The Problems with Universalism and the Denial of Hell

Perhaps some of you have seen the recent Netflix movie Come Sunday and the subsequent TV interviews with the Pentecostal minister who was defrocked for his denial of Hell, based on his belief that the Holy Spirit told him there wasn’t such a place, that in the end ‘Love Wins’, to borrow a familiar phrase. The movie raises the question about the universal love of God, and the universal atonement of Christ, and how anyone could end up in Hell if both of those things are true. Interestingly, these questions do not arise in certain forms of Reformed theology because they don’t believe in universal atonement, they believe God died just for the predetermined elect (though I hasten to add there is a diversity of opinion in Reformed theology about whether Jesus died for everyone).

No, these sorts of questions arise in a more Arminian context where it is assumed that the Fourth Evangelist wasn’t kidding when it says ‘God loved the world, and didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world’. I also assume he was not kidding, nor was he exaggerating. So how to respond to Mr. Pearson? There are a variety of responses. The first thing to say is that the concept of Hell is clearly present in the NT and affirmed by no less a person than Jesus himself, who calls it Gehenna, and says it is a place where the fires never goes out. It is also affirmed elsewhere in the NT, particularly vividly in Rev. 20-22. One of the important things about apocalyptic prophecy like we have in Revelation is that it seeks to answer the question— if there is an Almighty God, why is there such injustice in the world, even when it comes to God’s people? The answer of such literature, including in Revelation is that God will one day resolve the justice issues. The martyred saints under the altar in heaven who are crying out How long? (Rev 6) are answered that only God ultimately can deal with the justice issues, and they should be left in his hands for he will take care of them. In the end, justice will be done.

Leave aside for the moment the problem for universalists that the NT is quite clear that there is both a heaven and hell awaiting us (see e.g. the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Lk.16), and the further problem that no one should believe that the Holy Spirit told anyone something that flatly contradicts the sayings of Jesus or the general teaching of the NT on some subject— some spirit may have spoken to Rev. Pearson but it certainly wasn’t the Holy Spirit, who, as the Fourth Gospel tells us is the agent of Christ, and simply applies the words of Christ and the Scriptures to people, NOT making up new pronouncements that contradict the clear teachings of Christ and the NT.

Leave all that aside, what else is wrong with the message of Come Sunday? Something really huge— it completely misunderstands the character of God who is both just and merciful, both righteous and compassionate, both holy and loving. Not one without the other but both. Indeed, the death of Jesus on the cross is not merely an expression of God’s love, it is also an expression of God’s need to deal with sin and wickedness because he is a holy God.

Now I have no problems with emphasizing the love of God, and placing it as the most important thing to say about God, God is love, but here’s the thing— God doesn’t negate, ignore, or take a pass on his other attributes in order to be loving. And furthermore a righteous God cares about justice finally being done, or else he would cease to be something essential the Bible says He is. God has set up the moral arc of the universe such that it tends towards justice, not justice without mercy but yes— justice. It is the rightful cry of the oppressed, the abused, the suppressed, the neglected, the poor, the unjustly incarcerated, the innocent victims of chemical weapons bombing, and so much more. Who wants to live in a world where justice is not going to finally be done, but even unrepentant Adolph Hitler gets a pass though he had 6 million Jews slaughtered in death camps? Not me, for sure.

So, the message that God is love, has to be contextually understood in light of all the other major attributes of God, and the salvation plan that God has for human beings. But let’s say something about love itself—- love, if it really is love, must be freely given and freely received. It cannot be predetermined, it cannot be coerced, it cannot be compelled. And so when we read the Bible and it says that we are to respond to God by loving God with our whole heart, loving neighbor as self, and Jesus added, even loving our enemies— what is presupposed by these commandments is that with the strong aid of God’s grace, we can freely do this.

Notice the word freely— freely we have received the love of God, and we freely respond. But what of love unrequited? If God is a lover of humankind, what if they say ‘no thank you! I don’t want to love you! I don’t even want to believe in you! Go away!’ Hell is the place where God says ‘if you insist on having it your way, then your will be done’. ‘If you insist on being bad to the bone despite my love for you, and refuse to repent, refuse to believe the Gospel refuse to accept my Son, refuse to live a godly life— then there is a place in the afterlife where you can carry on in that direction’. In other words, precisely because God is love, and the required response is that we freely love him back, it is not inevitable that all will be saved. It just isn’t. Sometimes, love doesn’t win. Sometimes love is unrequited and tragically, this is even the case with God’s love.

Now we could debate whether the NT view of Hell is eternal torment or annihilation. There is a case to be made for either view, but in either case, love doesn’t win in regard to those who go there. Maybe they cease to exist, or maybe Hell is the place where you experience the absence of God’s loving presence forever, and realize you’ve eternally blown, as the parable in Lk. 16 suggests. Either way, God, who genuinely loves the world, and Jesus who died for the sins of the world, doesn’t get what they want in such cases. Indeed, God weeps over those who love their sin more than they love God.

And on last time— beware of anyone who tells you ‘the Holy Spirit told me’ when the content that follows that preface is something the the Scriptures clearly deny or repudiate. Whether the subject is human sexual behavior or the character of God or something else, at the end of the day someone who says ‘the Spirit told me’ and then contradicts the Scripture has placed his own sense of authority and his own desire to interpret the Bible in a particular aberrant way over the witness of the best Bible interpreters in the church for the last 2,000 years and over the witness of Scripture itself. And when you make yourself, the final arbiter of truth, you are not submitting to or expressing God’s truth, you have become a false teacher and should not be listened to or followed.


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