Burn-them-all vs. Universalism: A false choice

A common phenomenon within theological, political, and other discussions that get us worked up, is that someone frames a question as “either-or” and then others jump onto that argument as “for” one side or the other…without anybody really stopping to consider whether the question itself was properly framed to begin with.  The recent controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” seems to me a prime example of this.  The “either-or” of the Bell saga is, of course, the dichotomy of Universal Salvation on one hand, and strict Evangelical exclusivism on the other.

The rival positions are easy to characterize and even easier to caricature.  The Universalist argument covers a spectrum somewhere between “every good and sincere person will go to heaven, because that’s what a loving God would do,” and “because God is so loving, he’ll keep on trying to lovingly win even the inhabitants of hell so that eventually hell will be empty.”  In this range of thought, hell is either nonexistent, or destined for obsolescence.  Evangelicals respond with the doctrines of Original Sin and Universal Revelation, to insist that all humans are guilty before God and deserving of eternal, conscious punishment unless they deliberately and specifically appropriate Jesus’ saving work on the cross in atonement for their sins.  In this model, hell must be substantially more populous than heaven, and disproportionately populated with non-American (or at least non-Western) humanity who had the misfortune to be born where they wouldn’t grow up with the “truth.”

The controversy, and at times the vitriol, have flowed fast and furious.  But it seems to me that the vast majority of debaters have accepted without much examination, that these two extreme alternatives are all we have from which to choose.  I believe they’re both not just wrong, but badly wrong.  Part of the problem  is that both perspectives seem to circle around the assumption that what happens when we die is the point, the central focus, of faith.  As I have already written, I am convinced that Jesus’ teaching is far more concerned with the life he’s called us to live now, than with the nature of any afterlife we may encounter.  There are, however, errors to examine in both the Universalist and Evangelical positions.

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Universalism, for its part, fails to engage seriously with the very real punishment language that occurs in the New Testament.  Luke 13:24-29, for example, seems to describe a certain irrevocability to the exclusion of those who have previously rejected Jesus in life (note, however, that Jesus is describing the condemnation of those of Israel among his hearers, who have rejected him).  2 Thess. 1:5-10 similarly implies a finality to condemnation.  Extreme universalism seems to deny the existence of punishment at all; the more moderate variety seems to replace hell with purgatory.  Neither of these positions actually appear in any scripture I can find.  For all its appeal to the loving character of God, it’s been my observation that most universalist arguments seem to rely far more on human logic (God can’t possibly be that cruel) than they do on a scriptural foundation.

But even in their logic, Universalists have concluded more than their own evidence might suggest.  Let us, for the moment, accept the attractive notion that God would not be so cruel as to allow any of his creation–however depraved–to be consciously tortured forever (a notion I actually believe to be true, but not scripturally-supportable so only a theory not a dogma).  Even if true, it is not therefore a logical necessity that everybody go to heaven.  It is quite possible that only God’s followers actually go to heaven–for that matter, that only these win immortality–and that the rest die or are annihilated; this would satisfy the question of justice-vs-cruelty as well as universalism does.  Furthermore, this concept has some circumstantial biblical support…from Genesis 2 & 3 where man is only immortal when granted access to the tree of life, to John 3:16 which posits life-vs-death, not eternal-good-life vs. eternal-bad-life.  The idea that immortality itself is a gift to the faithful and not the nature of all souls, actually fits the bill both for the reward of those who love God, and the exclusion/damnation of the rest, without making God into the torturing monster we read in (for example) the works of Jonathan Edwards.  (Note, of course, that the error of universal immortality is one committed by those who espouse eternal conscious torment as well; it’s not just a universalist concept)

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On the face of it, the Evangelical position may seem to be more scripturally-based; it certainly does not appeal to any sort of human reason that feels good, anyhow.  However, the Evangelical insistence that hell is the fate of everyone who has not consciously appropriated Jesus’ work of grace, is also not biblical.  As I pointed out in my previous study on hell, the condemnatory language of the New Testament is reserved largely, not for everyone who has not affirmatively “accepted Christ,” but rather for those who have deliberately and consciously opposed him and his work.  Christian creeds notwithstanding, the Bible is mostly silent on the fate of those who have never had a real chance to consider the claims and call of Jesus.  Jesus himself, in contrast, was extremely harsh toward those who were certain they were “saved” but who, by their laws and demands, actually drove others from him (see Matt. 23).  It is my rarely-popular view that this warning of condemnation applies most to those “Christian” leaders whose conduct, demands, and hypocrisy cause those who might be attracted to Jesus to leave off seeking him.   Today’s analog to first-century Pharisees is found mostly in churches.

In addition, however, the Evangelical position fails to confront Jesus’ words that seem to suggest varying degrees of punishment depending on the knowledge of the individual in relation to their conduct (see Luke 12:42-48).  Taken together with Paul’s observation in Rom. 2:12-16 that some Gentiles, without direct exposure to the Law (and dare we add, the gospels?) still live lawfully, and I have to conclude that simply thinking the “right” things about Jesus is neither (entirely) necessary nor sufficient for salvation.

Now before you Evangelicals write me off as having just preached universalism, please re-read the fourth paragraph of this post!  That is NOT what I said…and this is precisely why I believe we have to cleave the Evangelical-vs-Universalist knot and re-examine the whole thing.  Biblically, I think the following points some closer to the truth:

  1. God desires that all humanity recognize the lordship of Jesus Christ, and has provided some form of immortal, eternal (and largely incomprehensible) reward for those who love and serve him.  This reward was not, however, a central point in the teaching of either Jesus or the Apostles, and is better seen as “icing on the cake” than the whole meal.
  2. God also has clear punishment in store for those who actively try to prevent people from seeking him and attaining to the state described in (1).  The true nature or duration of that punishment is not clearly described in scripture, and is open to considerable debate.
  3. There are an awful lot of people in the world that don’t really fit into either category (1) or (2) above.  History and theology are replete with pontification over what will happen to these people, but a candid examination of the Scriptures turns up essentially no meaningful instruction on these people’s fate.  The Evangelical and the Universalist both think they know…and that they know how wrong the other is…but neither really has a clue and we’d all be better off if both would just shut up.
  4. The command of Jesus is clear that those in category (1) are supposed to do their level best to move people from categories (2) and (3) to category (1)…not because of the fate of either group, nor because of their own fate, but rather because Jesus “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9), and because “all power has been given to Jesus” (Matt. 28: 18-20).

So…will all but a few burn in hell, or will everyone eventually be saved?  Biblically, probably neither.  But after all, “what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22, out of context!)

6 thoughts on “Burn-them-all vs. Universalism: A false choice”

  1. dan mcm

    Good post, Dan. You and I apparently think a lot alike on this subject, though not exactly the same. (Do any two people think exactly the same?)

    I like your 4 categories of people, especially the point that when it comes to group #3, we’d probably be better off if the evangelicals and universalists would both shut up!

    Good stuff…..

  2. April K

    Nice analysis. I’ve been reading about Universalism over at “The Upside Down World” (where I found the link to this article), and while I find some of the arguments for it compelling, I’m not sure I can fully embrace it. (My hesitation concerns the issue of violating free will–that God would force people who had blatantly rejected Him to live in His presence for eternity.) However, I’ve also become completely dissatisfied with the hardline evangelical view of hell as well, where anyone who has cut their hair or gotten a tattoo will burn forever in the Lake of Fire. My believing friends and I are still searching for the truth on this matter, complicated by the fact that so much mystery surrounds it. I suppose we’ll have to trust that God will work it all out–to both our satisfaction and His. 🙂

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Thanks, April. I would agree with you that free will poses a serious question, but for me it’s still secondary to the reality that Scripture’s witness is more equivocal than one might wish. It’s one of many places I think we need to accept our own ignorance with more equanimity than we usually do.

  3. Jason

    I think you have a good article here. I like it. It can potentially humble to groups of thinkers. Although I lean toward universalism and refuse to believe in eternal torment, your article makes a lot of sense. Have you heard of an author named David Rudel. He wrote the book “Who Really goes to Hell: The Gospel You’ve never heard”. His book makes a lot of sense to me and seems to explan much of the confusion modern readers find in the Bible. He like you, is neither a universalist nor a dume and glume God tortures all who guess the wrong beliefs sort of person. I for one liked the book and I think you and others may too.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Hi Jason and thanks for stopping by. I haven’t read Rudel’s book though I’ve heard positive things about it. I probably should pick it up. Thanks for the recommendation.

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