Updated: Nov 28
When I was thirteen, I read the sermon on the mount for the first time from a green covered Living Bible. Somehow, in those moments, I knew I had to follow Jesus, or accept him, or something. But from that moment, my life changed.
Later, I learned that by accepting him, I took on a set of theological beliefs that “all Christians” accept.
As I’ve shared before, Christians are given a backpack of beliefs when they enter or are brought up in the church. Little by little, responsible believers examine the contents of their pack, and weigh whether they actually accept and follow these beliefs.
Some call this deconstruction, doubt, or even back-sliding. I just call it responsible Bible study, thinking, and living.
As I’ve examined the Bible and, by faith, have come to know Jesus more, the biggest shift in my faith is that I no longer believe in an eternal conscious torment called Hell. I simply carried the thing in my backpack too long.
The weird thing is, I don’t know if I ever believed in it. And I doubt many do.
What started my questioning was coming upon the recurring Biblical theme that God desires to restore his creation which includes humanity. I kept reading passages showing it was against his nature for there to be a place or time where God – the eternal, omnipresent being – will withdraw his presence for all eternity.
I kept having to explain away passages like “He (Jesus) is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2),
“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 4:10). There seemed to be a repeated theme that God in Christ will somehow, eventually, save all.
I also started to realize that the existence of Hell indicates God loses. On some level, sin wins, and God does not have victory over death or separation or sin. The doctrine of Hell diminishes God’s omnipotence and omnipresence. Essentially, a “Hell” means God is not God.
I first suspected it was simply my desire overwhelming my intellect – that because of my soft heart, I wanted everyone to be saved, and it was just too awful to believe God would ever throw someone into an unquenchable lake of fire. That’s not a bad reason to not believe in Hell. But I wanted to believe something because it was true, not just because I wanted it to be true.
There are virtually no believers wanting others to suffer. As I pondered the passages teaching Christian Universal salvation, thought about the character of God, and realized the weakness for the argument of eternal conscious torment, my mind shifted to Ultimate Reconciliation for all.
Certainly the Bible indicates some sort or judgment for evildoers as indicated in Matthew 25, Revelation 21, and other passages. I believe there is a judgment that heals us from our broken selfish destructive selves, but the Bible teaches us that the purpose of God’s punishment is to lead us to restoration and relationship. Think Babylonian Exile; think Romans 11; think book of Jonah.
As I said above, I doubt many Christians consciously believe in Hell. As David Bentley Hart put it, they believe that they believe in Hell. When was the last time you heard a sermon on Hell? Guess what? Your pastor has put Hell on the back burner. They generally never think about it, which indicates it’s not important to him or her. In fact, when confronted with the possibility of a Hell, any pastor’s response should be, “I hope not.”
God’s Love is Not Greater Than Mine
I couldn’t believe that I was more compassionate and concerned about humanity than the almighty, all loving, eternal God. Our desire to see everyone saved cannot outmatch God’s desire for everyone to be saved. Surely God is more compassionate, loving, and forgiving than I. In his omniscience and omnipotence, could he not create a way for all to be saved? I think the answer is yes. And I think He’s already done it.
I believe the burden of proof is on those who actively believe in the doctrine of Hell. It’s much more difficult to prove Biblically, than to believe that a few passages have been misinterpreted. And I say “actively believe,” because for most Christians, the idea of Hell is a vague, back of the mind, “God’s ways are higher than our ways” concept.
We’ve stuffed the doctrine deep in our backpack hidden from view or have lost it in a forgotten compartment. In any case, we don’t act like it’s true. If we did, we would talk to everyone we know about it, because we care about their future. We would use it as part of our witness instead of being slightly embarrassed that the doctrine exists. “Oh Hell? Yeah, I guess we believe in that, but let’s not discuss THAT.”
The reason we don’t really believe in Hell is because the very idea of eternal conscious torment goes against the character of God, who throughout scripture is constantly seeking to forgive and restore. Even with C.S. Lewis’s definition of someone choosing separation from God, it’s a stretch of the mind — a finite creature relegated by an infinite being to torturous punishment for eternity.
All Will Be Saved
A common objection of Christian Universal salvation is that Jesus’s death was in vain. In other words, if everyone is saved, then what’s the point of Jesus dying? But Christian Universalism holds that Jesus's death was effective for everyone, and that everyone will one day believe. Not only is Jesus’s sacrificial death sufficient, it’s sufficient for all! If not, then God's love is limited, anemic, or is somehow resistible.
God’s fidelity to Israel and other nations (read the book of Jonah) shows his desire for all to come under his umbrella of forgiveness. In the gospels, Jesus astounds and frustrates the religious leaders by reaching out to the unwanted, cast off, and forgotten, including reaching “every nation” through the family of God (Matthew 28:19).
Paul teaches that eventually, ALL will be saved. The outcome according to Philippians is that “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,” (Philippians 2:10-11). There exists the idea that knowledge of Christ will be universal someday – even those “under the earth.” In other words, those who have died will come to a knowledge of Christ. I do not and can not agree with reformed theology that this act of worship described in Philippians is put upon the condemned before being sent to an eternal punishment of separation.
I was taught that all infants who die go to heaven. This was because they died before the “age of accountability.” This age of accountability is mercifully taught far and wide in evangelical Bible churches. Because these children die before they could be given a fair choice to follow Jesus or not, they are given entrance into salvation simply by the grace of God. “Age of accountability” is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. It is inferred, I believe correctly, that God is a just God, and therefore doesn’t hold children accountable for what they do not know. This is significant.
I pondered the simple supposition of a 40-year-old dying in 300 A.D. in North America. They couldn’t have possibly ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth. Would a just God condemn this one, though they are past the age of accountability? Could it not be argued that they, like the child who died, also do not know?
Would they be like C.S. Lewis’s Emeth in The Last Battle who, having worshiped Tash (the false god) all his life, discovers that Aslan is the true God? And having died, he discovers he has been worshiping the correct God, but by a different name?
What about someone who is raised in another religion in a remote country and has literally never heard of Jesus of Nazareth?
Or someone who hears about Jesus in the context of an abusive and destructive family or church and so rejects the message of Christ? Does God show favoritism to countries and regions and families where the message of Christianity is accessible? Does he arbitrarily bless the children of families without abuse, but curses the children of families with abuse? I’m starting to see why Calvinistic Predestination was created.
Where do God’s justice and mercies end?
These individuals would not be given the same chance to believe or understand the beauty and power of Christ’s death and resurrection as I’ve been given in the early 21st century, United States.
As a Christian, it makes much more sense to believe that Jesus’s death and resurrection covered all, or will cover all, even those who have not yet heard. As Jesus proclaimed the gospel to those in “prison” after he had died, creating the “harrowing of Hell,” so God in his mercy, will find a way for all to eventually believe and so be saved (1 Peter 3:18-19; 4:6). I am "convinced," if one can be, that God calls all to himself, and in his omniscience and infinite resource of time, all will be saved.
Because God has ALL time at his disposal, and ALL knowledge of ALL contingencies, knowing the hearts of ALL people, will he not patiently bring ALL people to himself? Eventually?
Predestination and the Wrath of God
There are many who believe that some have been elected to salvation, and others elected to… well… not salvation, to put it nicely. Yep, Hell.
The strongest argument for predestination is that God can because he’s God. And anything he does is “good,” because anything God does is good.
If this sounds like circular reasoning, that’s because it is. This argument is often used to defend Old Testament passages of God’s seeming wrath bringing death to innocents, or at least his ambivalence about it.
Even those who maintain this idea, cannot consistently believe it. This would mean there is no objective good. It would also mean there is no objective evil. In fact, the whole idea of morality would devolve into a kind of relativism.
The Bible teaches God’s nature (and morality) as observable, without special revelation: “For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1). God tells us that good and evil can be objectively observed without caveats. If men (or humans) are without excuse, then they must all be given the same equal chance.
The power and love of God is diminished when we believe, like the Calvinist, that the saving work of Jesus Christ is only for a chosen few, or like the Arminians, that all have an equal choice in the matter. There are no equal choices, after all, because there are no equal experiences, opportunities, and privileges.
A Different Kind of Hell
I’ve also heard Christians argue (including myself) that Hell is the ultimate wish of the non-believer. It is nothing more than separation from God, and therefore they have chosen their deepest desire, to be apart from their creator for all eternity. Does this make sense in light of the nature of God? Does God give up? Does God’s love fail? Can there exist on the same plane of reality an all-loving, all-powerful God, and a monument to God’s failure? A location or realm where one is separated from love for eternity?
The reason I can’t believe in an eternal separation or an eternal conscious torment, is that it takes away from the person of God – that he is absolutely in control, and that his presence fills all creation. I cannot believe in an eternal place where God, in his omnipresence, does not allow himself to go.
It’s been argued that because of God’s supreme holiness, he cannot tolerate sin in his presence. Although used as a metaphor, the idea of this limitation was done away with when Jesus, who is God, not only tolerated the presence of sin, but deliberately entered into spaces where sin, sickness, and brokenness thrived. This is what the gospels are about. God, in the person of Christ, came to spread his love, light, and yes, holiness. God doesn’t need to turn away from sin. God dominates and destroys sin to create spaces of fulfillment, life, and peace.
Knowledge of the Hell in Eternity
How could I, a redeemed believer, enjoy the presence and love of God for all eternity, knowing that friends and family are forever separated from his presence and love? For when God reveals himself, who can resist? The Christian Universalist theologian Robin Parry said, “If eternal punishment or Hell is the end of the story for the creature, then Christ’s redemptive work for those creatures has failed. And sin has forever left its mark on the story of creation – its mark forever on that creation.” ✝︎
Although there are some difficult Biblical passages seeming to teach eternal conscious torment, there is an overwhelming number of passages teaching Christ will successfully redeem and restore all of creation. The latter set of passages are much more consistent with what we know about God’s character and desire.
The Bible and Christian Universalism
An argument from silence is a weak one, yet it’s striking that Hell is never mentioned in the book of Acts, the recording of the early days of the church where they were quickly winning people to the knowledge of Jesus Christ. At the birth of the Christian Church, the early apostles saw no need to mention eternal conscious torment. They mention judgment, yes. But judgment can mean a means of restoration, and not simply punishment.
I’ve been told if I don’t believe in Hell, I have to ignore certain passages. My response is I have to ignore a greater number of passages which have a stronger fidelity to the rest of scripture and reflect the heart of God more consistently. While the idea of “proof texting” (taking verses out of context to prove a particular point), is often misused to silence adversaries, these verses may be a needed jolt to those who argue against Christian Universalism.
Here are a few of the many:
1 Corinthians 15:21-22. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive (bold mine).
This passage is revealing, because Calvinists and most modern evangelicals would agree with the first part: ALL men (people) are corrupted because of the sin of Adam. It’s called original sin, and it’s why we are all found guilty from birth, even if we never did anything wrong (which we do). The problem is that “ALL” is also used to describe those saved by Christ. If EVERYONE is corrupted, then EVERYONE will ultimately be saved according to these verses.
Colossians 1:19-20. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 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’s that pernicious “ALL” again! The “him” in this passage is Christ. Christ will reconcile everything to himself by making peace through his blood. An eternal Hell would mean Christ was unable to accomplish this.
Romans 5:17-19. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
Again, there is the comparison of the desperate condition of humanity, having fallen away because of the one man – Adam, with the all encompassing provision of salvation given by the one man – Jesus. The one act of righteousness justifies all people. Not some. Not just the chosen. All. Though verse 19 says that many will be made righteous, it stands as a comparison that many were made sinners. Although some argue this verse claims that the word “many” shows that some will not be made righteous, the same critics will never argue that only some were made sinners by Adam.
Although some of the following passages are stronger than others, here are some more for your consideration:
Romans 11:32. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
2 Corinthians 5:14. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.
1 Timothy 2:3-6. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time.
Hebrews 2:9. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
Ephesians 1:9-10. he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
Colossians 1:27-28. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.
John 12:32. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
2 Peter 3:9. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
There are verses and passages which seem to argue against Christian Universal salvation.
Lazarus and the Rich Man. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus Jesus tells in Luke 16 seems to indicate that after death, there is a barrier between the saved (Abraham’s side) and the damned (Hades). Hades is the Greek word for the Hebrew word Sheol. Sheol is defined as the place or the state of the dead. It’s important to note that in no other place in the gospels does Jesus refer to Sheol. Looking at the context, his main point is not to teach about the afterlife, but about the proper use of riches and the danger of enjoying the pleasures of this life at the expense of having mercy on others.
Another problem with using this passage to teach eternal conscious torment, is that it seems to teach the reason people will go to Hell is because they are rich and enjoy their wealth while on earth, while all poor people will immediately be ushered into paradise after death to be comforted.
Even if this passage is about the afterlife, there is nothing in the passage indicating it’s a permanent state. The Bible more consistently teaches God will ultimately resurrect the dead, redeem creation, and restore life as he meant it to be (see 1 Corinthians 15).
The Sheep and the Goats. In Matthew 25, Jesus describes events at the end of the age, where he will return and the nations and its peoples will be judged for their deeds. They are separated into two groups, the sheep and the goats — the sheep will be saved, and the goats sent to destruction. The separation has nothing to do with belief or religion. Instead, the passage indicates those who have mercy, love, and kindness toward the weak are the ones who “know” Jesus, and these will be saved (the sheep). Those who ignored the needs of the needy will be condemned (the goats). This is clearly a parable to illustrate practical love leading to life, versus indifference or greed leading to death and destruction. This is a particularly weak passage against Christian Universalism.
This little paper is by no means exhaustive (perhaps exhausting!), and is simply one Christian’s journey of emptying his backpack to rethink what he believes. For more study please see the “for further reading” below.
This seems like a profound shift, but it shouldn’t be. It’s one of those beliefs which feels fundamental and foundational, but that we don’t actually believe. At the very least, for the sake of the love of God and humanity, it’s worth taking it out of our backpack to research, study, and meditate.
If it helps our understanding of God and convincing the world of a loving Creator revealed by his son, Jesus Christ, should we not look into it, Christians?
I simply want to follow and know the Jesus of the Bible, rather than a contrived view that I have created and perhaps inherited. My prayer is that of Paul’s:
“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippian 3:10-14)
✝︎“Robin Parry – The Historical Roots of Christian Universalism.” Faith for Normal People, season 1, episode 7. Pete Enns Ph.D., March 23, 2023, https://thebiblefornormalpeople.com/episode-7-robin-parry-the-historical-roots-of-christian-universalism/.
Many of my thoughts developed through these titles. I would start at this website to watch these video answers from Robin Parry:
Evans, Rachel Held. “Ask a Universalist...(Response).” Rachel Held Evans, 5 July 2013, rachelheldevans.com/blog/ask-a-universalist-response
I recommend these books for further reading:
Bell, Rob. Love Wins. HarperOne, 2011.
Evans, Rachel Held. Faith Unraveled. Zondervan, 2010. (Previously titled Evolving in Monkey Town).
Hart, David Bentley. That All Shall Be Saved. Yale University Press, 2019.
Talbott, Thomas. The Inescapable Love of God. Cascade Books, 2014.
Zahnd, Brian. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. WaterBrook, 2017.