Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Universalism: Harmonizing Hell and God

The universalism perspective sounds so appealing sometimes. It’s the idea that God’s grace will seek out everyone eventually and that in the end all will be saved, even those who reject Jesus Christ. I think if you’re honest with yourself it’s hard to dismiss this idea and you might even agree with me that it’s very attractive. Universalists will argue that there is no realm outside of God’s reach. This is a theological truth which has been passed down throughout history and it makes a lot of sense too. If God is eternal, all powerful, and truly omnipresent then He must exist everywhere, in every time. If there is somehow a place that God has no power then He must be something less than God, we would have to find a new name for Him.

So we have this concept of God; He’s everywhere, He’s all powerful (no matter where He is), and He’s also loving and “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2.4). But we also have this concept of Hell; a place outside of God’s Kingdom, a place of separation from God. When someone dies and goes to Hell they stay there forever and God either doesn’t have the power to or doesn’t have the will to save them from that place. Isn’t this a little contrary to our concept of God? I thought He had power everywhere and wanted everyone to know Him. Universalism, though in church all we hear is the negative side, has very good intentions. It doesn’t want to attack the truth of God, as we may have heard in the past, but it wants to harmonize our concept of God and our concept of Hell. It’s an attempt to rationally articulate this apparent contradiction. Universalism says that God has power in Hell (this definitely matches our concept of God’s omnipresent-all-powerful nature) and that God wants everyone in Hell to be saved (which matches His all loving nature) and He won’t give up until they are all saved. He can’t give up because that would imply that some force outside of Himself exercised sovereignty over Him… either that or He just stopped wanting everyone to be saved. Since God can’t give up He has to be victorious eventually, I mean, He does have all eternity to work on this salvation. So essentially this means that everyone will spend eternity in heaven and none will actually stay in hell (though some may go there until God wins them over).

I may be playing devil’s advocate (no pun intended) but what I really want you to see is that universalists aren’t abandoning scripture completely and they’re definitely not malicious. Their logic is simple and coherent and hard to deny. Even Karl Barth, though he wasn't a universalist, thought that denial of universalism was limiting God's grace (I'll cite that in the comments section). For us to believe in Hell, we have to find a new way of explaining things. We can’t just say “because God is just some people have to go to hell” like we have said in the past. This sort of justice is not the kind that sends a loved one to die so that all could experience eternal life. We need to be able to explain how a loving, all powerful, totally omnipresent God can exist at the same time as a place of eternal damnation. And we can’t just run to our Bible verses without really looking at what the whole Bible says about God. We have to actually make sense of the verses we’re brining up in light of our concept of God. Yes there are verses, even in the gospels, that mention eternal fire but does your concept of eternal fire harmonize with your concept of God? God must want there to be an eternal fire. If He didn’t want it to be there he’d eventually quench it as He is going to do with the hellish things that exist on earth. So why does God want there to be an eternal fire? Isn’t God going to restore everything? How does hell fit into total restoration?

I got more questions than answers. What are your thoughts?

9 comments:

Maryellen said...

while I was reading your piece I was thinking, yeah, but doesn't that sort of negate the need of the cross...if everyone is going to be saved anyway, why that bloody dislay, then as I started to form my response comment I thought that it was by the cross that God could have accomplished his will that all be saved. To once and for all cover the sins of all people everywhere and every time. The fire of hell may burn forever, but that doesn't mean the residents of hell will burn forever does it? Gotta check the Word on that one. And won't there be some people who have knowingly and defiantly rejected the saving grace of Jesus. He won't force anyone into Heaven that doesn't want to go...Better to reign in hell etc.
I watch the demonic bands my students seem to love, and cringe. At least for a split second, these kids will think that hell looks "cool".

SteveW said...

Wes, this is a good and fair post.

Maryellen, I like how you put this..."that it was by the cross that God could have accomplished his will that all be saved. To once and for all cover the sins of all people everywhere and every time."

It is good to consider that the power of the cross to redeem and bring life is much more powerful than the sin of Adam to curse and bring death.

Rich(luthsem) said...

This is a hard subject. If you look at the first Ecumenical Creeds The Apostles and Nicene then you can almost get away with saying you are Orthodox because you could say Judgement does not mean everlasting punishment but the Athanasian Creed has the everlasting fire phrase in it.
of course, alot of us know the history behind all that.
I just cannot judge or tell someone they are going to hell and will burn eternally if they do not believe in Christ. Then again, I believe salvation is only in Christ and not from any other gods.
What do you think Wes?

WES ELLIS said...

good thoughts all!

I'm not a universalist... yet. I'm still thinking on the subject. One thing I hold my confidence in is Jesus Christ. He is the only one that does the saving no matter how it occurs.

Rich(luthsem) said...

Wes,

Theres a good conversation going on at Scot Mcknight's Jesus Creed blog on heaven and hell and heresy
http://www.jesuscreed.org/?p=1024#comments

WES ELLIS said...

Thanks,
I'll check it out!

Kris said...

Hello Wes,

I believe the bible teaches that God has forgiven ALL sins against the law for ALL people(1 John 2:2).
Only those who's names are not found in the book of life will go to hell or the lake of fire(Rev. 20:15). This is the sin of unbelief or to put it another way it would be blaspheme of the Spirit.

John 16:8-11 explains this; the Spirit comes to convince a person that believing in Jesus will give them everlasting life. If a person refuses to believe this then they have blasphemed and refused to believe the testimony of God concerning His Son.(Mark 28-29)

I don't believe in universalism in regards to all men will be saved. I do believe that Christ sacrifice has forgiven all men for all sins except the eternal sin of unbelief in the Christ the Son of God. Those who have everlasting life have eternal life in them (the Christ) because we have been born again by simple belief in faith alone in Christ alone. Those who don't have eternal life in them are not in the book of life and they will die IN their sins(John 8:24). There has to be a place for those who die IN their sins and I believe God has told us it will be in the lake of fire prepared for the devil and his angels(Matt.25:41).

Thanks for the space Wes.

WES ELLIS said...

Kris,
You've just represented a very traditional interpretation of the particular verses you cited. I respect tradition alot so I can't really argue with you but I want you to know there are a whole lot more scripture references which must be addressed in approaching this subject and thwere are a whole lot of other interpretations of this text.

thanks for taking the time. I hope you'll come back to join in future conversation.

Shalom,
Wes

Danny said...

Wes, I think your posts represent the ignorance of the leftist backwards theologians of the 19th and 20th centuries...just kidding. Seriously, I e-mailed you some of my thoughts when they got to be too long for this response section.