“I do not preach universalism, but I do not not preach universalism.”
In an age in which the title ‘fire and brimstone preacher’ is used in some circles as a compliment and the enemies of ‘eternal punishment’ are the Rob Bells of the world, it has become in many Christian Theologies simply taken for granted that although God desires everyone to be saved, not everyone will be saved in the end. (This is different than saying that not everyone is saved now. I cannot conceive of how one can look at a world like ours and conclude that everyone is on the side of a good god.) Universalists are universally understood in many Christian communities to be abjectly wrong.
Is god essentially unable to save everyone, as the open theist claims? Or worse, is he unwilling to, as some forms of Christian determinism contend? Is Christianity just Calvinism, claiming that God is gracious and merciful provided one is of the predetermined elect? Are we saved by free will, or by the will of God?
Many wonderful theologians have provided great explanations for all of the above questions without resorting to universalism. I respect many of them; however, it seems to me that to many Christians (especially evangelicals), it is simply taken for granted that the fate of those who do not put faith in Christ in this life will not receive another chance in the hereafter. Anyone who questions particularism (non-universalism) is immediately understood to be rejecting Scripture and contradicted by it.
Being an inquisitive fellow, I decided to put the doctrine of hell under fire as it is traditionally understood by evangelicals. If the approach has gold and silver and precious stones, the fire will not burn it, but if it is of hay and straw, it itself will be saved, but only as through flames. My findings have more than surprised me.
Below, I present three reasons why I believe evangelicals should rethink the meaning of hell and consider the position that I will call for the purposes of this article ‘eventual universalism.’
- The Biblical passages often used in support of a permanent hell do not directly support it. In other words the doctrine of hell as it is traditionally taught does not come from Scripture per se, but from a specific manner of understanding collections of passages that refer descriptively to the judgment of God.
- The philosophical reasons to reject hell as permanent are not intrinsically compelling. That is, the philosophical reasons to accept the traditional view of hell do not necessarily outweigh the philosophical reasons to accept it. To the contrary, I believe that universalism has the more compelling philosophical support.
- If universalism is true, I believe it would in many respects make coherent Scripture’s description of the character of God and his purposes for creation.