Encounter Heading: Skeptic's Guide


Flirting with Universalism

Resolving the Problem of an Eternal Hell

“Many Christians and non-Christians consider the doctrinal problem of an eternal hell, in the traditional understanding of the terms, as the greatest problem for Christianity. Philosopher Michael Tooley says Christianity (with this teaching) is ‘too horrible to be true.’ To speak of God’s love for humanity as unimaginably great and then to speak of God damning those who reject God with pain that is so horrible that it would only befit an omnipotent, psychopathic torturer who infinitely hates one’s victims, is simply self-contradictory. It appears to many to be just a crude ploy thought up by heartless theologians and dogmatists. They’re Jekyll and Hydes who first try to attract unbelievers by appealing to God’s love and compassion but then they change into raging monsters seeking to frighten the unresponsive to convert.”

This is the first paragraph of a recently published book which attempts to answer very likely
the most damaging objection to Christianity. It argues that the most biblical position does not allow for an eternal hell. But it does not conclude with universalism, the belief that all will be accepted into paradise with God, nor annihilationism, the belief that after a limited time of suffering those who reject God will be extinguished. It rather claims that those who reject God and God’s offer of salvation (the lost) will endure a period of punishment (variable according to the evil one has done) and thereafter be given the fulfillment and joy of knowing God, though it will not involve the fullness of joy possessed by those who have not rejected God. This view is called semi-restorationism.

The lost will no longer be free, so they will be unable to any longer reject God. The purpose of free choice will at that time be long past. Only by one’s previous free choices may one be responsible. When we have made our final choices for or against God, God will hold us responsible and give us what we have asked for, either separation from God or relationship with God. But absolute separation from God is not something God can give anyone as their final end. The lost will know neither complete alienation from God nor God’s full pleasure as will the redeemed.

This is why universalism cannot be true, even if it involves a kind of limited purgatorial or retributive punishment prior to ultimate salvation. As the book states, this kind of “restorationist universalism denies the ultimate dignity of persons; it denies that we are responsible to choose our own fate or that God will hold us responsible for our final choice. Semi-restorationism does certainly end with all people reconciled to God, but there is still a distinction between the lost and the redeemed and their final condition. The final choice of the lost is honored” (50). After the limited time of punishment they will lose all painful and sinful memories, yet they will also be memorialized forever as those who have rejected their God and creator. They will not be aware of this stigma when their time of suffering is over since in their final state there will be no pain. Their eternal punishment will involve enduring this limited or truncated existence bereft of the full unity with God possessed by the redeemed and of the honor God will bestow upon the redeemed. Yet they will also find the greatest of all joys: they will experience the love of God and relationship with God.

Semi-restorationism also reconciles many seemingly contradictory passages of scripture. Some very clearly indicate that some people will never be completely accepted by God while others speak of God being reconciled with all people and even all spirit beings (including angels, demons, and Satan himself). Let me give the gist of some of these passages. First the universalist passages:

We are told that God’s anger at the wicked lasts only a moment but his favor will be for a lifetime;
no one is cast off by the Lord forever; even if a mother may forget her nursing baby, God cannot forget you; God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself and will bring unity to all things through Jesus; every knee will bow and every tongue will profess Jesus as Lord; every created being will worship and adore God; through Messiah all are made alive; God will be made all in all in the end; Jesus’ one righteous act resulted in justification for all; God is the savior of all people; God wants all people to be saved; Christ is the ransom for all people; God wants no one to perish but all to repent; Christ is the atoning sacrifice for the whole world; he draws all people to himself; all Israel will be saved; by consigning all to disobedience, God has mercy on all; God so loved the whole world that he gave his only Son; God shows no favoritism.

But on the other hand we are also told that one sin (or kind of sin) will never be pardoned; that the lost (or some of the lost) will end up in an afterlife of suffering which they cannot leave for paradise; that it would be better that at least one person (Judas) had never been born; and that at least one other person (Satan) will be punished or annihilated forever. If there is at least one who is eternally separated from God, there are likely more. Now there are feasible universalist answers for all of these texts except for the last one. The book does also get into some more common mistaken proof texts that are used to support belief in an eternal hell such as Jesus’ statement that some will go to “eternal punishment,” as in Matthew 25.46. There is no good reason to think the adjective actually means anything more than
of the age to come, which could be a limited period of time.

So some apparently conflicting statements inevitably remain. The best way to deal will all of these texts is to recognize that though some will be forever rejected by God,
all will be in some way reconciled to God eventually. Those who knowingly and unrepentantly do evil and reject what they know to be God’s will shall face God’s judgment and punishment. But the time of suffering will be limited according to the evil one has done. God will be just. The traditional doctrine of an eternal hell (traditionalism) cannot be true. Abraham said to God, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” For a far milder injustice (at least an injustice in Abraham’s eyes), he pleaded and contended with God, “Far be it from you to do such a thing” (Genesis 18.25). Wouldn’t Abraham have pleaded with God in the same way had he any idea that eternal suffering might await the wicked? Looking at the whole of scriptural teaching concerning the love, goodness, and justice of God, the traditional view of an eternal hell cannot be true.

For the Christian who, for whatever reason, cannot accept the arguments for semi-restorationism, we hope that they would see the biblical failing of traditionalism. It must be rejected as a Christian option. Christian annihilationism is better evidenced than traditionalism. One should at least hope that semi-restorationism is true. If one cannot accept semi-restorationism, one should at least hope that Christian annihilationism is true. It is certainly better than the normal secular view of annihilationism. Under the secular view, justice will never be done. The Hitlers and Stalins of the world will never receive justice for the horrors they have committed. Above all else, the biblical view for all people is one of ultimate hope, not despair.

For more detailed arguments, explication of the nature of semi-restorationism, and evaluation of these many passages, we recommend Dennis Jensen’s book entitled
Flirting with Universalism: Resolving the Problem of an Eternal Hell. This book is now available at Amazon.

June 2014

Note: the universalist passages in the order they were cited above are Psalm 30.5; Lamentations 3.31-33; Isaiah 49.15-16; Colossians 1.16, 19-20; Ephesians 1.9-10; Philippians 2.10; Revelation 5.13; 1 Corinthians 15.22, 28; Romans 5.18; 1 Timothy 4.10; 2.4, 5-6; 2 Peter 3.9b; 1 John 2.2; John 12.32; Romans 11:25b-26a, 32; John 3.16; Acts 10.34. The traditionalist passages are Luke 12.10; 16.26; Mark 14.21; and Revelation 20.10.


Introducing Encounter / Hot Issues / Content