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Practical and ethical implications of hell. Part III: Universalism through Christ: a hopeful future starting now

Friday, 5 July 2019  | Tony Golsby-Smith

Editor’s note: This article is the third of a three-part series on the ethical implications of our view of hell. See Part I on Evangelical Universalism here and Part II on Evangelical Conditionalism here.

There is a quiet crisis creeping through the experience of faith today.

Let me illustrate with a story. I met two young Christians recently who had begun to encounter an alternative picture of the future through my talks: the prospect that God will save all people (in fact all the cosmos) as the final end of his purposes. Both were educated Christians in a traditional evangelical church. I asked them what effect this different paradigm was having on them. They paused for a while, and then one of the said, ‘It has recovered my love for God’.

I fear this story is being replicated in many minds, but subliminally not consciously. That’s dangerous because if you sublimate an anxiety or a question, it doesn’t go away. It gnaws at you, eating out more areas of your memory without you being able to manage it.

For whatever reason, the modern church has put ‘hell’ right at the core of Christian faith, so whoever starts to worry about it, feels they are challenging their whole faith. This means they will be in danger of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ – if they end up modifying or rejecting the ‘hell’ doctrine.

This is the negative side of the picture. The positive side interests me more and takes us well beyond the relatively narrow question of ‘hell’ and ‘universal salvation’.

All human beings imagine the future including the future beyond death. In order to imagine this future, we need to use imagery more than we normally might, for the simple reason that this future does not exist yet – and in the case of life beyond death, it exists in a paradigm beyond the landscape of space and time that defines the world we know by direct sensory experience.

This makes the study of future thinking particularly intriguing, but also more difficult than analysing the past and the present. This difficulty can make the study of the future seem speculative and optional.  However, the future is important for another, more immediate reason: how we see the future will influence how we see the present, and therefore how we understand, decide and act in the present.

Designers and architects harness this power of the future by a technique called ‘backcasting’. They try to imagine a very different kind of city and buildings shaped more by their imagination than tradition, and then work backwards from these new conceptions of the future towards the present realities, with the hope that they can design exciting new structures.

The church can learn a lot from backcasting and it really should be brilliant at it – at imagining and declaring a great future and using that vision to influence what it does today. It’s called ‘eschatology’ – the study of the future cosmos radiated by grace. But the obsession with heaven and hell has significantly distorted the church’s ability to do that.

In contrast, the early church thought a great deal more about the end of all things than we do. This gave them a vast mental landscape by which they could frame and reframe their views of day-to-day experiences. Their scope went way beyond the fate of individual souls and encompassed the salvation of the entire cosmos – all of the natural order, animate and inanimate, material and angelic beings, all of time and all of history.

In order to investigate and explore this ‘end’ of all things, the Patristic fathers went right back to the beginning of all things. This meant, not the Fall, but the creation of the universe ‘ex nihilo’ and the counsels of the Godhead that first conceived and then delivered this ‘existence’ into being. Central to these deliberations was the creation of mankind, and the Patristic fathers thus explored and speculated in great depth on the reasons of the Godhead for this creating of mankind, and the faculties – the God-like faculties – that are implied in the pregnant phrase that mankind was made ‘in the image of God’.

These inquiries gave the cosmos and history a vast arc of meaning uniting the beginning and the end. It also provided a unique eminence for Christ as the apex of that arc, holding it all together, and uniting the beginning and the end. This apex was ironically wrapped in the smallness of the incarnation, in the finiteness of a shortened life and the confines of an oppressed land in the first century. Yet this all too human scale apex explained existence, and in particular human existence, as having its source in the mind of God and its ends in the glory of God, and the unveiled grace of God.

These church fathers were only doing to Genesis 1 and 2 what Paul, John, Peter and the writer to the Hebrews had done.

Paul does develop his eschatological vision more fully in Ephesians 1 – and significantly he does so in a pastoral context. Clearly his prayer here captures his aspirations for all saints. As such it is a most significant template for his vision of the character and the mind that he wants to see developed in the believers. Interestingly he does not pray for a litany of good behaviours, or victories over sins and temptations; he believes that this holy living will flow from an inner transformation of the mind and the ‘eyes of the heart’. He prays that they will grasp three significant new ways of thinking: the ‘hope of their calling’, ‘the riches of God’s inheritance in the saints’ and ‘the greatness of his power exercised on their behalf – specifically the power of resurrection that he first unveiled in raising Jesus from the dead’.   These are the ways of thinking by which the believer will see all reality differently – as radiating possibility and glory secured already by the massive resurrection work of Jesus.

The effect of this transformation on our minds is all-pervasive. It shines a sense of wonder and hope over all things, all events, all contests in this world. It includes every corner of the cosmos and every moment in time in its transformative vision, and it thus breaks down forever the narrow boxes and divisions into which our faith all too often shrinks. Far from reducing our emphasis on Christ and the claims of Christ, it puts him at the centre of all things. It declares that no category of human endeavour or nature can be excluded from his Lordship and his demands. Finally, it is a beatific vision that circumscribes evil as temporary, insubstantial and limited; and it amplifies goodness as inevitably eternal and all-pervading because it alone is the quality of God.

From this perspective, we can return to the topics of ‘hell’ and ‘judgment’. The Patristic fathers took these themes seriously (as did most people who have espoused some forms of cosmic redemption) but they circumscribed them as means or ways to God’s purposes, not the ends. If the end of all things is humans sharing the rule of God, then humans need to develop and grow the capacity to do this. This development cannot be imposed on anyone but must be embraced and chosen. We don’t grow if we don’t want to grow. That is the basis of every decent educational program. So the doctrine of cosmic redemption is not a free ticket to glory; it is an invitation to grow and develop towards the only end game in town.

In the speculations of the Patristic fathers, this could take place both before death and after death. In other words, death and the promise of immortality are not a mere open or shut gate, but a continuation of a pathway; we are growing in this life, and we will also grow in the life of the age to come. Furthermore, our growth and trajectory in this life continues into the life of the age, and deeply affects our journey in the life of the age. If we reject our opportunity to grow in this era, we won’t be cast aside, but we will open up to ourselves a hard path of regrets - ‘if only’ - and suffering in the age to come. There is judgment to be faced – and this judgment will include the believers in this life – but this judgment, like all fires in the Bible, will be for the purpose of purifying us not punishing us.

This leaves Christians with a very sobering but very plausible warning to declare over human life and activity in this era. It boils down to no more than this: nobody gets away with evil, neglect, complacency, selfishness, cruelty, greed or oppression in this life. Not Assad, not the cruel rulers of the Sudan, not the despots who rape and pillage their countries for personal gain – and not you and me. Thankfully we have a God from whom nothing is hidden, and whose judgments are utterly pure and uncompromising. This means we need to take life seriously and weigh our actions in the light of this eternal rectitude.

But the Christian view of judgment goes one step further. Like all successful punishment systems, the real success is not to crush a criminal but to reform them and rehabilitate them. Even a reformed criminal will never be free from the guilt and regret of what they have done, but they can change and live constructive lives.

The mechanism for enabling this epic transformation remains the same as it has always been in the Christian gospel; the killing of the God-man, Jesus and his subsequent resurrection from the dead – a resurrection that means not just our salvation but the death of death.

Image: Every Knee Shall Bow by J. Kirk Richards (2008). Source: http://www.jkirkrichards.com/.

Tony Golsby-Smith (PhD) is a co-founder of Gospel Conversations (GospelConversations.com), an organisation in Sydney seeking to take a creative approach to gain a deeper understanding of the gospel and what it means to us today. This year their conference is exploring the topic of ‘Hope and Hell’.


July 8, 2019, 12:33PM
Hell becoming central to the Christian faith is the same reason a bomb would become central to the minds of people in a shopping mall. There's a lot of things to look at, but only one that matters because it's so horrible.

Until it can be diffused, it will continue to terrorise.

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