Sorting Out the Options

Sorting Out the Options June 10, 2014

At the website, Rethinking Hell, you will discover a serious and nearly always very reasonable approach to the difficult and demanding topic of hell and how Christians are to understand the Bible and the history of interpretation. At the site there is this wonderful diagram of options:

Notice the three variants in the Traditionalism corner: some see the wicked as being dehumanized, which approaches Conditionalism because it it is nearly destruction;  the reconciliationist view emphasizes the wicked continuing to choose hell; the separationists emphasize the total subjugation of the wicked.

What is the evidence in the Bible or the argument that leads you to your view on these matters?

The conditionalist contends that immortality is a gift from God, not a right or an ontological property of humans. Immortality is a gift granted only to those in Life himself, Christ (2 Tim 1:10).

The collection of essays on Conditionalism I reading (and using) is called Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism.


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  • KentonS

    So… are *you* rethinking hell, Scot?

    Probably no surprise, I would put myself at the top of the triangle. The short version of the argument is that God revealed in Jesus loves us and wants us restored to Himself and to each other.

  • scotmcknight

    I’ve worked the texts a number of times; I’m open to revision when newer evidence becomes available or when better arguments are presented. This book is a very good collection of essays that deserve good readings by many.

  • Patrick

    The first several centuries of the church, universalism was a dominant view. That counts for something. Then along comes Augustine.

    How I arrived at universalism was we know we all have to qualify certain bible passages to match our theology, it doesn’t matter what your theology is.

    So, I choose to qualify the “going to hellfire” thing instead of the “I will do all My good pleasure”+ “it is not God’s Will that anyone perish” thing. Not to mention, if anything ever created stays lost to God, Jesus is a partial failure.

    Consider that for a while. I can’t go there anymore,not now that I realize what I’m saying and thinking when I do.

  • scotmcknight

    No, that’s not accurate that the first several centuries had universalism as the dominant view.

  • Graham Ware

    That’s not accurate at all. It was varied significantly in the early church. ECT advocates included Clement of Alexandria, Tatian, Tertullian, Cyprian et al. Conditionalists included Irenaeus, the Didache, Arnobius. Universalists include Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa. Most of the fathers though are ambiguous. Conditionalists and Traditionalists both claim Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome and Justin Martyr.

  • I find myself largely persuaded by Andrew Perriman’s historical-narrative perspective http://www.postost.net/lexicon/hell-unbiblical-doctrine having migrated there from conditionalism.

  • Stephen W

    I understood that the early church debate was between Universalism and Annihilationism, but certainly ECT doesn’t raise its ugly head until a few centuries later, and then only in the theology of the Western (i.e. Eurpoean) church.

  • What informs your take on this?

    About to finish *Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective* (a book I believe you’ve reviewed here), and author Archbishop Alfeyev declares that when Christ descended into hell, it was the dominant view (at least from Eastern perspective) that ALL were rescued. That until western church, several centuries later, began to see that as more metaphorical.

  • Phil Miller

    I read a book a few years ago called Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years that made a similar claim. It was first published in 1899, and I thought the author made at least a somewhat compelling case.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1148375724/ref=wms_ohs_product?ie=UTF8&psc=1

  • Phil Miller

    Personally, I’d say I find some combination of the conditionalist and universalistic view the most satisfying. The thing is, though, is that annihilationism really shares many of the same problems as a traditional view. What, for instance, happens to those who live their earthly life without ever hearing the Gospel? It doesn’t seem any more merciful to me for them to simply cease to exist than it does for God to send them to hell forever. Well, perhaps a little more, but in the end, if they’re are annihilated, it’s simply God saying that person’s life didn’t matter. Something about that just seems contra to God’s character.

    And I guess that’s ultimately why I find universalism appealing. I cannot find it my heart to forgive all my enemies, and I want to see them suffer. But I must believe that God isn’t like me in that regard. I like what Jurgen Moltmann said about universalism:

    Well, I’m afraid I’m not a universalist because you know there are
    perhaps a few people I do not want to see again. But God may be a
    universalist because he had created them and would certainly like to see
    them again. So this will be my answer to this question. But
    universalism is not only to speak about all human beings! Its to speak
    about the universe, the stars and the moon and the sun and the whole
    cosmos! And this is always misunderstood by these fundamentalists who
    want to have a dual end – the one go to heaven and the other go to hell,
    and the earth will be burned in the fire. This is anti-creation. I
    don’t want to go to heaven. The angels have their home in heaven. I want
    to be raised on earth and to live in the new earth on which justice
    dwells. And if God at the end will be “all in all”, where is there Hell?
    I think that Christ’s descent to hell has an eye opening effect for us,
    to those we wish to go to Hell. Martin Luther once said, in a treatise
    on preparing for dying: Don’t look at Hell in the destiny of others;
    don’t look at Hell in your own destiny. Look at Hell in the wounds of Christ; there Hell is overcome.
    Because Christ suffered hell before his dying not only afterwords, in
    his godforsakenness. So in the wounds of Christ you must look if you
    want to talk about Hell.

    http://moltmanniac.com/the-cross-and-universal-cosmic-salvation/

  • Bob Wilson

    Just like the Biblical exegesis, the distribution of views among the early church appears to be much debated. Many scholars recognize Clement of Alexandria as a universalist. What at least seems clear is that universalism was well represented among options accepted in the early church, with leading fathers like Gregory never censured for affirming confidence that God would ultimately achieve a complete and reconciling victory.

  • I have appreciated C. Baxter Kruger’s nuanced view of what is called Universalism in this chart…that there is still a factor of free will to choose acceptance of the eternal life offered through adoption in the New Covenant in Jesus. Only those who choose that life receive immortality. And that hell, like heaven, is part of our current reality. So, it seems that some of the components of conditionalism can be combined with some of the components of universalism to make a fourth way….

  • This is not a reply to any one respondent, but to many. My response is different from any I have seen. I believe that the reigning God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) strongly prefers that we merely trust God to handle this issue and that it is better for us not to have an opinion.

    In Romans 9, 10, and 11, Paul seemingly considers three possibilities: (1) that it might be that only a few select predestined people will be saved, (2) that most certainly, everyone who truly believes the gospel will be saved, and (3) that a lot of people we consider unlikely candidates might be saved (some read him as supporting universal salvation). He does not give a final answer, but trusts God to provide the best answer, an answer that is clearly above our pay-grade.

    Romans 11: 33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
    35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (ESV)

    We would certainly stop a lot of divisive and fruitless discussions if we all agreed to adopt that perspective.

  • Jon G

    I agree with Patrick here. There’s evidence for all three views when applying different hermeneutics to the text. For me, I have to filter them through the God revealed by Jesus. To me, if God’s love is unconditional and God is all powerful, then anything less Universalism undermines those two. That’s not to say that God wouldn’t punish, just that any punishment used would have to be Restorative as opposed to Retributive. I would think it is still a possibility that people could refuse God for a long, long time…but eventually, their eyes would be opened and they would turn back to him. ECT is definitely out of character for God and Annihilationism might be reasonable if one treats it like putting an injured animal out of its misery (although this still leaves the question of why God created that person in the first place knowing that they would need to be annihilated), but Universalism is the only path I see that maintains God’s unconditional “Fatherly” love…

  • Shawn Bawulski

    Scot, thanks for sharing this. Just a minor quibble: you say, “the reconciliationist view emphasizes the wicked continuing to choose hell; the separationists emphasize the total subjugation of the wicked.” It seems you’ve confused the labels, because they need to be switched in this sentence (the chart is correct).

  • Bob Wilson

    John, while interpretations of Romans 9-11 are diverse, I agree that your reading that it offers three outcomes about which Paul is claiming to be agnostic is uniquely different from others. I think most see 11:33-36’s doxology as confidence, not that “a select few will be saved,” but that despite the “ways” it is resolved being unknown, Paul is celebrating that his burden for his kinsman and the wider world will successfully culminate in God’s plan to have mercy on all (11:32) wherein all things will turn out to be gloriously “for Him.” This seems consistent with his trust that grace will “reign” (5:21).

  • Andrew Dowling

    I do have to agree with Scot that universalism wasn’t the “dominant” view of judgment/afterlife in Christianity’s first few centuries. One thing we have to remember is that the Church was never homogenous . . just like today, there were always differing views and opinions on a wide range of issues. That said, eventual universal reconciliation was definitely a widely held view in the Church until the Middle Ages . .moreso than today.

    An interesting take on this is found in the Apocalypse of Peter . . which was held to be inspired by many churches for centuries and which, judging by the number of copies that have been found and how often it was quoted by early Patristics compared to John, was more popular for a certain period than the Revelation that eventually made the canon. It describes hell in very grisly, pre-Dante detail. But at the end of Peter’s journey of the underworld, Jesus describes how the souls that dwell there will all eventually be saved via the prayers of those in heaven.