Hell Week – Back to the beginning. It was the early aughts. Wikipedia was new. Destiny’s Child was still together. The first Lord of the Rings movie was coming out. And I was re-reading the Old Testament. This is where it all began for me.

A Word With One Meaning or 30? Talking about aion and aionian – two Greek Words whose meaning is at the root of the problem.

Eternal Punishment or An Age of Chastisement Is there a purpose to hell? Or does God just want you good and miserable? And what about the lake of fire?

What the Hell? Where did our ideas of hell come from? Are they consistent with what Jesus thought or have we just made a lot of crap up?

From Greek to Latin and Grace to Condemnation What did the early church believe about hell? When and why did it change?

When the Gospel Becomes Really Good News I’ll talk about why Universalism has been such a benefit to my faith. And why fears that it makes Christianity and evangelism irrelevant are complete wrong. And other loose ends.

Bonus: Getting back to Hell Week A quick clarification on these posts. I’m sharing my conclusions, not making a comprehensive argument. I explain why and where to go if you want more proof for the claims I make in this series.

29 thoughts on “Hell

  1. Universalism is a lie from the pit of hell, and while it’s hard to imagine such a bold remark could be said in love, it was.

    1. Oddly enough, I find nothing in your argument compelling. A simple assertation the face of the words of scripture and thousands of hours of study just doesn’t cut it. Perhaps if you took the time to read the evidence I present, you could construct a more compelling response?

      But if you prefer your own myth-based understanding to scripture, that’s fine. One of the benefits of embracing Universal Reconciliation is that it engenders and deep and abiding trust that God doesn’t need me to do his work. He’ll lead you in truth and light as you are able and willing to receive it.

      “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” – 1 Timothy 4: 9-10

      1. One of the greatest Christian thinkers of past 100 years, Alvin Plantinga, is quite open to the idea of universalism:

  2. Thanks so much for this series Rebecca. I struggle daily with the idea of hell, having been raised Pentecostal, even though I (try to) no longer believe that way. You’ve helped me support my idea of a loving and merciful God so much. Thank you.

    1. I’m so glad it’s helped. I think the time is coming for this acient teaching to be revived and it makes my heart happy that more and more people are learning just how wonderful and powerful our Father truly is.

  3. Two questions:

    1- can we take credit for seeing Christ?

    2- those who did, or do not ‘see’ Christ, who has or is blinding them.

    Food for thought, Leviticus 16

  4. Hi Rebecca,

    I just came across your series from your over at my friend Kurt Willems’ blog. Let me start by saying that nothing you’ve got on here scares me or makes me want to scare you… ;{)

    You’ve done a really good job with this series, I think, in showing up a lot of the sloppiness in the typical Evangelical notions of hell. Where I’m not convinced you’ve supported your case, is with the conclusion which seems (from my read at least) to be “what they said about hell is wrong, and God is loving, therefore he must be taking everyone to heaven.” (please understand, that’s a poor summary and I hope not a caricature, but it’s the sense I’m getting). Perhaps it’s because you weren’t primarily trying to exegete the biblical references you suggested may point to universalism … and I acknowledge your own proviso that you aren’t claiming this is a comprehensive argument.

    I wonder if you might take a look at my own “third way” post, Burn-them-all vs. Universalism: A false choice. I’d be interested to hear your take.

    1. Ah, you are very perceptive, young grasshopper! I hadn’t really thought of it, but yes, you are correct – I’ve presented a negative argument against the teaching of eternal hell rather than a positive one for universal reconcilitation. Hmmm . . . I may have to remedy that at some point. But to your point, first off I will avoid making a “the bible says and we must accept” argument for universal reconcilation. The bible says many things and one can always find something to support what one is predisposed to accept. So, that’s my bit of humility to acknowledge that my understanding is not the only possible one (clearly!).

      That being said, I think that there is a strong positive case to be made for universal reconciliation. The easiest way to make it is actually to just look through all the uses of the word “all” in scripture – particularly “all men”. For example, 1 Timothy 4:9-10:
      “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.”
      Or Colossians 1:19-20:
      “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
      Or Ephesians 1:9-10:
      “And he [God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”
      There are at the least over a hundred such verses which define the work of Jesus as cover and having an effect for “all”. The standard way of dealing with this is to explain why all doesn’t really mean all. It means all Christians or people from all nations or some such. Or you can just go with the normal meaning of “all” and “the whole world” and accept that scripture really does speak of the redemption of all things/people.

      The other verses which I find very compelling are the ones comparing the effect of Adam’s sin with Jesus’ redemptive work:
      “just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.” Romans 5:18
      If Adam’s sin brought condemnation for all men, then Jesus’ redemptive work must bring salvation for all men or it is to less effect than the original transgression – and the whole of Romans 5 clearly argues that this is not the case.

      Also consider the stories of the lost sheep, lost coin, etc. Jesus makes it clear that in the kingdom none will be lost.

      There are literally hundreds and hundreds of verses which support universal reconciliation. There are a handful of verses which can be used to argue against it, but those are mostly mistranslated or stretched way beyond their meaning in context. This page has a pretty good, although hardly exhaustive run down of scriptural supports for universal reconciliation:

      The final positive argument in favor of universal reconciliation is that when you embrace it, everything makes sense. It allows for both perfect justice and absolute mercy and love. It allows for an understanding of the elect – being those who are called to believe and serve – without then also having those created condemned to suffer for eternity. It allows God to overcome and destroy evil without losing any of his creation. It all just works together so perfectly that once you see it, it becomes hard to accept that anything else could be true because anything else is so obviously less-than the beautiful perfection of universal reconciliation.

      So, that’s my kind of brief positive argument for universal reconciliation. I haven’t had a chance to check out your post on the subject yet, although I will. But I’m guessing that what I have here will be pretty much what my response is! 🙂

      1. Hey Rebecca:

        A) Humility duly acknowledged. I share what I sense to be your attitude that this all should be held in an open hand. No prooftexting here…

        B) I want to look at some of your scriptural references in a separate reply, but would point out first that my concern with an argument to Christian universalism–however aesthetically or intellectually attractive–shares one fault with the argument of eternal conscious punishment, in that both attempt to answer questions for which the Biblical evidence isn’t so open-and-shut. To this point, I’ll copy in the conclusion points of the article I linked above (still hoping you’ll get a chance to give the whole thing a read):

        (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).

        (4) from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9), and

      2. See, for me the lack of direct talk regarding hell carries a lot of weight in my thinking. If there were a chance that some people would be burning in hell with no chance for escape then it makes no sense that such an idea wouldn’t be explicitly stated in scriptures and by early Christians. If you look around my blog, you’ll see that I absolutely ground my faith in the here and now, but what happens to me after I die is an important issue. I don’t think it should be our main concern, but to leave the potential of an eternity of destruction uncommented on would be wildly irresponsible. Add in all the texts which speak of the salvation of all, the whole world, etc AND the fact that every punishment every spoken of in scripture points to redemptive purposes AND the stuff about not leaving a single one behind. I think it makes a very, very compelling case for universal reconciliation. I simply don’t see other options as having any weight behind them once the details have been examined closely. That may seem like a pretty broad claim, but when Jesus is so clearly concerned with our salvation and God is so clearly saying that he is working to redeem all of creation – everything on earth and in heaven it says in several places – I think that does in fact make the idea of universal reconciliation a central part of scripture’s message.

    2. Dan, I read the article you posted and honestly I feel as though it was a straw man against the Universal Reconcilliation position. I too find fault with the ideology that “well God is loving and good so there is no way that He could inflict eternal torment”. In fact as someone who is at the point of seriously embracing UR, I at this point would still have no problem with God doing whatever He wants to those who do not believe in Him. He is God and can do what He wants and who are we to judge Him and by what standard other than Himself would we judge?

      So my movement towards UR is based almost zero on emotion. My movement towards UR is based upon the massive wealth of Scripture that I had always said “huh, I wonder what that means” and just kept moving on with. Spend any amount of time over at http://www.tentmaker.org and you will see, yes some articles that are based on emotion, but MANY that are based solely on what does the Bible say and how would it have been read by its audience at that time.

      So when the article that you posted to claims that UR doesn’t deal with verses such as 2 Thess. 1:5-10, it is just wrong. There is actually a vast amount of intellectual and biblical evidence for UR.


  5. I agree so much with your objections, Rebecca. I absolutely affirm grounding faith in the here-and-now; in fact, I just pissed off a bunch of atheists on the “Debunking Christianity” blog because they couldn’t believe my insistence that if I were to be convinced that there is *nothing* supernatural that’s true, I still would choose the way of Christ. I further affirm 100% that the threat of eternal damnation–so vital to modern “evangelism”–ought to be addressed more directly in scripture if it’s true. So far, I’m totally with you.

    My only issue is that you have proposed universal reconciliation as the only available option to ECT, and in so doing you have “gone beyond what is written” every bit as much as the hellfire-and-brimstone fundies have. As I have addressed in my own series on hell (which included a reference-by-reference table of every place in the New Testament that I could find which dealt with hell, condemnation, or punishment), it appears to me that the Biblical evidence tends toward a notion that immortality (or more correctly, life after resurrection) is offered only to a subset of humanity. I do NOT see evidence that suggests that everyone unlucky enough to be born in Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, animist, etc. cultures is damned. But I do see evidence of a “second death” penalty to some folks who steadfastly refuse to acknowledge Christ as king and actively work against him.

    Certain? Not at all. And that’s my final point to you. I think that the Scriptural witness is strong about who Jesus is, strong about what we who acknowledge him ought to do/be, and highly noncommittal (indeed, nearly silent) about the ignorant unbeliever or the truly deceived. I’m not saying that your theory of universal reconciliation is wrong. What I’m saying is that the evidence is circumstantial and insufficient to conclude with the level of certainty I hear you offering.

    In other words, this is one of many places where “we don’t know” is a more honest, and I believe more God-honoring position than certainty in either your theory or ECT.

    1. I guess that I just don’t agree that I’ve gone beyond what is written. I see the eventual restoration of all things – on heaven and earth as the bible puts it – as mentioned over and over and over and over in scripture. I don’t think they are meant to be taken metaphorically or spiritually, but as a reality. It’s a bit like I always say about fundamentalists – their problem is that they are always choosing which parts of scripture to take literally. When God says he is the savior of “all men”, I take that literally. When the bible says that through Jesus, God “reconciles to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” I take that literally. I don’t see how any other teaching regarding hell can be reconciled with scriptures such as these. I understand the tendency to want to retreat to a “no one can be sure” stance, but in this case I don’t think it’s justified. I mean, always leave room for the reality that I could be wrong. But I really don’t see how I’m overstating my case. I really do see this teaching as written all over scripture and being central to the very message of the gospel as did many of the great early church fathers.

      I mean, I won’t hold it against you if you disagree. Time will tell anyways. But no, I really don’t think I’m going beyond what the bible actually says here.

    2. Funny – I kind of agree with both of you. This after numerous decades of wondering, studying and reading. Could Hell be for God’s elect the fallen angels? Cross cultural Christianity begs of a clearer picture here. There are so many faiths different from Christianity yet have same solid premises of what Christ teaches i.e. love, peace, joy, self control, all the fruits of the spirit along with an incredible awe of GOD, the Creator, the Master, the Beginning and the End. Just a footnote, raised Catholic Pentecostal early 60’s and off on for 4 decades, Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Four Square, Assembles of God, was a Radical Word of Faith goer, oh and a Reformist. Now 5 decades of great teaching so avast, yet all lacking to some degree or another, now not going to church and curious about so much and know some day my many questions will be answered when I pass over to be with my Daddy in heaven.

  6. Awesome. Thank you for this clarification
    oh Hell. I’ve also done a lot of research in
    this topic (but not nearly as thouroughly
    as you) and i came to pretty much the same
    I would love to sit in if you ever have a
    seminar on this.
    Steve Vise

  7. Nice work Rebecca.

    I too, over the years have come to accept universal Salvation. The truth is, the gospel cannot truly be ‘good news’ if billions and billions are souls end up being tortured endlessly in eternal hell while only a few are saved. That’s horrible news!

    Is Adam greater than Christ ? Now way! Then how can Adam have the power to do something that Christ cannot undo? Can Adam bring death upon all humanity but Christ cannot restore life to all humanity? Of coarse not! The scripture(and my heart) says otherwise.
    “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” 1 Cor 15:22.

    In response to Dan Martin. I believed that those people in category number 3, (those people who neither acknowledge nor fight against the Lordship of Jesus Christ) are addressed in a few verses.

    “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.”Rev 20:13

    “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” 2 Corinthians 5:10

    It seems as though all men will be judged according to our actions and words. Did we walk in love? Did we make a difference in the world? For example: Say someone is born in China, indoctrinated since birth into Buddhism, never really new about Christ and didn’t fight against Him. That person will ultimately be judged according to how she lived her life.

    Does it really make sense that a loving God would have created the world if He new beforehand that billions of souls would be left to be tortured endlessly? Is not God’s plan greater and the blood of Christ able to do that?

    Jesus said, If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father. He taught us to love our enemies. Will the Eternal Christ not one day forgive those who rejected Him?If He doesn’t, than He would be a hypocrite because He taught us to love our enemies.

    I believe that one day, ions from now, EVERY knee will bow, and EVERY tongue will ultimately confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God.

    Rebecca, I believe there should be more conversations on these teachings and I stand with you. Thank you for being brave enough to put it out there.

  8. I have a difficult time undrrstanding how our God of Love could stand to see his creation tortured also. I belueve Jesus was sent to Save us, probably from ourselves and each other. He cane to teach us about LOVE. What I need explained is why would God alliw Jesus to due such a terrible death if everyone is going to Heaven snyway? If I could understand this, I would feel better. I do not understand how the Bible got so convoluted and at what point in history did we get so confused? Was it King Jsmes trying to kerp the people “in line” by scaring them with hell or was it something else? I have believed traditionally sll my life but believed people chose not to believe. I personslly know people who reject Zjesus or any afterlife, who were raised by good belueving parents yet they chose mot to believe. I can aee them dying and jyst ceasing to exist but yet the spirit is immortal so they myst luce on somewhere. If an unbeliever or terrible person were in Heaven, it would no longer be Heaven and it woyld be full of sin. So this idea doesn’t work. Does it help situations to pray or is it to help us to know God is with us but doesn’t answer our prayers. I feel like Zi have had prayers answered at times but st orher times my orayers that were jyst as sincere were not answered. I don’t presime to understand God except through Jesus who was sent to live snd teach us to love each other. Hope you can answer these wuestions. I really wNt to kniw the truth. I have read the Bible many times. & love the scriptures but some are beyond u derstanfing for me. And what about the books keft out by humsn choice. What do they say? Anything we need to know? I want to know God better and understand ehere all this scary eternal hell part cane drim. If it ‘s real then we need to know. , but I hope it’s not real. I would be more loving than God is because I wouldn’t do that yo my worst enemy, and Zi know I am not better thsn God. So hrlp some scholar rhat has stufued this, I do not want to live & die in misunderstanfing the Truth. Thank you.!!

  9. hi Rebecca, thankyou so much for all you have written. I have a few questions I am hoping you might be able to answer. How would you as someone who believes in universal reconciliation be able to explain just why God allowed us all to remain in ignorance of this for so long ? I have some ideas but would love to hear direct from you and without any suggestions from myself, what you think on this matter. Also do you have any thoughts on demonic activity here on the planet here and now ? Thanks…. looking forward to hearing from you as sadly these two things cause me to be unable to believe in this as I would like…..

    1. How interesting that you raise this question just now as it relates rather well to something I just recently came to understand. So, to your first question of why we’ve been ignorant for so long. The thing is that the early church wasn’t ignorant to this teaching of Universal Salvation. For most of the church, the ultimate reconciliation of all things was front and center in its theology. I go into the specifics of how that got lost as Latin took over as the main language of scholars and the original Greek became obfuscated. However, your second question I think relates to the bigger picture of how and why this happened from a spiritual perspective. So, remember how Jesus said to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church (greek ecclessia) and the gates of hell (greek hades) will not overpower it”? Well, I don’t know about you, but in my mind I kind had this picture of the gates of hades coming to attack the church. But this is exactly backwards. Gates don’t go on the attack! Gates are, by design, quite immobile. What Jesus was really doing here was telling Peter that his church would be storming the gate of hades. He was giving marching orders to his most powerful general. The church’s job was to follow Jesus to the gates of hades and, like Jesus did, rescue those held prisoner there and ultimately usher in the Kingdom of God, which is the defeat of the power of death and sin. So, that’s the church’s mission. Now, one of the things about the church is that it’s very inclusive, It is open to all comers, although those who engage in sin in a way that undermines the church’s witness can be cast out. But otherwise, nothing disqualifies a person from being welcomed into the church. Which means that, inevitably, the sociopaths got in. And as sociopaths tend to do, in time, some of them worked their way into positions of power and began undermining the church from within.

      This is demonic, of course, but it’s something that is inevitable in human affairs so long as the full force of God’s Kingdom is not yet fully manifest. However, God works in rather brilliant, unexpected ways. You see, when the sociopaths got in and began undermining the church, including hiding many of the teachings of the early church that brought life and freedom. it looks to worldly eyes like the enemy prevailing or ruining God’s plan. However, spiritual eyes see that what really happened is that the church swallowed the gates of hell. Which would be an extremely foolhardy thing to do, except Jesus promised that the gates of hades would not overcome his church. That we would swallow poisons and not be harmed.

      So at the moment, we have a church which is divided tens of thousands of ways, people claiming to follow Christ who reject out of hand his teachings, church leaders who control and condemn those they are supposed to shepherd and set free, abuse and cover-ups and all manner of evil taking place within the church itself. The church swallowed up hell and like a poison, Satan and his demons have been running free within God’s own home. However, Satan always overplays his hand. This state of affairs is no more a victory for the enemy than Jesus’ dead body laying in a tomb was.

      I believe, and have believed for quite some time now, that God is in the process of calling his Bride out. Jesus said that his sheep know his voice and those who know him in their hearts are starting to respond, often at great personal cost in terms of reputation, relationships and even financial security. People are already rejecting and fleeing from the abomination that the “church” has become. But there’s this message of radical grace and the reconciliation of all things which is being rediscovered. This is the way of the Bride. What we are seeing is, I believe, very much akin to what happened in the time of Jesus when the Temple ceased to be God’s dwelling place among men and we ourselves became temples of the most high.

      The thing is that in western Christianity, we are encouraged to think in very short-sighted, individualistic ways that run completely contrary to God’s ways. We are taught to think of each human life as basically an individual soul’s chance to do life right or not. However, God works over the course of millenia and through peoples. We are like wildflowers in the fields. Each individual person is just passing through as a much larger story is playing out. The goal isn’t really to take our one shot at getting life “right”, but to play our part in moving the story forward. This whole thing is part of a process by which evil, death and sin will be permanently stripped of their power.

      So anyways, I hope that answers your question. And I hope it made sense. I’m writing in between chasing little kids off to bed, so please excuse me if it’s a bit garbled! Blessings!

  10. How about the degeneration, or loss of humanity that occurs totally for the unbelieving? Romans 1 tells of the indignation of God on the rebellious, and in ch 2 we see the final judgement (repaying of deeds), and somewhere further, the absence of rest, or not entering God’s rest for the rebellious?

    1. If you read through the series, you’ll see that God’s wrath is corrective – a purifying fire – and as such is not eternal. Until the rebellious have gone through purification and correction, they will not enter into rest. But once God’s correction has done its work, they will no longer be rebellious.

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