An Argument for Christian Universalism: Why I Don't Believe in an Eternal Hell
Why I'm a Christian Universalist
I grew up in an evangelical Christian environment. Over the years, I developed a deep-seated terror of the idea of an eternal hell. Because of this, I eventually suffered a devastating mental breakdown centered around thoughts of my own damnation, and this finally drove me to find new beliefs I had never even anticipated. Today, I believe that one may have a Christian faith while rejecting the idea that anyone will spend an eternity in “hell.” This is not to say that no one will be punished after death, but that this punishment is temporary and remedial (for the person's own good). Christian Universalism is the belief that, through Christ, God will eventually bring all people into a relationship with himself. The doctrine of Universalism makes sense to me because many Christian scriptures explicitly state it; because it can be inferred from the Christian conception of God’s nature; because it was widely taught within the early church, seemingly unchallenged by the church for hundreds of years; and because scriptures that seem to contradict the doctrine can be viewed as either mistranslations or misinterpretations.
The Bible Explicitly Supports Universalism
First of all, I personally value the Bible as a source of spiritual wisdom. The Bible explicitly states the doctrine of Universalism in many places. First Timothy 4:10 says that "God, … is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe". Notice here, it says he is the savior of all people, especially of those who believe. It doesn’t say he is the savior of only those who believe, but especially of those who believe. Romans 5:18 says that Christ’s sacrifice “…leads to justification and life for all people. See how it says justification and life? It isn't talking about merely a physical resurrection for all people, but new spiritual life and forgiveness for all people. Christ himself is quoted as saying, "I … will pull all people to myself" (John 12:32). There are many more scriptures like these. Theologians often try to explain away these scriptures by saying things like the word “all” means “all the elect,” or “all who believe.” But the Greek word for “all” undoubtedly means the same thing that it does in English: simply put, it means “all.”
Importantly, the Christian scriptures define "eternal life", not as an endless duration of life, but as a certain quality of life. That is, eternal life is defined as the quality of life that a person has when a person is living in communion with That which is Eternal. This is how Jesus is quoted as defining it: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Similarly, He says, "You pore over the Scriptures because you presume that by them you possess eternal life. These are the very words that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life” (John 5:39 - 40). I'll return to this line of thought later in this article.
Philosophical Reflection on God's Nature Leads to Universalism
Next, the nature of God, as described in the Christian scriptures, leads me to believe in Universalism. I believe that God is Love. Indeed, the Christian Bible also states that explicitly (1 John 4:8). If God is Love, then surely he wants the best for every person. Many scriptures support this. 1 Timothy 2:4 says "God … wants all people to be saved". I also believe God is powerful enough to accomplish whatever He wants. Isaiah 46:10 says “I (God) will accomplish all that I please” (emphases added). When Christ’s disciples once asked him “Who can be saved?”, part of his response was, “With God, all things are possible”, by which we can infer: God can save anyone! If God desires that every person be saved, and if He will accomplish all that He pleases, how can anyone not be saved? The doctrine of eternal damnation suggests that either God’s love or God’s power is deficient.
I've often heard it objected that God will not save everyone because He respects the "free will" of each person. However, if one believes the passages quoted above, then one must also conclude that no person will freely choose for all eternity to not be saved. God earnestly desires that all people be saved, and per Isaiah, God not only can, but will accomplish all He desires.
Universalism Was Unchallenged by the Early Church
I also learned that Universalism was openly taught and widely believed throughout the early Christian church for hundreds of years, only being formally denounced as heretical in the middle of the sixth century. For most of the years prior to this, there is no record of the doctrine having been censured or even criticized, despite the fact that very many ideas were continually being attacked or censured as heretical throughout these years by the church. Dr. Hosea Ballou, who served as the first president of Tufts University in Massachusetts, informs us in his book "The Ancient History of Universalism" that for hundreds of years, Universalism was explicitly taught by such eminent church fathers as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa with widespread acceptance and little or no evident resistance from within the church. To be sure, not everyone believed it, but it appears that even those who didn't believe it were not attacking it or calling it "heresy".
Study of the Greek Texts Supports Universalism
Finally, I’ve come to believe that scriptures which seem to teach eternal punishment can be viewed as either mistranslations or misinterpretations. I base this belief on the opinions of certain highly esteemed Greek scholars such as William Barclay, who wrote a wildly popular series of commentaries on the books of the New Testament, and discusses his own Universalist beliefs in his book "William Barclay: A Spiritual Autobiography". I also base this conviction on my own study of Greek, which I've studied for several years, including formally for two years at the University of Tennessee (although my mastery of Greek is insignificant when compared with William Barclay's formidable expertise on the subject).
The word that is consistently translated as “eternal”, for example, is the Greek adjective “aionios”, derived from the noun “aion”, which is best translated “a span of time” “an age”. An “age” typically denotes a lengthy, yet finite period of time. “Aionios”, as an adjective based on that noun “aion“, need not carry greater weight than the noun it was based upon. If we take the English noun “day”, for example, and turn it into the adjective “daily”, then “daily” suggests the same time frame. A daily shower would not refer to a shower taken every week, or every year, but every day. So perhaps a better translation of “aionios” would be “age-lasting” or “pertaining to an age”. A number of respected early Christian writers described “aionios” punishment or fire as God’s way to eventually bring the punished souls back into fellowship with himself! Such uses of the term “aionios punishment” would make no sense if the term refers to punishment with no end. Additionally, such references to an end of hell’s punishments for the individual were often made without much explanation by the authors, which would suggest that ancient readers would not have noticed a linguistic or theological contradiction that would demand further explanation.
William Barclay, in his book "William Barclay: A Spiritual Autobiography", says that "aionios" denotes something that pertains to God, and the word for "punishment" (that is, the Greek word "kolasis"), which originally meant to prune trees, never denotes anything but remedial discipline. Thus, according to Barclay, the Greek terms which we have generally translated as "eternal punishment" are better thought of as meaning "that remedial/corrective punishment which God, and God alone, is fit to give".
Returning to what I discussed in the second section of this article, if eternal life is "eternal" because it is the quality of a life lived in communion with the Eternal, then the opposite of eternal life is "the quality of a life that is not lived in communion with the Eternal", rather than "torment of an eternal duration".
So I’ve shown how Christian scriptures, Universalism’s seemingly orthodox status for hundreds of years in the early church, and the Christian conception of God all support the doctrine of Universalism; as well as how scriptures which seem to contradict it may seem to do so because of misinterpretation. For these reasons, and for many other reasons I haven't discussed in this article, I believe that a Christian perspective invites a belief in universal salvation far more than it invites a belief in the salvation of only some. Due to the potential psychological and social impact of the widely proclaimed doctrine of eternal torment, I urge not only those of you who call yourselves Christians, but even those of you who aren’t religious, to closely examine these issues, lest we allow a dangerous error to continue thriving.
Poll: Which choice best expresses what you believe about hell?
I don't know why I didn't add this option to the original poll. Adding now, 04-08-17
I believe in some form of reincarnation.
The author lovingly dedicates this article on November 6th, 2018, to the memory of two dear friends: Gary Amirault, who passed from this world on November 3rd, 2018, and his wife, Michelle Amirault, who preceded him in death on July 31st, 2018. Gary and Michelle lived their lives passionately in love with Love, and on behalf of Love. Indeed, this article would likely have never come to be, were it not for Gary and Michelle's love. Gary and Michelle tirelessly promoted what they called the "Victorious Gospel", otherwise known as Christian Universalism or Universal Reconciliation. In short, they proclaimed to the world that "Love Wins". Tentmaker Ministries is one of their most enduring legacies, and can still be found easily online.
Far more importantly, however, Gary and Michelle were both the embodiment of the kind of relentless love that they preached. They were the warmest, kindest, most hospitable people I have ever known. I believe that anyone who was graced with knowing them personally would say exactly the same thing.
Questions & Answers
If we think we may go to a place where we suffer for our own sins, then we are saying, "Jesus, Your work was not complete." I am a born again Christian and I have no fear of death. Death, where is your sting? You must trust His work was complete, and it is for you as well. Don't you think so?
Yes, I completely agree with you!Helpful 3
© 2010 Justin Aptaker