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):
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)
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)