I am obsessed with lists. If a headline promises a list, I’ll almost always click on it. Recently, I looked at several lists of the “evilest” people in history. There have been some pretty depraved individuals throughout history, but nearly every list puts Adolph Hitler as the evilest person in history. Certainly, directing the killing of approximately 11 million people, including 6 million Jews, would rank you pretty high on any list of evil-doers. The question of interest in this article is, “doesn’t a universalist perspective mean that Adolph Hitler is in heaven?”
Yes! Or at least at some point, he will be.
There has been a resurgence in interest about the doctrine of Hell – both in the blogosphere and especially in academic circles where many are trying to ascertain the beliefs of the Early Church and Patristic Fathers. I want to take a look at this doctrine, explore where it came from, and consider the implications of a universalist approach to the afterlife.
One of the earliest known views of hell came from Origen (c. 185 – c. 253 CE), who was most certainly a universalist. In fact, many of the Patristic Church Fathers were universalists or annihilationists. (A notable exception was Augustine.) Universalism was more common in the East than it was in the West during this time period, but the West had its fair share of universalists as well. Although the research is still new, it’s not entirely clear who all fell into which camp. Surveys of the Patristic Fathers are ongoing.
Matthew 25:46 is a portion of scripture at the heart of the heaven/hell debate,
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
The Greek for “eternal punishment” is “aionios kolasis”. In his book “Atheist Delusions”, David Bentley Hart argues that the early Greek Fathers would not have interpreted “aionios” as “eternal”; instead, they would have understood it as “a long period of time”, which Hart suggests is the correct understanding of the term.
However, if this is true, then how should we understand the second part of the verse where eternal is used to describe those who will have eternal life in heaven? Does that mean that eternal life is not really eternal, but just a prolonged period of time? This doesn’t make much sense to me. Although usage is important for understanding Greek, context is just as important, and the context here doesn’t seem to warrant Hart’s understanding of the text. That doesn’t mean universalism is wrong. It just means using a language argument won’t get us there, in my opinion.
The Argument from Justice
What I think will get us there is an argument from justice. It goes a little something like this: God is Just. His nature demands justice. While on earth, Jesus demonstrated this by his work on earth that it is in God’s nature to be Just. Therefore, if we believe God is Just, then we cannot believe in a place of eternal torment. No crime, no matter how abhorrent, deserves eternal punishment; At some point, justice must be served, even if it is a really long time. Therefore, either God is not Just and there is eternal punishment, or God is Just and, at some point, justice is served and the punishment would then end.
There are certainly many Christians who argue that all humans deserve eternal punishment simply for being born, that our totally depraved nature requires it. I would ask those who espouse this view to show where in the Bible this view is upheld. It’s statements like this that sound good, but when you investigate further, there is no biblical warrant for the belief. These people proclaim a hell we do not deserve.
Christians often quote verses like Romans 3:23 to defend total depravity, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I mean, it’s in every Gospel tract ever made. However, passages like this don’t say or even imply anything about an eternal Hell. Maybe we all do deserve some kind of hell, but none of us deserves eternal hell. Maybe my sin permits me to hell, but not eternal hell. Maybe the way I lived my life permits me to hell, but not eternal hell. And we certainly don’t deserve eternal Hell just because we were born – especially when we had no choice in the matter.
Many who believe in eternal Hell proof-text verses in the Bible that talk about Hell and conclude that it must be eternal. But nowhere in scripture except Matthew 25:46; 5:26 does it say that Hell is eternal. I will be honest; I am not really sure what to do about that passage. However, I do not buy into any of the arguments I have read thus far regarding the passage.
I also believe God is Just, not because we all deserve Hell and God saves only a few, but because Justice demands reconciliation and he provided that through Jesus Christ.
As much as it makes me cringe to say this, not even Adolph Hitler deserves eternal Hell. I fully expect to see him and his cronies sipping margaritas at the pearly gates someday having fully served long sentences for their horrendous acts of violence. And it should make us rejoice that God’s grace is so powerful that even people like Hitler can be reconciled unto a Holy God.
There are many things that I could have written about this topic, but many of my fellow columnists have already put out great articles on this issue. Type “Hell” in the search bar at the top of the screen to read more about this topic.