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May 10, 2011



To understand Universalism we need to go back to the foundation of our faith. As people of faith, we need to remember what that means. It means we work as hard as we can to understand our purpose and mandate, meanwhile trusting God with the big picture, including final judgement. if we could possibly accurately articulate the fate of others, then maybe God could delegate the eternal assessment to us. So, what do we know about God and our calling?
1. God is loving (which by the way doesn't always mean yes in our parenting course) 2. God is Holy 3. God is just 4. God is merciful. this seems like a paradox. The other paradox is the age old Calvin vs Armenian discussion. I.e if they don't hear the gospel will they be damned for it, or will we be for not taking it? Historically the church has been healthiest in terms of growth and substance when its held both in tension without trying to claim conclusions that it cant substantiate.
So, my suspicion is that God is keeping on track with our crowd of witnesses (Hebrews 11) and the early church (1 Cor 13) who had to journey by faith in the Word of God, and be content to see and prophesy in part. accordingly, with Christ as the Head of the church, it shouldn't be surprising that us 'parts' of the body don't possess the full understanding required for final judgement. We cant deny that Hell is clearly described in both Testaments, its our job to try to keep people out, but ultimately its Gods call.

Robert J Enbody

I believe the entire hell argument breaks down with the understanding that God is a loving God, or as it's stated more than once, God IS love. This is on its face clearly illogical, to start, but I find it implausible to prove or justify with a comprehensive reading of the gospels and New Testament, not just picking and choosing a few verses. In fact, growing up Assembly of God, hell and brimstone, it was when the pastor challenged us to really read the Bible. I did, lots of times and in different versions. I found it completely lacking in the hell and brimstone that pastor preached. Thus began a long, painful road of questioning.

It is now my contention that God’s being loving and the existence of a hell for we, weak and simple humans is logically fallacious. I say this because of His supposed requirement that we believe in Him and that the Bible is an accurate history. If the latter is true, God cannot be loving.

No loving being would purposely create a world full of evidence (rock solid evidence in the form of a geological record, fossils, and the certainty that we evolved into our current homosapien selves) to the contrary of His written account, keep Himself hidden, and having not been seen in His human form in 2000+ years, though His book screams out to me that Jesus promised the second coming within the natural lives of the apostles in Matthew 24.

Now providing a world full of rock solid evidence to the contrary, not providing an unmistakable understanding that He truly was the Mashiach, leaving generations of His chosen people destined for hell, keeping Himself hidden, not returning for much longer than promised; all these things that fly in the face so perfectly and rationally, using the very intellect He blessed us with, of the accuracy and validity of the Bible, if He is love and is so loving as stated in:

1 John 4:7-8

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.

He could not both be love and hold us to account at such an unimaginable price. Many say He is just, thus hell, but justice requires both sides of evidence be available to the defendant.

I truly believe the verse above, He has shown Himself to me as such. I also believe that the hell I was taught to fear as a child is an imaginary tool, one that has been historically and currently used by men seeking ever greater power and congregation sizes, used for political power and personal enrichment. It has nothing to do with the beautiful, kind and loving good news that Christ brought, and I'm willing to risk my soul on that. I have no wish to spend eternity with such a cruel and petty being, anyway.

I follow Christ because I've found that a life of loving all people as He loves us, not burdened by concerning myself with judgement of other people's supposed sin or shortcomings, or fear for my soul, makes loving in a Christ like way so easy and a completely joyful way to live. I'm not perfect, but I don’t have to be.


True universalism is not biblical....it says that in the end everyone gets in apart from the cross....Jesus is not God, et al. But what is strange to me is how many people serve a very weak God...They say with their mouths that God is all-powerful, that He is totally sovereign., then make an abrupt U-turn and tell us that there's no way He can save everyone. He's essentially put godhood into the hands of man and is up there somewhere waiting for people to decide for Him. Really? Jesus said NO ONE can come to Him unless the Father draws them. There is no verse of scripture anywhere that says that the door of God's mercy is shut forever once you breathe you last here. Jesus also said that if He was lifted up from the earth (which He was) that He would draw ALL men to himself. I guess that must surely mean something else. In most cases all means all, not just 2%. We can be as generous as we want to be if HE said he would restore ALL things, we just need to believe it. On the practical side, I've never yet met a believer who believed in eternal punishment. If you let your mind wander for just 30 seconds and think about the dark, horrible prospect of burning endlessly without reprieve, you would sell yourself totally to the kingdom, leaving no stones unturned. You would live on bare minimum if it meant pulling one more sinner from the fire. I've NEVER met anyone like that. You see, you only walk what you really believe!!


Good overview, very helpful. Note of correction: Annihilation definition needs to be switched with conditional immortality definition. Most outside the discussion confuse the two. I'm Advent Christian, we've held the Conditional immortality distinction since our founding in the 1800's. Conditionalists believe in the resurrection of both the righteous and wicked and ina period of punishing that leads to ultimate destruction. Annihilationists like the Jehovah's Witness believe when you're dead your dead, no resurrection of the wicked I believe.


I have been called a 'hopeful inclusivist.'

I was asked again today if I'm a universalist. So again, no.

I've been described as a 'hopeful inclusivist.' What this means is that while I see good reason in numerous passages of the Bible to hope that God might ultimately redeem everyone, at the same time, I also see very real warnings in the Bible that apart from Christ, the wicked (whoever that is) will perish (whatever that means).

Thus, rather than presumptuously saying that all MUST be saved or dogmatically proclaiming that most MUST burn in eternal hell, I choose to put my firm hope in the mercy of Christ alone for our eternal salvation and I freely and joyfully invite others with me to place their hope in Christ.

Keith DeRose

I know I'm late: I found this now b/c a facebook friend linked to it. Thanks, a couple of years late, for a thoughtful & helpful post.
One worry: I wonder why it's specified that on Annihilationism (#3) one's fate (heaven or annhil.) is set by what happens before one's death? Don't a lot of annihiliationists allow for post-mortem salvation, with those who continue to resist eventually being annihilated? That would be the position of Jon Kvanvig (THE PROBLEM OF HELL), but I think lots of further-chancers-after-death tend to think that annihilation is the fate of those who decisively and finally choose against God. (Not to venture any interpretation of C.S. Lewis on these matters, but some elements of his writings are likely to push some influenced by him in such directions.) On your taxonomy, these folks seem to be a mash-up of your positions #3 and #5, perhaps best viewed as a version of 5 with a 3-like annihilationist account of what happens to those who are not eventually reconciled.
Your question "Do I so need to see this rapist-murderer fry in hell that I would hold to a theology of justice that puts Sally Jean there with him?," is a powerful one. As a universalist, I've noticed that infernalists of various stripes *love* to talk about the likes of Hitler (and I'm happy to talk about that, too, as here: http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2011/05/hoping-all-will-3.html ). And when they do so, they often sound like it's concern for the victims that's largely driving them. But they tend to have views that put many of Hitler's victims in hell with him, and you can get interesting responses when you point that out.


To the one whose earthly father is in hell without an exit, I wonder ... is this a torment to you? or as with some children, a comfort?

Is the belief that there is no exit something you were indoctrinated with? Is it a theology you find necessary to believe? And what of the passages (some referenced in the article) that ALSO say he is not in hell, but has been annihilated? Or the other passages that say he is outside the city being invited in through the ever open gates? It seems that the sure knowledge that there is no exit comes unaware of the last two chapters of the Bible, or of the fairly straightforward hope of Romans 5, etc.

Could it be that there is biblical warrant at least for hope. Would such hope encourage you? Trouble you?

Tim Wright


I believe my earthly father is in hell and there is no exit. I believe My heavenly Father is loving in allowing my earthly fathering to experience what he always wanted, a life with out God. Peace.



Great article Brad! I've been thinking lately about how we've used hell to scare people into the kingdom, and then keep them there. If this is what we have reduced the gospel to, how far we have fallen...

I ask people, "If hell did not exist, how would it change the way you live?" and, "If anything would change, what does that say about the reason(s) you follow Jesus?"

I submit that fear is the reason slaves follow their masters, but not the reason sons follow their fathers.
Be blessed!

Andrew Klager


You just described the Eastern Orthodox view of 'hell' as divine love and mercy. This is a 2000 year old understanding and is deeply 'Traditional'. You can check out my piece entitled "Orthodox Eschatology and St. Gregory of Nyssa's De Vita Moysis: Transfiguration, Cosmic Unity, and Compassion" in the forthcoming book, 'Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as Friend,' ed. Ted Grimsrud (Wipf & Stock 2011) for a fuller exposition.

But, for now, a quote from one of the most respected living Orthodox theologians, Fr. Thomas Hopko:

"[I]t is precisely the presence of God’s mercy and love which cause the torment of the wicked. God does not punish; he forgives. … In a word, God has mercy on all, whether all like it or not. If we like it, it is paradise; if we do not, it is hell. Every knee will bend before the Lord. Everything will be subject to Him. God in Christ will indeed be 'all and in all,' with boundless mercy and unconditional pardon. But not all will rejoice in God’s gift of forgiveness, and that choice will be judgment, the self-inflicted source of their sorrow and pain" (Fr. Thomas Hopko, “Foreword,” in Bulgakov, Orthodox Church, xiii).

Florian Berndt

Hi Everybody,
I am reading this journal for ages now but never really bothered to reply. Not only do I love this article but also 'Her Gates Will Never Be Shut' - fantastic book. The question of hell has put me on a journey about 7 years ago after an experience of Father's love that made it impossible for me to hold on to my traditions as I simply couldn't see them in scripture anymore. What actually happened was that I came back to my first love before I entered religious indoctrination.

I not only love the article but also the comments. In my own experience I found that our Heavenly Father is indeed an all-consuming Fire to those who spitefully want to use others. We should also remember that Christ is the Light that enlightens every person born itto the world and fire was the only light there was when this was written. (No electricity...)

For myself, hell is experienced in the Presence of the Lamb and His angels when the Lighe of Him Who is Love shines right into our darkness and we discover where we have betrayed His Image in us and others. The question that remains is how long it will take till the fire of His love has changed me and how much change I need. This will tertermine how long and how much torment anyone of us can and will experience in His Presence.

I am reminded of how the demons were tormented in and by the Presence of Jesus - when Perfect Love walked the earth in human flesh. And I guess the religious folks were tormentd by Him as well as He exposed their shallow lives with His loving Presence. So for me, that's how judgement and mercy go togther, how we can reconcile unconditional love and justice. Every man will have to give account and every deed will receive its just recompense as we are all judged - saltet by fire - in the light of self-giving love of Christ - so beatuifully exemplified in the cross.

That's why the call is everyday upon us to take our cross upon ourselves and follow Him with the admonition 'repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand'. But then again, that's only my two cents, for what they are worth. (I love the humility I see in all the writers here. Sorry if I was rambling on...)


Brian Zahnd


"Plus the subordinationism of dividing God the (angry) Father from Jesus the (merciful) Son. Plus the problem with God changing his mind. Etc."

Indeed! Something is happening. It's early in the game, but something is happening for sure. I don't know what to call it, but it's underway. And I bless it! Something new is being born, and it could well be as important as that game-changer of five hundred years ago.

eric h janzen

@ Brian:
Whoa...you may have just 'rambled', but you just blew my mind...for before I experienced the presence and love of Jesus I found his presence excrutiating...it made me want to run and hide...I did not know what his love and mercy were, but when I did, when I discovered what he was really like after tearing down some serious blockages, I found his presence and love to be the most wonderful, the most amazing things ever...I don't want to leave them ever and do my best to remain there all the time...I think there is truth in what you have said, for whatever my opinion is worth.


Yeah, WORD on what Brian said. So when did you guys figure this out? It hit me about two years ago. I think it's the prevenient grace of Wesleyan theology taken to its logical conclusion plus the fact that justification by faith can't be justification by faith if "faith" is a work that God is evaluating. Plus the subordinationism of dividing God the (angry) Father from Jesus the (merciful) Son. Plus the problem with God changing his mind. Etc. I really didn't know that anybody else thought like this, so I kind of kept it to myself. Are we living through the second reformation or something?

Brian Zahnd

Hello Brad Jersak!

You know I love “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut”—so just some rambling thoughts...

God is love. It’s a daring statement that John makes. But the Apostle dares to make it—twice!

So what if hell is the love of God?


“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals on his head.” –Romans 12:20

The Apostle Paul (quoting from Proverbs) says that loving your enemy will result in a fiery torment for the enemy. (This statement is made in the context of a discussion on the wrath of God.)

But think about how this phenomenon of burning coals works—this kindling of fire upon enemy heads.

If Brad Jersak is my enemy and I hate him, his love in the form of a table laden with food and drink becomes a source of fiery torment for me. I am in hell.

But if I accept Brad’s offer of love and reconciliation, what was previously a source of fiery torment becomes the shared meal of mutual friendship. I am in heaven.

Brad hasn’t changed, but I have. So instead of experiencing his love as torment, it becomes a delight. Burning coals on my head becomes, "Pass the roast beef, please." The wrath of Brad has become the love of Brad; but not because Brad has changed—I am the one who has changed.

What if this is something like how the love and wrath of God work?

The ocean of God’s love is a lake of fire for those rejecting that love. And it’s forever. Until it isn’t. The rejection of God’s love and kindness that leads to repentance always has the possibility of being forever. Such is the radical nature of God’s sovereign choice to confer freewill upon his image-bearing creatures. But to receive the love of God as love can never be torment, but only beatific delight.


Jesus can save anyone he likes whenever he likes. Period. And why? Because he is Lord! Satan is not Lord. Death is not Lord. Justicia (that blindfolded goddess with her scales and sword) is not Lord. Jesus is Lord! Jesus has the keys of Hades and Death, and he can do with those keys as he pleases.


Because Jesus is Lord my hope can be as audacious as Christ is gracious.



I think I'm on the pessimistic end of category # 5. I believe that hell is the prison of self-justification that is an inherent inertia we fall into as rational creatures who have eaten the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. We need to make sense to ourselves so we try to rationalize the things we do that hurt other people. This keeps us in a permanently dissonant state of being that can only be resolved if we're given the space to admit we're wrong which is opened up by Christ's atonement. Romans 11:32 says that "God has imprisoned us all to disobedience so that He might show mercy to all." Allow yourself a moment to absorb the implications of this verse. God deliberately keeps us from being perfect so that we will not fall into the trap of thinking that we're gods who don't need His mercy.

It's important to recognize that God's mercy is not just blanket forgiveness and the fawning acceptance of a pushover, but a paternalistic gesture that puts us in our place which will be extremely painful and humiliating to us unless we have recognize our utter dependence on Him as creatures who can do nothing without Him. To recognize God's sovereignty over every ounce of goodness that we have ever received or performed is about as counterintuitive as it could possibly be in our context of free market values where we're conditioned to be self-sufficient meritocrats. After a lifetime of being socialized under capitalism into thinking of reality in terms of rights that we have earned and rewards we deserve, I'm not sure that we will be capable of entering God's merciful presence without hating His aristocratic magnanimity unless we have put our trust in Christ's atonement and have thus been liberated from the need to beam with pride and claim as our own accomplishments the goodness that God has had the mercy to let us participate in.

The doctrinal loyalty tests of contemporary evangelicalism are the modern-day analogue of what circumcision meant to the Galatians. Paul would write us a blistering letter if he were around to see the mess we've created using his very words to undermine the point that he was trying to make. We cannot be saved until we stop trying to prove our worth to God whether it's through helping old ladies across the street, taking communion faithfully at mass each week, or having a perfectly orthodox doctrine. All these things are works; just because doctrinal correctness is intellectual doesn't mean it's not a work; it is our damnation to cling to doctrinal correctness if we do so in lieu of trusting in Christ's justification.

We are saved FROM trying to prove our worth to God because doing that perpetuates our imprisonment to self-justification. We are not saved by agreeing with the right doctrines about Jesus; we are saved FROM thinking that we have to do that BY trusting that Jesus has atoned for our ignorance, confusion, arrogance, and whatever else stands between us and God.

Kevin Miller

Great piece, Brad. You did such a good job of summing things up that it made me wonder why I'm making a documentary on this topic. Then I smacked myself in my (considerably large and rapidly expanding) forehead: "Oh yeah, b/c most people can't be bothered to read!"

At any rate, your gracious, inquisitive, conversational and humble approach to this issue is a great example for the rest of us to follow--a tone I will strive to emulate in "Hellbound?"

Too often I feel like those who ask questions and seek conversation are really just masking deep-seated animosity toward those who disagree with them. I don't feel that coming through your work at all.

Which brings me to my final point: I think the way we talk about hell is just as (if not more) important than what we believe about the topic.


Thanks for the categories. Hell and final judgement are mysterious. When we see them mentioned in the Scripture they are often cloaked in metaphor and unclear imagery. So you are right to open the door to a variety of evangelical interpretations of hell. However the exegetical basis for some interpretations are stronger than others. Furthermore some interpretations have a stronger historical tradition than others. With the said, your point is well taken....we need to keep the conversation open.

Eric H Janzen

While this topic usually makes me groan and want to hide, not because I don't think it's important but because it seems to lead to conflict, I thought I'd add an observation: Behind the question(s) seems to be a latent concern with consequence. We tend to believe that for our actions there should be consequences, whether good or bad.

Using your fictional example I'm sure that most people would feel deep compassion for this girl whose life was taken from her in such a traumatic and tragic way and would not be overly opposed to her 'getting in'. The more challenging issue lies with the unknown attacker, the monster who brutalized and murdered her, a person whose actions show them to be evil in heart. We, with a sense of wanting justice (and perhaps some revenge), naturally want there to be a meaningful consequence for their evil. It is a distinct challenge, from a human perspective, to consider the story beyond the example you have given: the rapist and murderer later in life receives Christ and 'gets in', while the girl whose life was taken from her before she could make the decision does not. How quickly the debate can take complex turns!

For my part, I have to confess a certain uncertainty, which bothers me because I'm me. I like to understand things and have concrete answers. Alas, the Bible does not seem to offer one on this topic as exemplified in your description of the varying views. Worse, each is in some way defensible. I can make a personal decision on what I want to believe, but there is seemingly no way to make a decision based on a clear answer. So I feel like I'm in the weeds, as they say. Perhaps this is the real reason why I don't like the debate.

What does seem clear to me is that on the whole we do not grasp the extent of God's love and mercy. The Gospel when studied is so radical and counter intuitive that most of us fail to really take in the depth of the love of our Creator. The Kingdom of Heaven is indeed 'upside down' when compared to human nature. I suspect that when we all stand before the judgment seat we will, from the purest saint to the worst sinner (Paul the Apostle apparently) be utterly shocked.

Lately, I have landed on the only ground I can: God knows what he will do and I trust him completely. Therein is my peace where I have no ultimate answer to give.

Hope this doesn't muddy the waters further.



I think we need to ask more questions ) and I read your book it's awesome, I believe the saving grace is up to Christ not us and I pray God will have mercy on me being that I'm saved by grace too. I really like the part in the Bible where the Spirit and Bride say come. Before the new world was discovered I'm sure Columbus was called a heretic


It appears that you reversed the definitions of 3 and 4. Historically, conditionalists avoided the label "annihilationism", because that term was adopted by those who denied the resurrection of the lost.

Those strong distinctions no longer hold and "annihilationism" and "conditional immortality" are used more or less synonymously by evangelicals who believe that the unsaved will one day be no more. That's because annihilationism presupposes that immortality is not innate (or unconditional), and if immortality is only bestowed on condition (faith in Christ), it follows that everyone else will eventually cease to exist (be "annihilated").


Thank you for a response that is very useful and enlightening!

Amen to the last paragraph in particular!


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