Paul, Hell, and Universalism

It is now time to turn to a section of the New Testament that has thus far been completely ignored in my discussion of hell: the epistles that are attributed to Paul.

First, lets summarize – in the next paragraph – everything that these letters say, directly, about hell (i.e., explicitly using the equivalent of “Ghenna” or “Hades” in the original language):

[Nothing]

This is a very curious thing. Paul, the man specifically commissioned to carry the gospel to the Gentiles, who is universally credited as the most important figure ever to interpret and expound on the gospel, never says a thing about Ghenna or Hades. Right off the bat, this is telling me that a gospel that focuses on the need to avoid hell in the next life is way off base. (I think that I probably have a few exclusivist friends who would agree with that statement for that very reason). However, it still doesn’t resolve the issue of the existence or nature of hell.

What Paul does talk about – and what we should not gloss over – is God’s judgment. For example, Paul quite often points out that the “wrath of God” either will be or is already being revealed against those who refuse to acknowledge God. Paul lets no one off of the hook, even those who haven’t been told of God. He is convinced, it seems, that all people have an innate knowledge of God; and they are therefore consciously rejecting his ways, choosing to embrace idolatry, sexual immorality, greed, etc. Furthermore, these letters indicate that a day of judgment is coming for those who reject God. The clearest text on this point may be in at the beginning of the second letter to the Thessalonians, which says this:

God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…

[As a side-note: do you see how similar this language is to the “judgment” language we find in the gospels? God is coming after those who hinder the kingdom – and they will find themselves in a place that is outside, or “shut out,” from God’s presence.]

Whatever else we have to say about Paul, lets not deceive ourselves into thinking that God is “okay” with the abuse and injustice that people dish out on each other. He is coming to straighten things out, and its not going to be pleasant for some of us.

But there is another side to the writings in these letters that is very hopeful when it comes to the ultimate fate of humanity. And, if you are skeptical about the universalist line of thought, I only ask that you treat these other texts just as fairly and seriously as you believe we should treat texts such as Romans 1 or 2 Thessalonians 1.

First, a curious little excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Romans, which is quite difficult to explain if you are an exclusivist (i.e., one who thinks only Christians are “saved”):

…when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts perhaps accusing, perhaps even defending them on the day when God judges everyone’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

[Some translations obscure the continuity between the “thoughts defending” and the day God judges everyone – wrongly as far as I can tell. This translation is was adapted from NT Wright’s commentary, which suggests this reading of the text. I should add, however, that Wright is not a universalist.]

Then, these statements toward the end of the same letter:

For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. (11:32)

and…

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to faith and obedience— to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! (16:25-27)

Then, in 1 Corinthians:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a human being. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (15:20-22).

Notice the parallel here: “all” die in Adam and “all” are made alive in Christ. The scope and strength of “original sin” – if you are used to calling it that – is matched (actually, I think Paul would say, it is exceeded) by the scope and power of Christ’s resurrection. If you read this in the context of the rest of Chapter 15, it seems reasonably clear that this resurrection of “all” is a resurrection to glory, not to punishment. So, if it was my call, I would issue a red card to anyone who claims that being “made alive” shouldn’t be equated with ultimate salvation in this text.

Next, the granddaddy of all Pauline universalist texts – the one that gives opponents of universalism fits in the same way 2 Thess 1 gives fits to universalists:

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. (I Timothy 4:10)

Read that last one again carefully. The thing that is so strong about this text is that it cannot be read narrowly – you cannot say “all people” simply means that the saved include “individual believers from among all different nations and tongues.” ALL PEOPLE – non believers being specifically included within this category – are saved, though not in the same sense that believers are. This suggests a framework that involves status and standing within God’s new world, as I discussed when I covered Matthew 5.

To summarize, I cannot read the Pauline epistles without repeatedly encountering the following two impressions:

1. God is coming back, he is going to judge people, and there is going to be punishment as a result of that judgment.

2. God will bring all people, explicitly including those who are non-believers in this life, into his kingdom.

Exclusivists and other opponents of universalism tend to emphasize texts invoking message #1, while marginalizing and watering down the seemingly clear (“clear” to me, at least) meanings of texts invoking message #2. Universalists try to reconcile these texts by saying that God’s wrath is only temporary, and that his salvation will eventually be for all, even those who suffer his wrath in the short-term. Universalists also have to acknowledge that the “universalist” texts don’t go so far as to provide such an explanation. They also have to deal with terms like “everlasting punishment” in texts like Matthew 25 and 2 Thessalonians 2, though – as I have already said – there is apparently a credible way to argue that the original term that is used for “everlasting” or “eternal” has been wrongly translated.

I cannot make the universalist argument in the same way that I would make out a case in a courtroom, but for me the universalist approach just “feels” more consistent with the overall story of scripture. That is not to say that it has its own set of problems, nor is it to acknowledge the possibility that universalists are wrong. I am just making a statement about how I react to all of these arguments on a visceral level.

Up next: Why no one is really an exclusivist (and what that says about universalism)

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11 Responses to Paul, Hell, and Universalism

  1. curtis says:

    great analysis… I’ve heard it described that (scripturally speaking) the Christian Universalist (very different from Unitarian Universalist) position has just as many holes in it as the exclusivist positions do (Calvinist, Arminian, etc)… ie: seemingly contradictory verses, the need for extra-biblical explanations for things, etc…

    But yet for some reason, people are so uncomfortable with even discussing universalism, let along acknowledging it as a potentially legitimate doctrine, backed up by people who have very closely studied scripture. I don’t understand it. I mean, isn’t the idea of more people getting to be with God for eternity, and less people in eternal punisment, a GOOD idea? Isn’t that something we should, at the very least, hope for?

    But for some reason, people FREAK OUT when you even bring up the topic. Like it’s somehow violating some core belief that they have… But what is it violating? The only thing I can come up with is that it violates the idea that bad people are going to get what they deserve in the end… and we don’t what that to not be true, because people have done lots of bad things in our lifetime… but are we forgetting that we have done things that are JUST AS BAD in God’s eyes as everyone else that we’re condemning to Hell? If we’re really honest with ourselves, we don’t actually want people to get what they deserve, because then we’d be condemned as well…

    I just don’t understand, man… I’m not saying that I believe in Universalism or anything, I’m just saying that I’m trying to figure this thing out, and I wish more people were open to this discussion. I feel like, down the road, is a better place for us if we’ll actually open this one up for discussion…

    Keep on keepin on.

  2. Matt says:

    Thanks, Curtis. You’re asking an important question here – one that I’ve asked myself for a long time. Most exclusivists of which I’m aware tend to tie their answer to the question of – “well, why would we even need to evangelize, then?” Its as if Christianity won’t “work” for them without an eternal hell for all non-believers.

    I’m going to get to the “why not evangelize” question in a few posts.

    Your encouragement is much appreciated. This has become something of a tour-de-force on the whole subject – a sort-of brain dump of everything I’ve got to say on the subject. I think I’m doing it because its therapeutic to see what happens when I get it all “out there” for me and everyone else to see. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost some readers (temporarily, at least) because the subject matter is so heavy and difficult, and its nice to know a few are still following along.

  3. Sgt. Carter says:

    Curtis, I will attempt to answer you question when you say,

    “But for some reason, people FREAK OUT when you even bring up the topic. Like it’s somehow violating some core belief that they have… But what is it violating? The only thing I can come up with is that it violates the idea that bad people are going to get what they deserve in the end … I just don’t understand, man… I’m not saying that I believe in Universalism or anything, I’m just saying that I’m trying to figure this thing out, and I wish more people were open to this discussion.”

    I’ll say in advance that I just happened upon this website and don’t know that I’ll be back here (not disgruntled or anything, just who has time to go back to every website they happen upon?) so don’t be offended if I don’t reply if you or someone else replies to my post. Well, now that I’ve said that, I can somewhat relate to you because I am not a Universalist but I am willing to talk with people about it. I have a close family member, whom I love, who is a Universalist and I’ve talked with them in detail about it. I’ve considered Universalist things for several years now. There are theological things about Universalism which I still think would be detrimental for me spiritually to accept, and I do believe that it is not a truly Christian doctrine. I think in one sense Universalism could be considered very close to Christianity in the same way that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are considered very close to Christianity but I do think that in the final analysis that Universal Reconciliation is worshipping another Jesus and teaches another salvation than the orthodox Christian one.

    So, getting back to your question: Since you see how I think about Universalism then can you see how very much opposed to it I am? And since I am very much opposed to it, it is no surprise that you might say of me “He is freaking out about it.” Well, I think I would be very rational if we talked about it, actually, but what I am saying is that not all Christians are so well versed in scripture that they can define exactly why they believe Universalism is unorthodox, and so they might resort to freaking out as you put it. I would say their freaking out might be a wrong way to express what in their mind and gut they “instinctually” know is wrong about Universalism. In other words, it might be wrong of them to freak out, but they (in my opinion) are at least right to know that something is very wrong with Universalism. Granted, it might be a very “muddle-headed” right knowing that they express, but from my perspective they are emoting from a position of the truth. What would be good would be for them to take the time (if it really matters to them) to dig into the scripture and learn to articulate better why they “freak out” about Universalism. Now I don’t know you, Curtis, so I don’t know what you define as “freak out”, but I do think that Universalism is a doctrine that is very dangerous — it’s not something to freak out over, but it is something that I take as seriously as I would a rattlesnake in my path. “Freaking out” over a rattlesnake is not the BEST course of action, but if a person understands the nature of a rattlesnake then they cannot criticize a person if they freak out when they encounter it. A woodsman with training won’t freak out, but he won’t sit down to have an easy going chat with the rattlesnake either. So, next time you talk to someone about Universalism who freaks out just remember that likely they see Universalism as a departure from real Christianity to a counterfeit that is very close to Christianity. Have the same compassion on them that you would a person who sees a rattlesnake. A small child likely will not be afraid of a rattlesnake even though they SHOULD be afraid of it…so at least the folks who freak out about Universalism know enough to be afraid even if they should grown in their knowledge as to what to do about it. I Hope this helps you see things from their perspective.

  4. Paul says:

    maybe he was implying a certain degree of everlasting punishment. like a rule of thumb, or a level of difficulty.

  5. Dave says:

    UNIVERSALISM IS WRONG – the only inclusiveness of the gospel is that all are called equally to repent and trust in Jesus. ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him’ (John 3:36)

  6. Hey guys, I discussed these issues here

    http://www.xanga.com/desertraindrop86/656852146/item.html

    let me know what you think

  7. Matt says:

    Patrick-

    I did have a chance to briefly look at the writing that you link here tonight, and it looks like you’re doing a very thorough job on the subject. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Thanks Matt. any critical comments?

  9. Mannik says:

    I came from a hindu background and gave my life to Christ, years ago.My parents were very strong in their religion and I as a younster was doing the same.However when I was exposed to the Truth of the gospel and saw the Grace of God as compared to idolatry, karma and reincarnation etc,I knew how wrong all these were. So at the cost of being expelled, ill-treated and rejected from my family and village, I chose Christ.My decision broke the heart of my mother and my family. My mother would cry night and day and I know she suffered a lot.
    Personally, I would say that Universalism must make many people feel comfortable but not so with those who like me who have caused grievance to our own.
    I would be more than happy if I know that at some point in eternity my parents will come to be The Lord
    BUT my question is -I could have remained in my religion and in my family without causing any distress, and breaking my mum’s heart-IF I KNEW ALL ARE ULTIMATELY SAVED then WHY MYSELF HAD TO GO THROUGH SO ALL THESE FOOLISHNESS, in light of Universalist belief-Really I will always regret knowing the simplest way was to STAY IN MY EX RELIGION, if Universalism was true.

  10. Matt says:

    Mannik-

    I have posted a response to your comments on my new blog. You can find it here:

    http://theoprudence.com/?p=67

  11. suanpi says:

    Hi Mannik,

    I appreciate you for the defense of your true faith. You have encouraged me. I belong to evangelizing the Hindus and Buddhists in my country–Myanmar. I agree with you that Universalism cannot be true, though it sounds very good.

    Again, your testimony impresses me very much. I have seen many like you in the same experience.

    May God be with you!

    Suanpi

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