Category Archives: Evangelical Universalist view of Hell

How serious a heresy is Universalism?

How serious a heresy is universalism?

Roger E. Olson | rogereolson | July 30, 2011 11:09

I have called universalism “the most attractive heresy.”  For a lover of God’s love, universal salvation might seem to be necessary.  (I guarantee you that some neo-fundamentalist will take that sentence out of context and attribute it to me without acknowledging what follows.)

However, I’m not a universalist.  On the other hand, I’d rather be a universalist than a true Calvinist (i.e., a five point Calvinist who believes in double predestination).

Someone once asked me whether I would still worship God if somehow I became convinced the Calvinist view of God is correct.  I had to say no.  Sheer power is not worthy of worship.  Only power controlled by love is worthy of worship.

If somehow I became convinced that universalism is correct, would I still worship God.  Yes, but….

I would have to wonder how a God of love can enjoy love from creatures that is not given freely.  Of course, someone might argue that, in the end, every creature will freely offer love to God and be saved (e.g., Moltmann).  I would just call that optimism.  There’s no way to believe that true other than a leap of optimistic hope.

Everyone harbors some heresy in his or her heart and mind.  The only question is–how serious are the heresies one holds?  Of course, nobody thinks they harbor any heresies (in the sense of theologically incorrect beliefs).

I agree with Swiss theologian Emil Brunner (and others) that universalism is heresy.  It is unbiblical and illogical.  However, that does not mean a person who holds it is not a Christian.  I have never met a Christian who was one hundred percent theologically correct.  Scratch hard enough and you’ll always find some heresy beneath the surface (if not on the surface).  That’s true for me as much as for anyone else.  If I thought I held no heresies, I’d think I had already arrived at the fullness of truth–something even the apostle Paul did not claim.

I think universalism is a minor heresy SO LONG AS it does not interfere with evangelism.  (See my earlier post here about why universalism should NOT interfere with evangelism.)  I also evaluate the seriousness of universalism by its context–viz., why does the person affirm it?  If universalism is evidence of a denial of God’s wrath and/or human sinfulness, then it is much more serious.  Barth’s universalism (yes, I believe Karl Barth was a universalist and I’ll post a message here about why later) did not arise out of those denials which is why he didn’t like the appellation “universalist.”  The term is usually associated with liberal theology.  In that case, as part of an overall liberal/modernist theology, I consider it very serious indeed.

Strictly historically speaking, any universalism is heresy–according to all major branches of Christianity.  The Catholic church allows hope for universal salvation but not confident affirmation of it.  But, of course, as Luther demonstrated, all branches of Christianity can be wrong.  That is why I reject paleo-orthodoxy and any appeal to absolute authority of tradition.  Tradition gets a vote but never a veto.  The Bible trumps tradition.

When universalism is believed on biblical grounds (as in The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory McDonald–a pseudonym), it is much less serious than when it is believed as part of a liberal theology that denies the wrath of God and the sinfulness of all human beings (except Jesus Christ, of course).

(Sidebar regarding neo-fundamentalism: A neo-fundamentalism is someone who will take what I have written here and claim I have affirmed universalism or at least given aid and comfort to heretics.  A neo-fundamentalist, like a straightforward fundamentalist, is a person who cannot distinguish between non-absolute condemnation of error and error itself.  Count on it.  Some probably Southern Baptist heresy-hunting neo-fundamentalist will pick up on this blog post and spread it around as “proof” that Roger Olson harbors sympathies with universalism.  That is, however, evidence of either a weak mind or ill will.)

So, what is my final word on universalism?  I don’t have a “final word” on it because “it” is not all that clear.  What kind of universalism?  Based on what?  I consider all positive affirmations of universal salvation that include denial of everlasting hell heretical.  But not all are equally bad or condemnable.  Some are based on confusion.  Some are based on liberal theology.  Some (e.g., Karl Barth’s) are based on the logic of God’s love and electing grace (viz., “Jesus is victor!”).  All are wrong, but not all are equally bad.

Let me be clear.  (This is necessary because of the power of neo-fundamentalists within evangelicalism today!)  I am not a universalist nor do I sympathize with universalism.  I am simply trying to get people to consider the possibility that not all versions of universalism are on the same level of error.  There is egregious error and there is simple error.  One kind of universalism (based on denial of God’s wrath and human sinfulness) is egregious error.  Another kind (based on confusion about God’s love requiring his overriding free will) is simple error.  I hope I don’t hold any egregious errors, but I’m sure I hold some simple errors.  I am open to having those pointed out to me.


Chad Holtz on what he gained and lost when he changed his mind on hell


(Originally posted here)
by Chad Holtz

While surfing through the deluge of posts and comments surrounding Bell’s approaching apocalyptic book, Love Wins, I started to think about the fears that are present on both sides of the conversation. Those defending the more traditional view of hell do so because they care very much about something they are convinced is true. I do not doubt their sincerity. Nor do I doubt the reality that whenever we shift paradigms with our beliefs, we lose something. It may be things we did not know we had.

I was raised in the church. From the time I could talk I believed in an eternal hell and that it would be full of people. This all changed about 3 years ago for me for a variety of reasons. But for 33 years I knew nothing else.

For the past few years I have given some thought to what I lost by losing hell. No doubt, there have been some major casualties. Here is a brief list of the big ones for me along with a description.

1. I lost the idol of belief.

Most of my Christian life I believed that I was saved because of what I believed. Yes, of course, I knew it was Jesus that made it possible for me to believe what I believed, but at the end of the day it was my good fortune (to be born a pastor’s kid in a predominately Christian culture) and my good sense that assured me a place in heaven versus hell. While I could not and would not have named it as such at the time, I idolized my belief of belief. When I lost hell, I also lost the the notion that I could secure anything about God’s future for myself through right (or wrong!) doctrine.

2. I lost a very powerful and useful motivator: Fear.

This was one of the hardest loses for me. Fear operated not only on others but on myself. No longer could I motivate myself to do good, to pray more, to go to church more, to be more charitable, etc., because a tormented eternity awaited me if I did not. I admit, for a long time that was a compelling motivator. It’s one I use on my kids probably far too often (not hell, although the fear of losing their Wii rights is a form of hell for my boys).

I also lost the ability to use fear as a tool to manipulate others to believe as I did. No longer could I get the satisfaction of seeing a crowded altar full of fearful, repentant sinners because I delivered a sermon that painted a picture of a very hot, miserable eternity if they died tonight without a belief in Jesus. Fear has worked wonders for getting people saved. It worked for me when I was 12 (and 13, and 14, and 15, and 16…). I had to find another motivator.

3. I lost the right to hate my enemy.

Yes, it’s true. Yes, I am well aware that Christians are supposed to love their enemies and pray for them. I’m aware that we are to love others as ourselves. But I have to confess that in my heart of hearts, that place where I worshiped a God whom I knew would send all His enemies to an everlasting hell, I really hated my enemies. Yes, I said with my lips that I “loved the sinner but hated their sin” (forget for the moment that our sinfulness is so ingrained in our person-hood that I, a sinner, am terrible at separating the sinner from the sin) and that I loved them with Christ’s love, but deep down I had a smug satisfaction that one day they would get theirs. This gave me comfort. And I can’t imagine that this deeply ingrained attitude of condescension was not obvious to those I sought to convert.

4. I lost my place in a tribe.

This is probably obvious given the many smear-blogs happening today. John Piper’s flippant, “Farewell, Rob Bell,” says it all. When I lost hell I lost my place in a “holy huddle” where I felt safe, secure and respected because I believed just like everyone else in the huddle. Losing hell made me an outcast to the sort of places I called “church” for 33 years, making me more like a nomad among Christiandom, with no real place to lay my head.

These are some of the things I have lost losing hell. I’m sure there are more. There are also some things I have gained, which perhaps I will write about at another time.

In the meantime, what have you lost when you lost hell? OR, what are you afraid of losing if you did?


by Chad Holtz

Last week I wrote a note titled “What I Lost Losing Hell.” The discussion both there and on my page has been fantastic and I appreciate everyone’s contributions. Keep them coming! In that note I said I’d jot down some thoughts about what I gained by losing hell. Here are those thoughts. What are yours?

1. I gained a more profound faith

As I reflect on the years when I believed in a literal, eternal, tormenting hell I have to confess that I was a pathetic witness. While I claimed to believe in hell and that it would be quite full of people and I would happily make this belief known in my “holy huddle” (church), this belief did not translate to my every day life. For had I truly believed it, and had I truly loved my neighbor, I would have been telling every person I ever passed on the streets that hell was in their eternal future if they did not repent. So I have to conclude that at least one of two things was true about my belief in hell: > I didn’t really believe it and > I didn’t really love my neighbor (let alone my enemy).

As you might imagine, this tied me up in knots with guilt and anxiety. I worried all the time about all the billions who never would hear the name “Jesus” in their lifetime. I worried all the time about my friends and loved ones who believed differently from I because they were not fortunate enough to be born in my family. And I even worried about the people who claimed to be Christians but they didn’t act like it or they didn’t believe quite like I did (for instance, they didn’t believe in a literal, eternal hell). My anxiety over the future state of their souls, while doing nothing to really compel me to warn them incessantly, seemed to serve as a sense of assurance about my own eternal destiny. If I am concerned about you burning for eternity than I must be OK.

What I gained when I lost hell was a profound sense of trust that God, in Christ, has “all things,” including all the people I once worried about. I gained freedom from worry. After all, didn’t Jesus teach us not to worry? (Matt. 6). If I could trust God with my own eternal fate, perhaps I could trust God with the fate of all of Creation. For the first time in my life, I began to experience what I think is real trust. I no longer trusted my faith to set me free but I trusted in Christ and Christ alone to set us all free.

2. I gained a new boldness in evangelism/preaching.

When I lost hell, the Gospel became not just potential Good News for some but radical, scandalous Good News for all of God’s Creation! This gave me a boldness in my preaching and interactions with other people that before I did not have. It is a powerful thing to come to the realization that my arguments about God, my beliefs about God, or my ability to conjure the right amount of fear in the hearer or my well articulated and rehearsed presentation of the “Way of the Master” did not matter one iota. It was all skubalon.

Instead, I could preach grace. I could say to someone along with Saint Paul, “You ARE reconciled to God in Christ, therefore, BE reconciled!” (2 Cor. 5:12-21). Salvation was no longer reduced to fire insurance in the afterlife but became Good News to the oppressed, the broken, the sick, the poor, the sinner and the saint. The Gospel took on a power that I had never known before. No longer did it tell me and others what you could be if X, Y and Z are done but rather, it told us the truth about ourselves – it tells us whose and who we are! Rejection of this truth is not a sentence to hell in the afterlife but a denial of who you already are. In other words, to reject Christ is to live a lie today. Paul said, “Today is the day of your salvation! So….wake up!” I am far more motivated to tell people to wake up to what is already real today than I am of trying to convince them to believe in X or pray this prayer so that they can eat cake after they die.

3. I gained a new found humility

Yes, I am aware of the joke, “I’m the most humble person here.” What I am attempting to say here is that losing hell helped me recognize a profound truth about myself and every human alive: We are contingent beings relying solely on the grace and mercy of God.

Before I lost hell I thought my beliefs or actions somehow secured, for good or ill, my eternal fate. Yes, Jesus did something 2000 years ago that was important, but my belief about that event was even more important. My faith or lack thereof unlocked the doors to either heaven or hell. Because of this bedrock belief, it is easy to see why belief itself became everything (and Jesus became the object of belief to haggle over).

But Paul says something in Romans 11:32 that levels all of us. He makes the outrageous claim that God has imprisoned ALL in disobedience so that God may have mercy on ALL. Not some – ALL. This included even me with my “right” beliefs. I am just as disobedient and in dire need of mercy as the person who never heard of Jesus. Disagreements today became less about a judgment from the Sorting Hat for eternity and more about appreciating the multiple flavors we all bring to God’s table.

That being said, I fully acknowledge that I could be wrong about every thing I believe. We all live into a story, however. My beliefs are not what earn me merit with God but rather enable me to live either well or poorly into the story God is already writing, with or without me. My future, my very breath, is entirely a gift from God.

4. I gained a new motivation: Love.

I was once asked by a friend, “If you take hell out of the picture, why follow Jesus? Why not just live however you want?” I responded with a question of my own: “Do you serve and honor your wife because you fear divorce?”

When I realized that it was not my beliefs about Jesus but Jesus himself who has saved and is saving the world, I began to fall in love with a person and began to release the idol of my ideas. I do not serve and honor Jesus as my Lord because I fear an eternity in hell. I love him because he first loved me. Period. No agenda.

When I loved Jesus for an agenda (getting out of hell) I found that I also loved people with an agenda (getting them out of hell). My love for them was conditional. When they rejected my agenda I rejected them (“Farewell, Rob Bell”).

God loves because this is who God is. God does this perfectly, and perfect love casts out all fear. I’m called by my Lord, whom I love, to be perfect as my Father in heaven is perfect. While I stumble and fall more times than I care to admit, I’m thankful that it is into my Father’s arms I fall and not a fiery pit.


Albert Mohler on “Doing away with Hell”

Doing Away with Hell? Part Two

Originally Posted Here

The doctrine of hell has recently come under vicious attack, both from secularists and even from some evangelicals. In many ways, the assault has been a covert one. Like a slowly encroaching tide, a whole complex of interrelated cultural, theological, and philosophical changes have conspired to undermine the traditional understanding of hell. Yesterday, we considered the first and perhaps most important of those changes — a radically altered view of God. But other issues have played a part, as well.

A second issue that has contributed to the modern denial of hell is a changed view of justice. Retributive justice has been the hallmark of human law since premodern times. This concept assumes that punishment is a natural and necessary component of justice. Nevertheless, retributive justice has been under assault for many years in western cultures, and this has led to modifications in the doctrine of hell.

The utilitarian philosophers, such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham argued that retribution is an unacceptable form of justice. Rejecting clear and absolute moral norms, they argued that justice demands restoration rather than retribution. Criminals were no longer seen as evil and deserving of punishment but were seen as persons in need of correction. The goal — for all but the most egregious sinners — was restoration and rehabilitation. The shift from the prison to the penitentiary was supposed to be a shift from a place of punishment to a place of penance, but apparently no one told the prisoners.

C. S. Lewis rejected this idea as an assault upon the very concept of justice. “We demand of a cure not whether it is just but whether it succeeds. Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’.”

Penal reforms followed, public executions ceased, and the public accepted the changes in the name of humanitarianism. Dutch criminologist Pieter Spierenburg pointed to “increasing inter-human identification” as the undercurrent of this shift. Individuals began to sympathize with the criminal, often thinking of themselves in the criminal’s place. The impact of this shift in the culture is apparent in a letter from one nineteenth century Anglican to another:

“The disbelief in the existence of retributive justice . . . is now so widely spread through nearly all classes of people, especially in regard to social and political questions . . . [that it] causes even men, whose theology teaches them to look upon God as a vindictive, lawless autocrat, to stigmatize as cruel and heathenish the belief that criminal law is bound to contemplate in punishment other ends beside the improvement of the offender himself and the deterring of others.”

The utilitarian concept of justice and deterrence has also given way to justice by popular opinion and cultural custom. The U.S. Constitution disallows “cruel and unusual punishment,” and the courts have offered evolving and conflicting rulings on what kind of punishment is thus excluded. At various times, the death penalty has been constitutionally permitted and forbidden, and in one recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, the justice writing the majority opinion actually cited data from opinion polls.

The transformations of legal practice and culture have redefined justice for many modern persons. Retribution is out, and rehabilitation is put in its place. Some theologians have simply incorporated this new theory of justice into their doctrines of hell. For the Roman Catholics, the doctrine of purgatory functions as the penitentiary. For some evangelicals, a period of time in hell — but not an eternity in hell — is the remedy.

Some theologians have questioned the moral integrity of eternal punishment by arguing that an infinite punishment is an unjust penalty for finite sins. Or, to put the argument in a slightly different form, eternal torment is no fitting punishment for temporal sins. The traditional doctrine of hell argues that an infinite penalty is just punishment for sin against the infinite holiness of God. This explains why all sinners are equally deserving of hell, but for salvation through faith in Christ.

A third shift in the larger culture concerns the advent of the psychological worldview. Human behavior has been redefined by the impact of humanistic psychologies that deny or reduce personal responsibility for wrongdoing. Various theories place the blame on external influences, biological factors, behavioral determinism, genetic predispositions, and the influence of the subconscious — and these variant theories barely scratch the surface.

The autonomous self becomes the great personal project for individuals, and their various crimes and misdemeanors are excused as growth experiences or ‘personal issues.’ Shame and guilt are banned from public discussion and dismissed as repressive. In such a culture, the finality of God’s sentencing of impenitent sinners to hell is just unthinkable.

A fourth shift concerns the concept of salvation. The vast majority of men and women throughout the centuries of western civilization have awakened in the morning and gone to sleep at night with the fear of hell never far from consciousness — until now. Sin has been redefined as a lack of self-esteem rather than as an insult to the glory of God. Salvation has been reconceived as liberation from oppression, internal or external. The gospel becomes a means of release from bondage to bad habits rather than rescue from a sentence of eternity in hell.

The theodicy issue arises immediately when evangelicals limit salvation to those who come to conscious faith in Christ during their earthly lives and define salvation as anything akin to justification by faith. To the modern mind, this seems absolutely unfair and scandalously discriminatory. Some evangelicals have thus modified the doctrine of salvation accordingly. This means that hell is either evacuated or minimized. Or, as one Catholic wit quipped, hell has been air-conditioned.

These shifts in the culture are but part of the picture. The most basic cause of controversy over the doctrine of hell is the challenge of theodicy. The traditional doctrine is just too out of step with the contemporary mind — too harsh and eternally fixed. In virtually every aspect, the modern mind is offended by the biblical concept of hell preserved in the traditional doctrine. For some who call themselves evangelicals, this is simply too much to bear.

We should note that compromise on the doctrine of hell is not limited to those who reject the traditional formulation. The reality is that few references to hell are likely to be heard even in conservative churches that would never deny the doctrine. Once again, the cultural environment is a major influence.

In his study of “seeker sensitive” churches, researcher Kimon Howland Sargeant notes that “today’s cultural pluralism fosters an under-emphasis on the ‘hard sell’ of Hell while contributing to an overemphasis on the ’soft sell’ of personal satisfaction through Jesus Christ.” The problem is thus more complex and pervasive than the theological rejection of hell–it also includes the avoidance of the issue in the face of cultural pressure.

The revision or rejection of the traditional doctrine of hell comes at a great cost. The entire system of theology is modified by effect, even if some revisionists refuse to take their revisions to their logical conclusions. Essentially, our very concepts of God and the gospel are at stake. What could be more important?

The temptation to revise the doctrine of hell — to remove the sting and scandal of everlasting conscious punishment — is understandable. But it is also a major test of evangelical conviction. This is no theological trifle. As one observer has asked, “Could it be that the only result of attempts, however well-meaning, to air-condition Hell, is to ensure that more and more people wind up there?”

Hell demands our attention in the present, confronting evangelicals with a critical test of theological and biblical integrity. Hell may be denied, but it will not disappear.





Links to 19th Century Universalism Defenses

Here are a couple of older links to readings too long to copy/past that defend Universalism.

Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine

Bible Proofs of Universal Salvation


William Barclay – Why I am a Convinced Universalist


by William Barclay


Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at Glasgow University and the author of many Biblical commentaries and books, including a translation of the New Testament, “Barclay New Testament,” and “The Daily Study Bible Series.”

I am a convinced universalist. I believe that in the end all men will be gathered into the love of God. In the early days Origen was the great name connected with universalism. I would believe with Origen that universalism is no easy thing. Origen believed that after death there were many who would need prolonged instruction, the sternest discipline, even the severest punishment before they were fit for the presence of God. Origen did not eliminate hell; he believed that some people would have to go to heaven via hell. He believed that even at the end of the day there would be some on whom the scars remained. He did not believe in eternal punishment, but he did see the possibility of eternal penalty. And so the choice is whether we accept God’s offer and invitation willingly, or take the long and terrible way round through ages of purification.

Gregory of Nyssa offered three reasons why he believed in universalism. First, he believed in it because of the character of God. “Being good, God entertains pity for fallen man; being wise, he is not ignorant of the means for his recovery.” Second, he believed in it because of the nature of evil. Evil must in the end be moved out of existence, “so that the absolutely non-existent should cease to be at all.” Evil is essentially negative and doomed to non-existence. Third, he believed in it because of the purpose of punishment. The purpose of punishment is always remedial. Its aim is “to get the good separated from the evil and to attract it into the communion of blessedness.” Punishment will hurt, but it is like the fire which separates the alloy from the gold; it is like the surgery which removes the diseased thing; it is like the cautery which burns out that which cannot be removed any other way.

But I want to set down not the arguments of others but the thoughts which have persuaded me personally of universal salvation.

First, there is the fact that there are things in the New Testament which more than justify this belief. Jesus said: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). Paul writes to the Romans: “God has consigned all men to disobedience that he may have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:32). He writes to the Corinthians: “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22); and he looks to the final total triumph when God will be everything to everyone (1 Cor. 15:28). In the First Letter to Timothy we read of God “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” and of Christ Jesus “who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:4-6). The New Testament itself is not in the least afraid of the word all.

Second, one of the key passages is Matthew 25:46 where it is said that the rejected go away to eternal punishment, and the righteous to eternal life. The Greek word for punishment is kolasis, which was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment. The word for eternal is aionios. It means more than everlasting, for Plato – who may have invented the word – plainly says that a thing may be everlasting and still not be aionios. The simplest way to out it is that aionios cannot be used properly of anyone but God; it is the word uniquely, as Plato saw it, of God. Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and which only God can give.

Third, I believe that it is impossible to set limits to the grace of God. I believe that not only in this world, but in any other world there may be, the grace of God is still effective, still operative, still at work. I do not believe that the operation of the grace of God is limited to this world. I believe that the grace of God is as wide as the universe.

Fourth, I believe implicitly in the ultimate and complete triumph of God, the time when all things will be subject to him, and when God will be everything to everyone (1 Cor. 15:24-28). For me this has certain consequences. If one man remains outside the love of God at the end of time, it means that that one man has defeated the love of God – and that is impossible. Further, there is only one way in which we can think of the triumph of God. If God was no more than a King or Judge, then it would be possible to speak of his triumph, if his enemies were agonizing in hell or were totally and completely obliterated and wiped out. But God is not only King and Judge, God is Father – he is indeed Father more than anything else. No father could be happy while there were members of his family for ever in agony. No father would count it a triumph to obliterate the disobedient members of his family. The only triumph a father can know is to have all his family back home. The only victory love can enjoy is the day when its offer of love is answered by the return of love. The only possible final triumph is a universe loved by and in love with God.


(Quoted from William Barclay: A Spiritual Autobiography)


Nouwen on free will and the “Good News” of Hell

“Is there a hell? The concepts of heaven and hell are as intimately connected as those of good and evil. When we are free to do good, we are also free to do evil; when we can say yes to God’s love, the possibility of saying no also exists. Consequently, when there is heaven there also must be hell. All of these distinctions are made to safeguard the mystery that God wants to be loved by us in freedom. In this sense, strange as it may sound, the idea of hell is good news. Human beings are not robots or automatons who have no choices and who, whatever they do in life, end up in God’s Kingdom. No, God loves us so much that God wants to be loved by us in return. And love cannot be forced; it has to be freely given. Hell is the bitter fruit of a final no to God.”

– Henri Nouwen

(taken as a quote from this source)


Mark Galli from Christianity Today responds to the Rob Bell Book

Here is a book review and response on some of the topics we are investigating on this site.