I just finished a second run through the book Four Views on Hell. In it there are 3 perspectives on hell offered, and one perspective on a purgatorial heaven. The three perspectives on hell are eternal conscious torment, conditional immortality/terminal judgement and universal reconciliation. Dennis Burk argued for ECT, John Stackhouse for CI and Robin Parry for UR.
Eternal conscious torment is that God punishes the wicked forever.
Conditional immortality holds that God makes the wicked cease to exist.
Universal reconciliation holds that those who do not know Jesus will come to know him after death and will eventually be reconciled to him.
I think a lot of the debate hinged around three concepts found in scripture and what they really mean:
Does eternal mean forever? (Mat 25:36)
Does destroy mean utter termination? (2Th 1:9)
Does all mean everyone? (Rom 5:18)
In ECT eternal means forever but for advocates of CI and UR it doesn’t.
In CI destroy means the end, but for advocates of ECT and UR it doesn’t.
In UR all means everyone, but for advocates of ECT and CI it doesn’t.
It is like an old western movie where 3 characters each have 2 guns and they are all pointing at each other in a circle.
The pivot point seems to be in defining and reconciling the concepts of divine holiness and love. If holiness is moral perfection and an insatiable desire for justice meted out through retributive punishment, then one naturally falls in to the traditional ECT camp. The problem with this view is that scripture doesn’t not directly define holiness in this way. It is inferred from the recorded punishments through the history of Israel. It is inferred from the belief that Jesus taught ECT. The reasoning becomes circular. The infinite punishment of the wicked teaches us that God infinitely retributive. Jesus is teaching that punishment is infinite because God is infinitely holy requiring infinite retribution.
Throughout the history of Israel most judgements did not involve God directly punishing Israel, like raining down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah. Israel was turned over to the whims of her enemies. The worst punishments ever experienced by anyone in the history of Israel pale comparison to the notion of unending infinite torture. Lots of people died, many suffered the deprivations of siege, some had their bodies dragged through the street by wild animals but there is no ceaseless torture. I think this is one reason why conditional immortality is gaining more and more favour. There is far more consistency with CI and the history of God’s judgement of Israel than ECT. Combine that with the passages that talk about how immortality is a benefit of salvation implying the soul is not inherently immortal, and that the end of the wicked is destruction (Phil 3:19) they make a pretty compelling case. One that injects at least a sliver of compassion in to God’s retribution.
One of the better lines in the book belongs to Stackhouse when wrote that UR is the “triumph of hope over exegesis” which may be a nice way of calling it naïve wishful thinking. I disagree with Stackhouse because there was lots of exegesis in Parry’s chapter he just approached his exegesis with a different lens that views the scriptures through the lens of Christ, the gospel and the broad story of Genesis to Revelation. Can anyone imagine the Jesus we see in the gospels torturing anyone? The one who befriended sinners. The one who suffered and died for them. I personally believe that Jesus is the best revelation we have of the nature of God. It isn’t the prophets and it isn’t Moses. We see passages that describe Jesus as the image of the invisible God. John wrote that the law came through Moses but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. At the mount of transfiguration Jesus appeared with Moses and Elijah. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my one dear son…listen to him” and Jesus was the only one left. There are lots of things in the law and prophets that aren’t consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus, and in trying to make them fit together we risk placing an interpretive lens that distorts the picture of God that Jesus gives us. Some will say that I risk undermining the authority of scripture. I think the reality is we all have our favoured parts, I’m just aware of it and intentional in how I do it.
In Romans 5:15 Paul wrote that the “gracious gift is not like the transgression” in that is more abundant (v17). Most evangelicals have no problem with the idea that Christ’s death is universal. He did extend grace and life to everyone. The problem is that not everyone accepts it. This runs in to a logical problem. If God in his abundant love and grace decided to favour everyone would he then say: “Well I’ve decided to love you but you don’t want my love, so now I have to torture you forever.” It just doesn’t make any sense. Now if salvation was more about rescuing humanity from their inherent corruption and people chose to reject God’s cure, they would still be saddled with ravages of this disease. They would suffer until they let God make them better. In this scenario it is easy to see how God could favour people yet they still suffer if they reject his favour. This is pretty consistent with how Jesus describes judgement in John 3:18-21. When looking at it this way is incomprehensible that God wouldn’t offer the cure in the age to come as he has in this age. This is especially true when we realize that God didn’t just decide to love us, he is love, he is only acting out of his true being.
Robin Parry believes that eventually everyone will see the light and reconcile. On that point I find it more difficult to agree. The problem with our corruption is that it distorts our perception to the point where the light becomes darkness to us (Mat 6:23). The depths in which the human soul can sink is surprising. If a being whom God loved was truly in a spiral of despair and hopelessness I think that God might intervene against their freewill in order to free them. He might “put them out of their misery” or let death consume them in to nothingness. He might reset them like we might format the hard drive on a computer and restore them back to their created image. Can anyone get so consumed by darkness there is no way back? I hope not, but I don’t know.
It just feels right to believe in the triumph of hope and I don’t believe we compromise our exegesis to do it.