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

Burn-them-all vs. Universalism: A false choice April 25, 2012

Kurt’s Note: My friend Dan Martin who blogs over at Nailing it to the Door, submitted this guest post on the false dichotomy people set up for understanding Hell.  I agree with his basic premise and have outlined my view in the series “Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares?.”


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.

*     *     *     *     *    *

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)

*     *     *     *     *    *

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!)

Check out Dan’s Resources on Hell:

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  • Edthornton25

    “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.”
    I don’t think that’s fair. Thomas Talbott and Robin Parry (Gregory MacDonald) have both advanced substantial arguments for universalism based on scripture, dealing with the passages you mention. The non-universalists come up with some pretty strained interpretations of the ‘all’ passages (1 Corinthians 15, Colossians 1). Each position has problem texts, and texts that seem to back their position up.

    • Well, Dan said “most” so I think he was trying to generalize a point.  I’d agree with the general point that most universalist arguments do seem to be based on logic.  If I had to just use logic, then God (if loving) wouldn’t have carried out His decision to let the flood sweep over the earth in Genesis — but it happened, and I have to remind myself His ways are not my ways.

      But, good of you to insert a few tangible names of people that do build arguments for a more inclusive view of things.  That seems to be far better than what many of the universalist view seem to bring.

    • A. Wayne

      Ed, I absolutely agree with you. I’ll tell you what it comes down to: Universalists interpret the “uncomfortable” hell passages to mesh with their beliefs and traditionalists interpret the Universalist passages to mesh with theirs! Of course Universalists have two advantages: Universalism has a ring of more philosophical truth and blends better with the “God is love” idea, and secondly, Jesus spoke in parables, Paul did not. So it’s actually more valid to take Paul’s words as literal and Jesus’ as metaphorical.

      A. Wayne.

      • I’d have to say your hermaneutical approach concerns me, A. Wayne. Are you suggesting that because Jesus sometimes used parables, all his words ought to be interpreted as parable/metaphorical? I hope not. Paul used hyperbole too (wishing circumcision advocates would emasculate themselves). You’re certainly not suggesting Paul never used metaphor, I hope.

        Bottom line, if Jesus and Paul are in conflict, better go with Jesus. But before you do, double-check if the perceived conflict is between Jesus and Paul, or between people misappropriating the words of both. You’ll note I used both gospel and epistle evidence in my original piece.

  • Kenton

    “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.”

    Well, besides the fact that that’s hardly the nicest thing I’ve heard today, I find it ironic that Dan says that while at the same time he employs both sides’ rhetoric into his own argument. 🙂

  • ReasonDisciple

    The BEST website that I have ever read on this subject is by a man named L. Ray Smith of http://bible-truths.com. The name of his ministry is called “Exposing Those Who Contradict” (Titus 1:9). And he writes exclusively on hell and the lake of fire. Check him out. You will probably hate him by the first few paragraphs.

  • Richard
    • Richard

      The article makes a good case for everlasting punishment.

      • Not so much, actually, Richard.  The author in several cases makes a rather silly inference about hell and the lake of fire, that if the Bible doesn’t say they have an end, they must be eternal.  That is a logical nonsequitur, equally as the converse would be (if God doesn’t say they’re eternal, they must have an end).  It’ll take better evidence than that…

  • Scott Gay

    Inclusivism is a wonderful word, especially because it is still taken to be a religious one. Now many people have a take on religion that is negative, but inclusivism has positive connotations. It matters, because if you really are an inclusivist it affects your very language, body language, and soul(the opposite is true, and truly gives meaning to hypocrite).
    A personal fav on the topic of inclusivism is Neal Punt. It really is the difference maker in this conversation. Inclusivism is not universalism, pluralism, or exclusivism. It is so rarely defined or mentioned that it seems that most have never read about it.

  • jcm manuel

    The most fascinating phrase in this article must be this one: “The controversy, and at times the vitriol, have flowed fast and furious”. In my humble opinion people have only 2 options: either they contribute to hell (throwng vitriol is one way to do it) or they go for a controversy, it can’t be combined. We contribute either to hell or to controversy. Maybe this is a little bit of a sneaky ‘philosophical’ twist (feel free to blame me for it) but nevertheless, it struck me.

  • John Gordon

    Interestingly enough, when Jesus did mention after-death punishment, it was…

    1) almost exclusively in parable form, where just reading the parable shows that it is almost entirely metaphorical (a literal chasm between Abraham’s bosom(?) and hell, where both parties can watch each other and experience physical manifestations like thirst?) that did NOT even mention the poor man accepting or even knowing Jesus at all, but simply avoiding Hell or wherever because he was poor. This would make for really bad theology if it were to be taken literally, yet parts of it are to often cherry-picked as “literal truth.”
    2) When Jesus spoke about these things, it was all, obviously, prior to His death, and resurrection – and a more pertinent point – it was before Christ descende to Hell and freed the captives and took (again, metaphorical or literal?) the keys to Hell and death from Satan.
    After his resurrection, Jesus only mentions the “good news” of the gospel and eternal life now available through Him. I think this is important to consider.
    Thanks for listening. 🙂 As the great band Daniel Amos say on their most recent record “Dig Here, Said The Angel,” – “there may be no heaven, there may be hell, no, no, there may be no place to go, but we’ll ALL KNOW SOON ENOUGH!” Very true.