Practical and ethical implications of hell. Part I: evangelical universalism
Monday, 3 October 2016
| Alex C. Smith
Editor’s note: This article is the first of a three-part series on the ethical implications of our view of hell. Future issues will include articles from the Traditional (Eternal Conscious Torment) and Annihilationist (Terminal Punishment) perspectives.
Eschatology and ethics are intertwined.
(John Dickson and Greg Clarke, 666 And All That, 2008, 184)
In March 2016, one of the world's largest Evangelical publishers, Zondervan, produced a second edition of Four Views on Hell, which included Eternal Conscious Torment, Terminal Punishment, Purgatory and, for the first time, Universalism. The editor states that all four contributors are committed Evangelicals who affirm biblical inspiration and authority and the existence of Hell, and who base their view primarily on Scripture and theological reasoning, rather than tradition, emotion or sentimentality.
In this article, I explore the practical and ethical implications of the Evangelical Universalist view of hell on our understanding of justice and judgement, imitating God, punishment, God’s character and evangelism. It is beyond the scope here to make a case for this view, and for this I recommend Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (2012), as well as the Four Views on Hell mentioned above. The latter was recommended by Dr. Paul Williamson as further reading during the annual lecture series on ‘Death and the Life Hereafter’ organised by Moore College, an influential Evangelical college in Sydney, in August. Williamson said that, while he doesn't agree with the last three views, he believes their proponents are Evangelicals who deserve to be respectfully engaged.
Judgment and Justice: what do they look like?
Phillip Adams: … you have a belief in future judgment. Does that help you cope with the injustice you see?
Tim Costello: It really does! This sense that you burn out - a lot of social justice people do burn out - this sense that you haven’t been able to make a difference … For me, that sense that there is a judgment beyond and that it’s God’s business - weighing of the scales … allows me to say it’s not all about my doing and my effort, and it does help as an antidote to burnout.
(Late Night Live, 20/09/2016, 32 minutes)
But what does that justice ultimately look like? I believe the pinnacle of justice - everything being as it should - is the perfectly harmonious relationships enjoyed within the Trinity. These relationships overflowed into Creation, where we initially saw humanity reflecting and enjoying the harmony. Ultimate justice must again include that universal harmony (Col 1:20, Acts 3:21). This means that, as we do our best to restore harmony in relationships in this life (with people and the rest of Creation), we are participating in God’s work to renew every relationship.
Imitating God in all our actions?
Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. (Ephesians 5:1, NLT - cf 1 John 2:6, 1 Cor 11:1)
Instinctively, we imitate those we look up to. That’s great regarding God’s love (John 13:34, 15:12), even of enemies (Matt 5:43-48); forgiveness (Eph 4:32, Col 3:13); mercy (Luke 6:36); humility (Phil 2:5-7); and selflessness (John 13:14-15).
However, this is problematic when someone believes that God does things that are unethical for humans to do. It’s not just extremists like ISIS; there are examples in mainstream Christianity:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire. (Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, p15)
If, as Edwards seems to imply, God hates many people and considers them worthless, are we to imitate Him in that respect as well? It’s true that Romans 12:19 instructs us to ‘leave vengeance to God’, but if that’s only ‘so that God can destroy them in hell’, then:
Nietzsche was right about Christianity, that it’s a resentful … religion, that would take revenge if it had power but doesn’t because it’s a religion for the weak, but we fantasize about getting our revenge and take our revenge in kind of passive aggressive sorts of ways. [But] I think that’s just a really horrible way to read Christianity, and it’s a misreading of the Book of Revelation [eschatological judgment] too. (Dr. William Cavanaugh, Reforming Hell interview)
Some Christians excuse such merciless hatred in God by saying it ‘only applies to evil people like Hitler’. But that effectively denies that everyone is evil (Rom 3:23) and that nobody can earn their salvation, which is entirely a matter of grace. Are we really more worthy of God’s grace than Hitler?
On the other hand, if we believe all God’s actions (including punishing/correcting in hell) are done in the recipient’s best interest, then if we imitate any of them, it’s far more likely to be a positive outcome (and better for the entire community, according to restorative justice practitioners). ‘Best interest’ doesn’t imply God is never severe. We should heed and share His warnings, but in a way that acknowledges that everyone is immeasurably valuable and irreplaceable - made in His image - His beloved children (although many are currently prodigals squandering their inheritance). God’s attitude toward sinners is like the attitude of loving parents toward their drug-addicted teenager. The parents will act to limit the self-harm/death and damage to others, and that might mean hosting an intervention, or booking them into rehab, or even seeing them go to prison.
Our perception of hell’s purpose/nature and our view of punishment now
Most Christians view hell as the most significant example of punishment. It’s therefore not surprising that it’s imitated now, sometimes in disturbing ways:
Corporal punishment gives children ‘a foretaste of the potential terror and pain of eternal separation from God’. (Rita Swan quoting www.christian-parents.net)
Similar logic has been applied to the indefinite detention (torment?) of refugees as a deterrent. Likewise, in our judicial systems, some elevate retribution, to ‘balance the books’ or as deterrence, whereas others elevate correction aimed at education and reconciliation (see Kevin Miller’s ‘Cheat Sheet on Hell’). The latter rehabilitation is still a reflection of hell, if we believe hell is a place where God works with perpetrators until they truly comprehend the hurt caused. That process may involve them witnessing a victim miraculously forgiving them or them experiencing the victim’s experience - ’eye for eye’. Once they have learned to empathise, I believe they will freely give a heartfelt apology and won’t want to repeat the offense. If the victim hasn’t already forgiven the perpetrator, this allows them to see the genuine repentance and to forgive them, which helps heal both parties. Restoration is difficult, but encouragingly there are examples of such incredible forgiveness and repentance (e.g. Jesus, Mandela and Eric Lomax) to inspire us to prayerfully try to forgive others.
In parenting, as with the judicial system, the alternative approach isn’t permissiveness, but to teach consistent natural and logical consequences that children can learn from and apply in future situations. After all, the term discipline comes from ‘disciple’, meaning ‘to teach’, and doesn’t necessarily include retribution.
I also view hell like surgery, which the Surgeon uses to remove vices such as pride, and to heal the brokenness and fear that hinder people coming to Christ. Or like a garden that God weeds, prunes and cultivates. Both images push me towards self-examination, restorative justice and correctional services now, as opposed to purely retributive systems.
Hell and God’s abilities, character and response to evil
Endless hell would imply endless evil (opposition to God). The arguments for why hell/evil wouldn’t cease seem to boil down to either:
- God doesn’t want hell/evil to cease (perhaps preferring an ongoing reminder to the Elect).
- God can’t make hell/evil cease because some people will keep choosing it.
The first argument raises significant questions about the breadth and depth of God’s grace and love, and leaves us wondering if we should bother to resist evil now, as it will continue no matter what we do. The second argument raises significant questions about God’s omnipotence and ability to achieve the absolute best for anyone (see Thomas Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God, 1999). If God is ultimately a non-interventionist, leaving people forever to their ‘chosen’, suicidal self-harm, we’re discouraged from intervening now.
Both alternatives dampen our motivation to overcome evil now, which is a significant ethical concern. Both would also result in an endless ‘us versus them’ division, which may make us feel quietly superior now (‘I’m obviously better at making choices than them!’). History demonstrates it’s easy to slip from ‘I’m Elect’ to ‘I’m Elite’. However, I believe the Bible teaches us that God only endures hell/evil because He looks forward to them completely ceasing. Indeed, God is working towards that day - as should I. Evil will cease because no one is worthless or impossible to restore, and this truth inspires me to praise God and to act.
Inspiring hope and evangelism
Multiculturalism and globalisation (especially the Internet) mean we are no longer simply exposed to the religion of our parents. We interact with many other religions, and within our extended families there are probably multiple faiths represented. This has made the question of what happens to those who do not embrace our beliefs more pressing. No one wants to lose their loved ones forever.
Some respond by adopting inclusivism, or even pluralism. However, rather than making the ‘door’ wider, Evangelical Universalism acknowledges that sadly many people appear to be rejecting Jesus and therefore, as far as we know, will face the consequences at Judgment. However, we believe, for many biblical and theological reasons, that our Father will not abandon anyone in hell forever, but instead, through His Spirit, will work there until each and every person comes to repentance and faith in Jesus.
My view of hell motivates me to promote the gospel. ‘God as Father, Surgeon, Gardener, who loves and saves everyone through Jesus’, makes even Atheists pause, and avoids them dismissing hell (and Christianity) as ‘ridiculously disproportionate’. It also gets a hearing where the ‘good’ news most commonly presented – in which all their beloved ancestors cease to exist, or end up in Eternal Conscious Torment - doesn’t.
Alex C. Smith lives in Tasmania, is married to Shelley and has three young children. A Christian since the 1980s, he adopted Evangelical Universalism in 2010. He helps run The Evangelical Universalist Forum and the Evangelical Universalism (Invitation & Debate) Facebook group, but lately has been focusing on his blog, ReformingHell.com.
Photo: The Communion of Saints, by Ira Thomas (provided by author)