The recent discussion about hell and various forms of universalism may have peaked, but I believe they are topics that should remain in our thinking and study. I personally have high interest in this conversation. Last year in my Outreach magazine column, I wrote about the importance and need for churches to teach about hell, and since then I have taught on hell and universalism at several church leadership conferences. So reading the recent flurry of discussion on blogs, Twitter posts and the various comment threads has birthed both joys and concerns. Let me explain.
Theology conversations. I love that theology is being talked about. This brings me total joy. Sadly, sometimes it’s not happening in such a loving way. But I love seeing the average Christian (not just church leaders) question things that maybe they’ve never questioned before. Watching people address theological questions and topics—not just felt needs (finances, family, relationships, etc.)—brings me incredible joy. I wish more Christians would consistently think about and study theology.
Thorough arguments. Another joy is seeing some thoroughly thought-out responses to the questions of hell and the afterlife. I have read blog posts from people of various denominational backgrounds (not just super-conservative or liberal leaders who have somewhat predictable theologies), raising good questions and points. I have been so impressed and encouraged by the way many people have responded to and written about these issues.
Shallow arguments. At the same time, however, I also have read what seem like shallow arguments. For every in-depth blog post or even short Twitter comment, I’ve probably seen five that were based more on emotion than theology. And these shallow arguments have come from both extremes.
Some have commented very defensively, “Of course hell exists eternally; you are a heretic to challenge that.” Others said things like, “Everyone must be eventually saved because God is love, and He wouldn’t condemn people to hell for eternity.”
Yet neither of these short, flippant posts and comments offer thorough scriptural backing other than maybe a verse or two taken out of context. Instead, it seems they’re based primarily on personal feelings and don’t access the full breadth and depth of Scripture to make their case. If Scripture is cited or quoted, numerous critical passages—such as what the Bible says about holiness, sin’s consequences and the meaning of the atonement and sacrifice of Jesus on the cross—are left out and not addressed, especially among those arguing that in the end God will not allow people to be in hell.
I would certainly love to believe that in the end all are saved. My goodness, that would be a wonderful outcome! But I cannot justify shaping my opinion mainly on my personal hopes for what God’s love is or isn’t like, or what the afterlife holds—and not focus primarily on all of Scripture, church history and evangelical scholarship.
A “fresh” perspective. I also am concerned by how easy it is to view or think of universal reconciliation as a new concept. This theological position has been around throughout church history yet mainly dismissed. You can go to any Barnes & Noble store and find numerous books by past and present authors proposing the same theology. But it’s important to know that most of these writers weren’t or aren’t rooted in the evangelical world. In this recent discussion, I’ve seen C.S. Lewis’ writings referenced quite a bit. Yes, he shared some incredibly interesting ideas, but he was not a pastor, church leader nor a theologian. He was a classical English literature professor—and, of course, extraordinary thinker and writer—who actually did believe in a hell, though without the metaphors of fire, worms and torture.
While those in the more liberal mainline church stream have been open to this view for centuries, to many evangelicals hearing this theology for the first time, it can sound and feel new and “fresh.” To those who grew up hearing and believing that the Gospel was mainly about being a “ticket to heaven” when you die, the theory is very appealing. Honestly, I can understand why it’s a more desirable viewpoint. And because this discussion is new in the evangelical world, ancient theologies like this often feel “fresh,” especially to emerging generations.
Evangelism de-emphasized further. Another critical concern centers on the potential evangelistic ramifications of believing that all are saved (even through Jesus). Some have said that if we even resist the possibility that all are saved in the end, we have a “stingy” view of salvation. I find that comment almost offensive. As I said before, I would love to believe that all are saved in the end. But my personal convictions and years of studying Scripture and church history won’t allow that.
Believing in the cross as a substitutionary atonement for our sins and the reality of hell isn’t “stingy.” It would be if I delighted in the truth that all aren’t saved or became self-focused and didn’t do anything about it. But I and many others want to see God’s forgiveness shared so abundantly with other people that we have devoted ourselves to being on mission. We have started churches, taken risks and given our all to see people experience the grace, love and freedom found in Jesus in this life—and after we die.
Thinking about someone who will not experience being with God in heaven for all eternity grieves and horrifies us. And then motivates us to do something about it. That’s so much of what the church’s mission has been and is about. It’s what you see driving Jesus’ disciples in the book of Acts as they went out to speak about judgment, repentance, being “saved” and explained the Gospel as both kingdom now and future. How would Acts read if the disciples had believed everyone was eventually saved? We do need to study Jesus’ wise words on experiencing the kingdom in this life, but don’t forget that He also talked about judgment and afterlife, as did Peter, Paul, John and the writer of Hebrews. It seems that if the disciples had embraced a universal reconciliation view of everyone being saved, it would have totally taken the steam out of their message of urgency. How would Paul’s famous message at Mars Hill be different if he believed that all those worshipping other gods would eventually be saved in the end?
The value of evangelism, especially among emerging generations, has already significantly decreased due to so much emphasis on social justice to the point that Ron Sider—founder of Evangelicals for Social Action and known as the father of social justice for the contemporary evangelical church—recently raised this concern. Now add in a universal reconciliation conversation to an already softened focus on evangelism, and I have to wonder: Will this discussion end up convincing people that everyone is eventually saved in the end, and as a result, lessen the urgency of telling others about Jesus even further?
If it turns out that some sort of universal reconciliation is true, then what a joy to know that more and more people will be in heaven for all eternity with God—to know that we’ve done as much as possible to see as many people as possible learn about the saving grace of God through Jesus and the cross. But what if it isn’t true? What if it’s just hopeful thinking and that hopeful thinking ends up lessening our felt burden for others, thus making us even more passive about evangelism?
By far, my ultimate concern is for the people that need to hear the message of salvation. Time will tell what happens with this discussion. But I do know this: People matter to God. May our love for Him and for the people He loves only grow with our study of Scripture, and may it cause us to be all the more passionate for others to experience the good news of Jesus, the cross and salvation in this life and the life to come.