a transporter to instantly get there. Since I end up in the same place either way, it doesn’t really matter which one I pick.” It’s kind of silly, really. I’m always surprised when people say it.

        The other thing is that when the purpose of this life isn’t about the next life, this life becomes much more important. If we’re not all here just so we can be judged at the end, then we must be here for purposes that have to do with this life. Jesus’ teachings stop looking like a way for the saved to earn extra credit points sometime off in the far off future. Instead they look like important instructions for how to live this life, not so I’ll get into heaven, but because that’s what we’re supposed to be doing here. This life takes on much more meaning in and of itself than when we think it’s just a waiting period for the real thing. The conditions here matter more. The suffering here matter more. The struggle of life is more meaningful. It really makes life more meaningful in every way, in my experience.

        I hope that helps!

    2. Paul said this about the nature of man:
      as it is written,
      “There is none righteous, not even one; 11 There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; 12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.” 13 “Their throat is an open grave, With their tongues they keep deceiving,” “The poison of asps is under their lips”; 14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”;15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood, 16 Destruction and misery are in their paths, 17 And the path of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

      Jesus said this about the nature of man:
      “But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. 19 “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. 20 “These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.”

      I wonder what “born again” even means if we are essentially good.

      Tell you what Rebecca, I will read your series and post my critique at reformed reasons. Sin is not merely a choice, it is a condition. Your entire thesis rests on false view of the nature of the human condition after the fall. Once that position is shown to be false, your entire house collapses.

      The doctrine of hell has to be set in the context of Scripture during the period in which it was written. Appeal to councils and church fathers is always secondary to Scripture. Many Church fathers were heretics even though we seem to love to romanticize them for some odd reason.

      1. Oh dear. The old “Satan’s work is more powerful than God’s” line. I do not understand why insist on starting the gospel with original sin rather than doing as the bible does and start with God’s original blessing. Sin is a reality that we live with and are prone to because we have not be fully redeemed to our true identity in Christ. But it’s not who we are. Who we are is like a diamond that may have been dropped, encrusted in dirt and rot, maybe even eaten and crapped back out. It may be completely hidden, with no signs of its existence visible. But that diamond still sits there in the middle, completely unchanged, despite all appearances. Which is why scripture so often speaks of washing sin away. It’s like the filth encrusting a diamond. Why are we so intent on defining ourselves by filth that is being washed away instead of by the privilege of being an image bearer? How is that faithful? How does that honor God? And how does it help us to fully enjoy our identities in Christ when we tell everyone that who they are is defined by sin rather than by God? I don’t care how common it is, this is terrible, terrible theology. It is a denial of the very essence of God’s design!

        At any rate, suffice it to say that I think quite a lot more creatively and deeply about these things than you may realize. If you would like to read a more God honoring, faithful take on human identity than the unfortunate dreck much of the church has fallen for, here’s my understanding of the subject:
        I also covered why we sin, despite our identity as image bearers here:

        1. Well Rebecca, if it is truth you are after you will have to think Biblically, not necessarily creatively. I understand very well the Bible’s teaching on sin and the nature of man after the fall and I can tell you without hesitation that the Church, Christ’s Christ, the Church born at Pentecost, does not teach your view of sinful man. It is a subversion of clear Christian dogma as revealed in Scripture. My purpose is to expose your false teachings to whatever readers you have who may be willing to listen so that they may see that your claims about man and sin, and the Bible’s claims about man and sin are radically opposed to each other. More to come over the next few weeks. Your statement that you can overcome any teachings about hell with ease speaks volumes about your lack of competence in the biblical text. I intend to expose that. Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them. (Eph. 5:11)

          1. Have at it! Creativity is a gift from God, btw. It is part of how we reflect him. Part of our design and his desires for us. And my theology is extremely consistent with the common theology of the early church, so it’s hardly as if I’ve come to new and novel conclusions. It’s also very much in line with the teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church. So either I, the early church and the Eastern half of the Christian church over the last 2 millenia have ignored scriptures and come to all the wrong conclusions, or perhaps modern Calvinist ideas aren’t actually the be-all-and-end-all of the Christian faith.

            But like I said, if you find darkness in my theology (an example of which would be giving glory to the work of Satan over the power of God as Calvinism does), or can find more than a few clobber verses pulled out of the flow of the whole of scripture with which to refute me, have at it. If you think I have not combed over scripture with a fine tooth comb and followed Jesus into the pits of hell in order to be taught the things I share with others, you will be much surprised. I’m no lightweight. Take your best shot. I stand on the power of Christ in me, not my own understanding or power. It’s often lead me into uncomfortable places, but never failed to produce light, fruit and love in my life. I have been washed by the blood of the lamb, overcome by the power of my testimony and did not love my life unto death. Satan hasn’t been able to stand against me, but you’re welcome to try.

            BTW, you might also be interested in learning how to identify a real ear tickler, as I suspect you’ve fallen for a few:

            1. Relax Rebecca. Since The Bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God and is the revelation of the one in Whom resides ALL truth, all I am going to do is see what you say the Bible says and examine it closely to see if you are correct. The Church, eastern nor western are not our source of authority when it comes to dogma, Scripture is. nevertheless the historic views of the church are very helpful as we all stand upon the shoulders of these giant thinkers in one way or another in fleshing out our own views. Their work, while not authoritative, is indispensable.

  25. One of the passages that Gregory McDonald raises in “the evangelical universalist” is the end of revelations. Basically once new Jerusalem is built there is a line about the “kings of the nations” coming in and worshipping. It even mentions how these people could come freely. Throughout the rest of the book john continually used that phrase to describe the enemies of God. So the juxtaposition seems clear that those who previously fought against Jesus at Armageddon will then come and worship him at the end. Even tho revelations is a subject of great interpretive debate, at least the internal consistency on this seems worth pointing out.

    Also the idea that “every knee will bow” is the most hopeful verse in the Bible has done more to help my view of who God is than almost anything else!

  26. I revise my comments from yesterday’s reply. Sharon Baker’s book had a combination of Christian Universalism and annihilation. God’s refining fire of love offers the opportunity for reconciliation. If there is complete rejection then the fire consumes and there is annihilation. Makes sense to me.

  27. “The idea that “all paths lead to the same God” is just completely illogical in my opinion, especially when you consider that the various paths themselves don’t even make that claim.”

    Well, some of the various paths do indeed make that claim, with the caveat that some paths are more direct than others, and some paths may take a very, very long time.

    1. Both were purgatorialists.

      As for the latter, St. Gregory called purgatorialism that which was “according to the Gospel utterances” and predicated much of his theological reasoning thereupon (e.g., what happens to infants who tragically die?). His brother, St. Basil, advocated for endless hell. Both saints were early heroes for Christian orthodoxy. Later, St. Augustine called this disagreement an “amicable controversy” and admitted that purgatorialism had broad Christian subscription.

  28. As a father, do you think there is some point where you would give up on reconciliation with your child and drive her forever from your presence?

    1. Yes. So true. It’s the notion of God as “Father” that led me to lean toward Christian universalism. I can’t see any decent/loving father here on earth saying “you’ve used up all your chances, now we’re done forever and you’re gone,” much less a perfect heavenly Father, who is Love.

      1. I came to the same conclusion about religion in general. I watched my wife’s family, which is comprised of 9 children. There were previous marriages and one adoption so there are 4 different sets of parents among the sibling. Her parents approach each and every child differently, based on their circumstance, personality, and background. This is actually a newer development. Growing up her parents were fiercely religious and tried to maintain the rigid role of Parent that the conservative church taught. This was disastrous and resulted in all kind of problems. Some responded to it, others rebelled and hard. As they freed themselves from the influence of that toxic version of religion, they changed. Love demanded not that they stand firm and make everyone come to them, but that they approach each where they are. I will likely always approach the concept of the divine through christianity for a whole host of reasons – background, culture, personality, etc. A close friend from my youth converted to Judaism as an adult, because it spoke more to who she was. If I was raised in India, I would likely be Hindu, in Saudi Arabia Muslim, in Tibet Buddhist, etc. I can see no reason, beyond normal human tribal pathology, to believe that G*d, assuming there is such a thing, would demand only one way. That feels more like a tyrant and less like a loving father.

        1. Love this. Your in-law’s approach to parenting sounds wonderful.
          I actually live in India, so I have many Hindu and Muslim friends, along with Christian ones, and it’s remarkable, at least in this community, how they all love each other and don’t see a barrier between them; for example, we all pray together (like for rain, when there was a severe draught a month or so ago–we got a freak cyclone 2 days later). My Hindu and Muslim friends are loving, wonderful people–flawed, yes, like us all–but lovely people nonetheless, and I don’t believe that their living their lives in love will ultimately mean nothing just because they (maybe) got religion wrong.
          I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a universalist in terms of the truth of other religions– I still do believe Jesus is God and everyone is saved through Him, but I don’t think that necessarily means everyone has to convert. I do see many redemptive analogies to Christianity within other religions. I think God works through other religions besides Christianity to bring His children to Him. I do still see value in conversion, but I also believe that God knows each person’s starting point, and I think He works individually with each person to reconcile the whole world to Himself.

          1. Wow, that is awesome. That must be such an amazing experience. We may take different paths but we end up at the same place. If there is something after this life, we can remember this and see who was ultimately correct! I think loving G*d and our neighbor is far more important than the tradition we do it in. Blessings.

    2. But there is a difference between driving a child from your presence and choosing to leave of your own accord. I’m estranged from my natural father and I will never again step foot under a roof he calls home. And if the god of the Bible turned out to be my eternal father, I would choose the same course. If I don’t have that choice, then I’ll spend eternity in both my natural and eternal fathers’ presence, which yes for me would be hell.

      1. This seems to be an appeal to something like C.S. Lewis’ conception of hell, but Ben call himself an annihilationist – so there is a point, death presumably, where G*d’s patience ends and he zaps you out of existence! And his patience seems to be arbitrary since some people get 100 years while others far less.

        Making the assumption that an eternal father would conform to some concept of a good father, the my question is would a good father ever give up?

  29. I think an important point to look at is what it actually means to follow Christ. Does one have to recognize and affirm the actual historical Jesus born out of the Jewish narrative, does one need to hold to more of the idea of the cosmic Christ, or, if Jesus is the Way, and the Way is about love, compassion, and justice, are people following and affirming Christ by living his commandments (aka Ghandi). I struggle with, and basically cannot buy, the concept of a God who would send people to hell because they never heard or knew anything about the historical Jesus, or for that matter didn’t care to learn about the historical Jesus because of horrible treatment by some Christian group. But I totally buy that the idea of the Christ totally transcends, but does not reduce the importance of, the earthly life of Jesus.
    Second, I would agree that not all the paths lead to Rome, as you said. However, I have noticed a phenomenon in the mystical sects of most major religions that concentrate or reduce what life and religion are about to the same things, and these things look remarkably like Jesus. Sufis, Christian mystics, Hindu mystics, many Buddhists, many Taoists, etc.etc, would argue that life is about dying to ego or false self, becoming “born again” or enlightened, and living to show love, compassion, and justice while becoming more like the Divine. . Sounds an awful lot like Jesus to me. So, maybe I would say that the popular folk religion of the masses might not all lead to the same end, but I would also say that much religion of the masses is still rooted in the ego.

    1. Well said. Mystics of nearly every faith tradition seem to have hit on the same set of core “truths” over and over again, and those common insights all seem to be remarkably Christ-like.

      1. Romans 1 would be false if it were not so. God revealed Himself in nature to everyone; those who deny His existence are in denial.

    2. I guess the fundamentalist answer to your first point would be that, if you don’t affirm the historic doctrines like the virgin birth and deity of Christ, you’re following a counterfeit Christ. On the second point, while all religions may not be equally “true,” I’d agree that all religions have some valid insights. Except for Scientology.

  30. Great post. Either I’m an oddball (likely), or others are wondering the same, but I tend to characterize those who seem destined for the “second death.” i.e. What does that person look like? In my case, at least, I feel it might be relevant in the case of soul-preservation.

    CS Lewis (Great Divorce) posits this person might look like the egocentric (see: Pride) intellectual, who cannot get over him/her self, or their education, or learnings, etc. that ultimately seem rather meaningless and silly … yet prohibitive to embracing God’s love. In fact, this dude actually argues with his angelic sponsor who can’t simplify things enough. From what I remember, I don’t think it ends particularly well for him.

    This should frighten us for a few reasons, but among them: that’s exactly what life can do to you if you’re unable to keep perspective. Maybe it’s why Solomon found everything quite meaningless. Who knows.

    Great discussion. Our eternal destiny should be of interest to everyone.

    1. Solomon found everything meaningless except doing what pleases the LORD. He’s not the only one to stumble upon the truth that only God injects the universe with purpose, with transcendence, with meaning above the merely mechanical.

  31. I lean toward something like Christian Universalism, but here’s my bottom line:
    1. The imagery in Scripture is ambiguous (as you illustrated with the discussion of “fire”).
    2. I believe God is a God of surprises.
    3. God is at once more just and more merciful than I can conceive, and it’s all in his hands anyway, so I don’t worry too much about the details.

    1. To me, you’ve hit on the important points. Faith in the God whose love is so much more than we imagine and humility in trying to understand some of the details of what that means. If you’ve got that, I think you’re doing great no matter which of the 3 (or something else) you land on.

    2. The apocryphal book of Enoch not only said that universalism is true, it also prohibited its being taught to the churches!

  32. “If there’s no judgement, no potentially negative consequences for rejecting God, then the teachings of Christ and the early church really become quite irrelevant.”

    What teachings?

    1. Even if Heaven did not exist. Would it not be proper for us
      to obey him? He is worthy of worship without any other motives.

      -Rabi’a al-Adawaiyya

    2. This is the quote that jumped out at me as well. Quakers would generally argue that the consequences of “sin” lead to bad results here and now, which is all the “hell” we’ll ever know. I generally agree, though without the sin and the hell parts.

    3. Quite a few, really. You’d have to write off many exclusive lines he drew– John 3:16 which shows belief/faith to be a requirement, John 14 that says he’s the only way to God, Matthew 25 where he says that at the final judgement he will say to some “depart from me”… there’s a lot. It’s not always popular to say it, but Jesus did draw some exclusive lines that can’t be ignored apart from just writing them off in wholesale.

      1. Let me preface by saying I have my own beliefs and have no problem that you may believe differently, i.e. I am not trying to convince you of anything. I read enough blogs to know that never happens. But I am interested in some of your idea as expressed in this post.

        I’ll leave the John passages aside since they speak to a different question, although I think there is more than one way to read them and there is ample room to question the text that was written perhaps 60 to 70 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. The teaching of the church in these example is how to interpret these statements.

        I think you are ascribing to a rather literal reading of Matthew 25, given that the sheep and goats episode is preceded by two other ‘parables’ there is no reason to believe that Jesus was speaking literally – furthermore, the sheep did not do those things for eternal reward, they are, in fact, surprised by it. They did it because it was the right thing to do. The fact that this episode also has Jesus rewarding or punishing people for their ‘works’ I would think make it a difficult passage for your to use as a proof text, being an Arminian (I believe from previous things I have read)

        I have also been recently intrigued by the language in the parable where it says the ‘nations’ are gathered before him, not individuals. This makes me question whether this is a political statement rather than a personal one. Thus the message is rendered that those nations that act justly survive, while those that do not (looking at you Caesar and Herod!), will burn. I of course don’t know, any neither does anyone else, so I’m just riffing here.

      2. Making John 3:16 exclusive requires you to ignore the very next verse!

        John 3:17 NIV: For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

        That would seem to make the previous verse inclusive, but to do so it means that all will eventually believe in Him. At the very least it seems to forbid using that verse to exclude anyone. As you know that position is consistent with many other verses that speak of all creatures in heaven and earth being reconciled to and bowing before Him.

  33. I lean toward a Christian Universalist point of view, but I’d challenge the notion that the instructions in the New Testament don’t make sense if there’s no “reward” or “punishment”.

    Those instructions allow people to be their best in this life. If we all loved each other as Jesus taught, I mean real love and self-sacrifice, there would be no wars, no poverty, no greed, no environmental damage…(the list goes on, but you get my point). I do believe that much of hell is “locked from the inside” so to speak, but I believe that it also exists here on earth. People who are bound to anger, or vengeance, or jealousy…well, they could most accurately be said to be in Hell. Unhappy, their relationships suffer, and their own existence cannot be terrifically pleasant.

    This is where Jesus’s message differs from “An eye for an eye”, and all of the other religious structures where you have to sacrifice in order to attain some sort of “afterlife”. Jesus’s good news was that if you follow these precepts…if you love one another above all things, you’ll find peace and happiness in THIS life – you’ll be with Jesus and in his peace here and now, and not just in some distant future after you die.

    As a less important aside, do I believe that after death most will get it and turn to him? Yes. After earthly attachment is gone, then yes, I believe almost everyone will say “Ohhhhhhh, that was what that was all about”. But I don’t believe it’s about punishment externally inflicted but rather the self-realization that what they were misbehaving about was wrong.

    I realize that this puts me outside (or maybe inside, I dunno) most of orthodox Christian belief.

    1. It may or may not be outside of orthodoxy proper. Orthodoxy means agreement with the ecumenical creeds. They don’t say anything specific about Hell that I can remember (haven’t read them all recently).

      There is, however, lines like that Jesus will judge the quick and the dead. The way orthodox universalists would usually present this is that this purgatorial understanding of Hell and/or a similar refining in this life is the judgement. Judgement doesn’t have to mean that some are inside and some are outside. That’s a legal framework that infiltrated Christianity later on. Judgement could mean being refined. In other words, God isn’t judging between the damned and the saved people, but between the good and the bad in our lives and then is acting to bring out the good while “burning” away the bad.

      To me – the Ryan cited above, not a universalist myself – this avoids Ben’s problem with universalism because there is still plenty of eternal motivation to get to know Jesus more and more right now along with the this-life motivation you explain here. It means less crap that has to be burned away later, and the longer you persist in having that crap on your character the more painful it is to get rid of it – think of any bad habit and almost always the longer you do it the harder it is to stop.

      1. After processing this a bit longer, this is one of the reasons I get so excited about Jesus’s message.

        If I put myself back into the position of an ancient Jew, I’ve got all these laws (600 some of them) to try to follow, and I’m pretty certain I’ll screw up at some point. So I either take it seriously, and live in fear, or I start to get skeptical and think “meh, I’ll just go sacrifice a dove or something and get it over with”.

        Had Jesus’s preaching been “Okay, so no, you don’t have to do 600 things, you just have to believe I’m divine (like that wouldn’t be a huge stretch for people) and be nice and polite and follow all these other rules”…I’m not so sure that sounds like Good News. Actually, it sounds like crazy-talk.

        Believe in God otherwise he’ll condemn you to complete and utter annihilation? No thanks, I’ll take the god that accepts my dead goat as a gift and gets me into heaven even if I’m a human who screws up on occasion thank you very much.

        But we know that’s not what happened. We know that Jesus’s message spread far and wide and that people were excited enough about it to die for it.

        In order to do that it had to be measurably different. And I think that’s borne out through the examination of scripture that Rebecca has put forth. Well worth a look.

      2. The 6th century saw the advent of the Athanasian creed (not written by Athanasius), which proclaimed endless hell, and also the 5th Ecumenical Council, which (unofficially) proclaimed universal reconciliation heretical. This was the most evident “turning point” from the 5th century, where St. Augustine was in “amicable controversy” with the “great many” purgatorialists, and the 4th century, where St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote much in support of purgatorialism and attended the 2nd Ecumenical Council with no controversy.

        I don’t think we should feel obligated to jettison a legal framework of punishment, as long as we’re careful to maintain the remedial prospects (of the individual or that which he represents in the abstract) of recompensatory justice. The Bible defines God’s justice, over and over again, in these metered and “scale-equalizing” terms.

        St. Gregory of Nyssa, early 4th century:

        “[In his plan, there is] justice, to give to every one according to his due, [and] wisdom, not to pervert justice, and yet at the same time not to dissociate the benevolent aim of the love of mankind from the verdict of justice, but skillfully to combine both these requisites together: In regard to justice returning the due recompense, in regard to kindness not swerving from the aim of that love of man.”

        You said:

        “It means less crap that has to be burned away later, and the longer you persist in having that crap on your character the more painful it is to get rid of it – think of any bad habit and almost always the longer you do it the harder it is to stop.”

        Yours is a good summary of St. Gregory’s articulation.

        He also wrote:

        “… It will be useless to talk of [the contingency upon earthly failures] then, and to imagine that objections based upon such things can prove God’s power to be impeded in arriving at His end.

        His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last—some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by the Fire… to offer to every one of us participation in the blessings which are in Him, which, the Scripture tells us, “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor thought ever reached.”

        … But the difference between the virtuous and the vicious life led at the present time will be illustrated in this way: In the quicker or more tardy participation of each in that promised blessedness. According to the amount of the ingrained wickedness of each will be computed the duration of his cure. This cure consists in the cleansing of his soul, and that cannot be achieved without an excruciating condition, as has been expounded in our previous discussion.”

    2. I think there is a bigger picture of the new creation. Thats what all scripture is leading to with Christ. As part of that new creation – and the growing kingdom and its expansion – is the reality that we are now ‘different’. A new species if you like. What if only that new species can stand before God and not the old unregenerate one? The new creation has Christ in us… the old does not. What if, the new would draw near, the old would move away from God, to the outer darkness… bit like CS Lewis’s book the great divorce. God light – pure light and that light when it shines in the darkness of peoples hearts – may repel as well as draw its own to itself. As for hell being locked on the inside…. this would be it! They cannot draw near to Him as its too painful to do so. But I am like you in that I think some may have that chance before they stand before God. Then there is the ‘fullness of sin.’ Some, like Hitler – are more full blown than others. Can they come back from that condition? Christ is the key somehow.

      1. Tracy, I think Hitler can come back from that condition, as repugnant as that thought is for some people. No sin too great, right?

        When I mean internal torment vs. external torment, I mean it as – imagine going to a therapist and confronting some deep inner challenges. You’re going to hurt deeply – soul-pain – as you confront these things. And how are you going to get there? Through a therapist lovingly holding up a mirror and making an inquiry such as “so, how’s that working out for you”

        This is not the same as an external beating, or a person screaming at you on the street, which may entrench your misguided beliefs and you develop a shield against.

        That’s where I do believe that Christ is the key. With the exception of the money changers in the temple (which everyone loves to bring up as evidence of his “hardness”) he didn’t berate people into leaving their lives of whatever they were doing. People were drawn to his way of inviting them in and saying “Come, follow me” (my imaginary therapist’s way of saying “so how’s that working out for you”).

        1. I understand what you are saying… but…. What is the point of it all if you have say Billy Graham who has spent his life witnessing, setting an example, evangelizing… and Hitler. What is the point of all that work and effort for God, if everyone ends up on the new earth no matter what? Yes, there are rewards I know… but i still think its an invitation… even the setting of a wedding… you get invited. You are not naturally a guest. The whole meta narrative is one of a love story where by God reaches out to his creation that is flawed, and ends up dying for them to give them a second chance at life with Him. If all were going to end up choosing him… why bother with all that. But yeah like i said… I am a work in progress on this. A hopeful inclusionist/universalist. 🙂

          1. Because living like Jesus now brings you closer to God and others right now – you don’t have to be dead to experience his love and peace. It’s really freeing. I think where we get goofed up is when we look at those who are not loving others, not trusting God to provide etc…they are often hurting and unhappy but we think they are “getting away with something”. That wide road looks easy, but it is fraught with peril and heartache. Those who do selfish things are frequently haunted and feel deep guilt and loss. Jesus’s way is one of peace and joy in this life as well as the next one. Imagine being free of anxiety and guilt….if you follow him you can be!

    3. It’s completely orthodox belief. Nothing in the creeds requires you to believe people go to hell for all of time with no hope.

  34. Huh. It’s an interesting concept, and one with which I’m not terribly familiar. Admittedly, I’m a bit skeptical of it, since it seems some souls would never do anything BUT reject God, but maybe once eternity starts, all God has to do is wait.

    Honestly, the whole Hell/purgatory/annihilation/6 hours listening to Justin Bieber aspect of the afterlife is the one aspect of my faith that’s been the least specifically detailed (I know, I know, I’m questioning — Christian radio’s gonna stop playing my songs now), which is a bit surprising having grown up Southern Baptist. But, of course, even when I was IN that church, I found all the hellfire talk suspect, since I always believed God to be more loving father than fearsome dictator.

    I think the reality may be somewhere in the middle of your two extremes, with more people (and some of them quite surprising) getting into heaven than one side expects, and fewer than the more accepting side does. And I don’t know what will happen to the rest. We’ll find out some day. 🙂

  35. An excellent series, Ben… I think I probably fall along your lines as well… I’m more an annhilationist but that perspective on humanity that there are some stubborn bastards who just won’t bend seems to play out historically… now, God has INFINITE more patience for folks like that than I do so, perhaps, in the light of infinity, it seems we might still see everyone some day…

    …I keep thinking of those dwarves locked in the stable in “The Last Battle” in the Narnia chronicles… so much delight awaits them, but their stubborness has them locked in the stable, eating straw, and drinking from the trough… locked from the inside indeed… Thanks, “Jack” Lewis…

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