Hell may be the most difficult and offensive doctrine of all Christian doctrines. In its most simple description, it is eternal separation from God. When you look into that just a little deeper, you see the horror it predicts. Christians affirm that God is good and that all good things come from God. This means an eternal separation from God, is also an eternal separation from good. This leaves the residents of Hell with everlasting existence consumed in bad and evil. Imagine feeling the most depressed, worthless, meaningless, horrid feelings you could possibly feel, and then feeling only those feelings and more. With no opportunity of it relenting, or the introduction of anything that is good in anyway. In the most basic conception, this is what Hell equates too. This isn’t even bringing in the controversial comments of a lake of fire or demonic torture and torment of the body and mind.
No wonder so many see the doctrine of Hell as repulsive and morally corrupt. As evil as someone can be, it’s hard to think someone can deserve an eternity like this. This is remarkably hard to accept as reality, and then live life knowing there will be billions of people – some you know or don’t know, some you like or dislike, some who are close or distant, some you love or hate – that will experience this torture for billions of years, and then billions more, and then billions more, and then billions more, and for an infinite amount of time. Then one thinks that this unending punishment is sentenced only after a mere 80 years or so. How could any finite number of sins (no matter how large) deserve an eternity of punishment? No matter how large this finite number is, it will always be dwarfed by the innumerable years that are engulfed by eternity. How could a god design a plan this way? Moreover, how could a good god design a plan this way? Moreover, how could a good, loving, and all-powerful god design a plan this way? Herein lies the tension.
The insistence of this kind of god, with the simultaneous affirmation of a Hell, has shaken people to their very core. It has caused some to deny God all-together, others have denied Hell, or at least an eternal Hell, and other have abandoned the common conception of God but have kept belief in a god-like being. I want to take the rest of this post to comment on the difficulties of holding to the conventional Christian beliefs and then affirming Hell, and also the difficulties of holding to conventional Christian beliefs and then denying an eternal Hell. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details of arguments and biblical interpretations, but more just want to propose general thoughts that will make you critically analyze both sides.
Christians rejecting the tradition of an eternal Hell have been identified as Christian Universalists or Annihilists. Universalists believe eventually, everyone will make it to Heaven with God. They may spend some time in Hell, but God’s love is so great that no one can resist it indefinitely, and they will eventually turn to Him and God will bring them into His family when they do. Also, his justice won’t make people pay the punishment of a finite amount of sins for eternity. This belief is emotionally attractive, as well as intellectually. On the other hand, the annihilist doesn’t think everyone goes to heaven, but also doesn’t think people suffer in Hell for eternity. Again, they may allow some amount of time in hell if need be for God’s justice to be done, but the end game is that those souls who aren’t in heaven get annihilated. They are destroyed and wiped from existence. I want to primarily focus on Universalism here in this post, but will try to add in some comments here and there about Annihilism.
These positions take the existential burden off the conscience of thinking someone will endure eternal Hell. With Universalism we get the peace of knowing that everyone will eventually come to be with God, and annihilism gives us the closure that their torture won’t endure indefinitely. Now turning to Universalsim, I think the intellectual foothold is actual quite reasonable. The strongest point of it is its ability to maintain this concept of an all-powerful, good, loving, creator God. If God is all-powerful, then He gets what He wants. If He is all good, He wouldn’t allow anyone He loves to experience suffering for eternity if He had the power to stop it. Since He has all power to do what He wants, and He’s good and doesn’t want those He loves to suffer for eternity, then He has the power to stop their eternal suffering. If God so loved the world that He sent His only son to die for it, then He loves all of humanity and wouldn’t allow them to be in eternal separation from Himself. (At least emotionally, Universalism is stronger on this point than Annihilism because instead of just destroying those souls who deny Him, God waits and works for as long as possible to win them back. However, I think scripturally, Annihilism has more support.) For some sort of respect for free will or working out of justice, God may let people be in Hell for a time, but eventually His love will save them by changing their hearts and bring them back to Himself. This lets us unequivocally believe in an everlasting loving God who pursues people for eternity.
This appearance of an ending pursuit is what troubles me most about the doctrine of Hell. If Hell is eternal and inescapable, then it seems that there would come a point where God stops pursuing some people and turns Himself away from them. This is more than them rejecting God’s advancements of love, but that God at some point ends his advancements, He ends seeking their ultimate good by trying to bring them to Himself, He no longer is seeking the redemption of their soul and He is the one who ends the chase and pursuit. It is God in this model that cuts off His love and makes it inaccessible. I suppose you could say that somehow, even while people are in Hell, God is still somehow pursuing them and trying to win them to Him even though He knows they will be there forever. However, I don’t see how you can meaningfully say that when in Hell they are supposed to be eternally cut off from God and anything of God. You also could appeal to instances in the old testament when God gives people up to their passions and lets them do as they please and seems to exit the picture. I’m not sure if this would be a comparable situation with Hell, that God just decides to leave people to their own will and desires and exits the picture eternally in the same way. It does seem to be similar but I think the idea of Him leaving eternally is still hard to accept. So, this seems to hit at the core of a God who is supposed to be love and always pursuing his creation. This is the hardest thing for me to acknowledge about the doctrine of Hell.
Proponents of Universalism also often hold to different concepts of free will and justice than those who believe in eternal condemnation. Instead of perfect free will being the unmitigated agency of doing whatever it is you please, they see it as the release of the bondage of sin. Sin, distorts our reality and mind, and so we are incapable of having perfect rationality to make decisions. If all are affected by sin, then none can be free and make a perfectly rational decision. Only the one who is untainted by the deception of sin can make an honest and truthful decision about being with God forever. Once we reach a state where sin is no longer clouding our view of God, then we can make a perfectly free choice about God, and one who could do that would and will always choose God when not being blinded by sin.
They also see justice as always and only being restorative. This means justice is always aimed at restoring people to where they should be, and is never punitive. If Hell was eternal, it would in effect be punitive and not restorative because people would never be brought back to the place where they should be, which is with God, but forever being tormented with no building up of anything. They see this as an extreme violation of justice and God’s justice. Those who hold to justice having some sort of retributive nature and free will being the ability to do whatever you want, don’t face these issues when thinking about Hell. For Hell would satisfy the retributive nature of justice, and God viewing free will as one’s ability to choose unabated by external factors from their soul, would be able to freely reject Him and in turn choose Hell. Nevertheless, these to me are the most convincing intellectual foundations of Christian Universalism.
There are reasons to caution though. I think their biblical backing is a bit scarce and uncompelling, while the view of a Hell seems to be heavily and clearly supported in the bible. Without getting into the exact verses, it seems to me that on a selective reading some verses may support them. Also, it seems apparent to me that in order for there to be biblical support, there would nothing short of a complete overhaul of the way we view and interpret the bible, and even the way we trust and understand its authority.
This to me is a devastating blow. For the number one reason for trusting or not trusting a theological doctrine should be grounded in the bible. Now, it could be the case that since Christ, Christians have just misunderstood his teachings on Hell and so that’s why we all read and interpret the bible the way we do. However, that just seems a bit far fetched for me, and I trust for the most part that our biblical hermeneutics are reliable and they don’t point me towards Universalism, they may leave room for Annihilism though. Also, it seems inevitable that Universalism will likely diminish the fervor in spreading the gospel. Some, may oppose and say no it won’t. They may say that since people can still experience Hell for a bit, then there is still a pressing and urgent need to spread the gospel now. However, I just don’t see that being true in practicality, or in actuality.
It seems to me that if I know someone will eventually make it to Heaven, it takes some of the load off my back to work to get them too Christ, because they will end up there at some point and then be there for eternity. Now, my objection isn’t just pragmatic, but also in principle. It diminishes the need for the great commission and deflates Jesus’s words in ordering us to spread His good news to all the nations. Why work hard and sacrifice your life for a message that really doesn’t need to be heard when they can reap the benefits of it after dying? Some will claim that Universalism diminishes the work Christ has done on the cross, however I don’t think that actually holds up if you follow it long enough. But, it does seem to make this life we are living now, so much less important or valuable. If I can accept Christ in the next life, why do it now, why even live now? What’s the point of living now if I will get another chance at accepting Jesus in the afterlife? What consequences are there for me now, if when I die, I can just repent and be with Christ forever? I think the Universalist could have a response that answers some of these criticisms, but not all.
I think we can use Hitler as a way to understand, in some extent, why accepting Jesus after death, as the Universalists supposes, doesn’t mean we are void of the necessity to act moral now. It would seem to me that most every Christian would accept the belief that Hitler, theoretically, could have accepted Christ as his savior right before death and end up with Jesus. This may seem appalling and unacceptable to many, but there’s more here than meets the eye. I hold to the stance that, the moral conviction and sorrow and regret and guilt that Hitler would endure after turning to Christ and recognizing his wrongs, would be so weighty and overwhelming, that he would by no means just waltz into Heaven a happy camper. It would be so great and intense, that Hitler would be consumed by the horror of his actions making existing with those memories literally unbearable, outside the grace and saving redemption of Christ. This may be unsatisfying to some, but to those who have understood the depths of their own depravity and have been horrified and covered in darkness by their own evil, can only imagine the type of mental and spiritual refinement Hitler would have to work through after exposing his darkness to the light.
The sort of atrocities he would have to face head on and work through to live fully in Christ would be excruciating to reflect upon with the heart of Jesus in you. Now, I bring this up because, if Hitler can repent right before death, and his justice is his recognition and working through his brokenness, then why can’t he do the same thing after death? Why does it matter when he turns to God, if the justice he is due is only the recognizing and turning from his old life? (I’m using justice loosely here because really Hitler isn’t getting the justice he deserves because he is given grace when he repents which necessarily has to take away from justice). If God doesn’t dish out punishment just because we “deserve it” and must suffer through it for justice to be served, but all his “punishment” is really disciplining to restore, then it seems to me it doesn’t matter when someone turns to God if they have to face their sins the same way everyone else does.
I do think we can at least form the sort of response the Hell affirming Christian might have. First off, there could be a reason why God makes the cut off for turning to him when someone dies. I once heard someone say that God gives us enough information to reasonably believe or not believe in Him. He gives us a pointing finger, without giving us the exact vision of what it’s pointing to. The reason for this is because God wants us to trust in Him, and not be able to get to Him without His help. I know this may sound silly to some, but I think there is something deep and profound being said about trust that we can’t just dismiss. I think there is something to be said about the sort of relationship and connection you must have to with someone to trust them with your life when you don’t have all the answers. The important thing to remember is that God isn’t looking for blind faith, but reasonable faith. He has given us reason to trust He is who He says He is, I’ll admit not indisputable reason, but I hold that it is better than the reasons for doubting HIm.
This is meaningful because with Universalism, there is no need for any sort of trust in Christ. The way I understand it is that at some point someone will be encountered with the option to either choose God or choose Hell, and if they choose Hell and realize they hate it, they can just change their mind. There is no sort of trusting in God to be your savior at this point. In some ways, God would just be your way out of Hell. Now, this sometimes is how people view Christians commitment to God anyways, but I think it’s clear that a true Christian’s faith in Christ is because of a love to be with Him, and not a fear of Hell.
The reason why the trust part is so important to me is because it seems clear that this is what God wants from us. He wants us to give up control over our life and stop trusting ourselves, and trust that He is everything we need and is the only savior. Having to choose God before we die makes us have to give God this intense level of trust that He desires and deserves which is seen through the scriptures. If we can turn to Him at any moment after death, it diminishes this notion of trust. This isn’t complete, but I do think this notion of trust is a reason why God would have us make a decision about Him now on earth before the answers are given to us after death. When it comes to God’s justice, I just want to suggest that maybe God’s form of justice does consist of some sort of retributive and a punitive nature, and is not solely restorative. I know there’s more to say on this, but I must stop now and continue on.
So, after all that, I do feel left thinking that Universalism makes living this life now seem convoluted. It seems largely unnecessary to live now if we can just choose Him after we die. I don’t think God does things “just because”, and it seems to me that under Christian Universalism, this life ends up happening “just because” God decided for us to live it. I could go into more detail here why I’m lead to this conclusion but will refrain again to finish my other thoughts.
It also seems strikingly clear to me, that Christian Universalism isn’t strongly represented in Jewish thought. This is relevant to me because I would say that Christianity was never meant to become separate from Judaism, but to be a fuller revelation and improvement upon Judaism. It was meant to come directly from all the old prophecies of the Torah and prophets and didn’t begin as a new system of thought. Now, this doesn’t mean that God couldn’t introduce a new idea or concept at the time, for even the afterlife seems to be scarcely promoted in the old testament. However, it would be weird for God to introduce a completely new and unprecedented idea like that, because even though Christianity has some radical ideas and concepts compared to Judaism, they all seem to be rooted in the old testament and the tradition of Judaism. All the beliefs and concepts in Christianity can be traced back to ideas and concepts in the old testament. To me, I don’t think Christian Universalism has that capability. In all honesty, when it’s said and done, I think there are compelling arguments for Christian Universalism, but when they are scrutinized and brought up against the bible, it appears to be just a nice idea, and not a biblical truth.