Most Christian Universalists believe that those who choose to reject Jesus or choose to live in wickedness will be sentenced to hell ‘for a time’ but after the allotted time of discipline in hell is up, God will let them into heaven. Apparently this is what Rob Bell is hinting at, although I don’t know myself and haven’t read his book.
I’m late to the party and I know this. I didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon at the time of the book’s release. Practically every blogger of faith in the world had something to say, some good and some ridiculous, and I didn’t want to add to the noise, to be honest.
But now I think it’s time for me to weigh in as this conversation keeps coming up. I’m going to weigh in by saying I think the questions we are asking are wrong, some of the terms we are using need to be clarified, and a great deal of assumptions need to be examined.
The term ‘go to heaven’ is particularly misleading because it often conjures up images of some ethereal plain where everything is white and see-through and people float around on wings. This is all ancient Greek or Platonic thinking, and it’s pretty silly stuff in my opinion.
It’s not about whether we’ll ‘go to heaven’ but whether we’ll partake in the new age of Christ’s rule, where there will be a ‘new heaven and new earth’ (Rev 21). Why this is important is to realise that God loves the Earth and creation, and He intends to bring it all into a final redemption. We will have human bodies in this new age as well. Heaven and Earth will finally be connected. In this discussion I think these things need to be realised so we know exactly what is at stake and we can correct misleading and frankly unscriptural ideas about heaven.
Throughout the ages of Christian theology this has been the accepted thinking, although pop-theology throughout the ages has made heaven akin to the kind of picture we see below.
How some people honestly think of 'heaven'. Not sure if I'm looking forward to living on clouds. I prefer grass, to be honest.
Asking the right questions
He who asks the wrong question will come to the wrong answer. From experience, it seems to me when we ask the right questions then we start seeing some clarity. Some years back I took up this question on hell, spent two years coming to some form of conclusion, and realised that perhaps, all along, our questions are what trip us up.
“The choice between God and Hell (or annihilation) is not true freedom.”
But is this truly the choice God presents us with? Setting the question up like this immediately paints God in a certain, rather dark, light. The question (I’m not saying anything about the poster here) is misleading and is saying in an undertone, “Why is God such an evil dictator – he gives us no real choices because he threatens us with hell?”
Is the choice Hell and God? No, not from a Scriptural perspective. God sets up a choice between life and death, which is mentioned after he presents the choices between wickedness and goodness (Deut 30:19). The choice He lays before us is to choose to live wickedly or choose to live well. The way of life we want is up to us. Each have consequences because if they didn’t this wouldn’t be a world of justice. If there were no consequences, no cause and effect, then the universe could simply not continue and would surely self-destruct.
God does not say, “choose me… or else.” He simply lays down the way the universe is created – live well and you will live, live wickedly and you will die. It’s a fact of life. Now stop being silly and live well.
I don’t see anything unfair about that, do you? Is it unfair to say that when you step out onto the highway and stand in front of a car, you’ll probably be hit by the car? No, it’s not unfair, it’s just a fact.
Is it unfair that God created the Universe to work in the way it does? Why would it be? That’s when the potter turns to the clay and says, “why did you make me like this?” It’s absurd to say that the physics of the Universe are unfair.
Who does God send to Hell?
The second question which people often ask is, “Who does God send to hell?” Rob Bell asks this question in the blurb of his book which asks, “Will Gandhi go to Hell?”
This is the wrong question. The right question is “Who is God?”
Asking this question doesn’t mean I am ignoring the other question because it’s ‘too difficult’. Rather, I’m answering the question more effectively. To cut a long story short, Christians believe that Jesus is God (part of the Trinity) and when we look at Jesus we see exactly who God is, what He is like, and how He judges.
The divinity and humanity of Jesus is central to the Gospel message – more central than the doctrine of hell, because it answers the hell question. Let me present a few Scriptures to show why I say this.
The first is Acts 10:34 – 43, where Peter gives his first sermon to the Gentiles. Here Peter expounds on Jesus’ authority, His Lordship, and makes special note that the resurrection points to Jesus now being the ‘judge of the living and the dead’ (vs 42). After that, all who believe in Him receive forgiveness of sins through His name (vs 43).
No mention of hell or eternal condemnation. Only mention of Jesus being the judge and those who believe will receive forgiveness. How does Peter’s sermon line up with popular preaching today?
Jesus as Judge is most important
Jesus as judge is an important part of the Gospel, more important than a doctrine of hell. Once we understand correctly that Jesus is the judge and we look at His life (how He treated others), His death (the price He paid for us) and His resurrection (a sign of the promise to us and a sign of His authority) then we know that the Judge is both just and good. And His life is important because we see in it that He understood something of context and judged people accordingly.
All theology must be Christ-central. Making your theology Christ-central helps you to avoid getting sidetracked. It stops you making your life’s work about defending ideas rather than living in faith. It keeps you humble and yet determined. It makes what is important, important. And it keeps you out of heresy.
Think of how He treated the Pharisees, how He treated ordinary people, how He treated the woman caught in adultery. If the Judge of all is like that then the question of hell becomes a lot more clear.
Romans 2 is another key scripture here. In it Paul makes the same point as Peter in Acts above, that God shows no partiality (vs 11). He also says some interesting things about judgement, taking careful note how God will judge according to works.
vs 6 – 10: “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury… tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil… glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good…”
* [THEOLOGIANS: SEE NOTE BELOW]
vs 12: “all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.”
He goes on to talk about how Gentiles, who didn’t have God’s law, are nevertheless “a law unto themselves” because of their conscience. In other words, they are judged according to their conscience.
(The word ‘Gentiles’ here is talking about those who are not God’s people. In our context, non-believers.)
This means, if I’m reading it as plainly as a I can, that God judges based on context at all times. All men everywhere know the difference between good and evil; not one single man on this planet (including the hypothetical dude who is stranded on an island since birth, who always comes up in these discussions) is without a conscience.
See the choice isn’t ‘choose God or die’ because so many don’t know how to choose God. The choice is ‘choose goodness or wickedness and you will be judged accordingly’. When I say ‘accordingly’ I mean ‘accordingly’. I’m not saying ‘hell’ I’m saying ‘accordingly.’ Asking the right question, in terms of “where does wickedness get me?” gets you the right answer. Wrath and fury.
That’s a fact of life, just as much as gravity or the sun coming up in the morning. No one needs to be told that wicked deeds lead to bad things. Certainly most people who believe in some form of afterlife know that wicked deeds will have bad consequences eternally. God will therefore judge all according to conscience.
Dealing with assumptions
Does wrath and fury mean eternal condemnation? Perhaps. But we cannot assume always. If the Scripture doesn’t say “hell” we shouldn’t assume it means “hell”. We should take it for what it actually says.
Likewise when we do some theological study. One may be tempted to believe early church Christians were quite a viscous and bloodthirsty lot, with all their talk of ‘judgement’ and ‘fire’ and so forth. But you need to be reading too much into the Scriptures and even those writings to think that all mention of judgement and fire means condemnation to hell.
The Scripture doesn’t say “hell” it says “wrath and fury” (Rom 2:5.) That doesn’t sound good, though. But I choose to go no further or no less than Scripture in this debate. I think that’s the key in getting this right.
God will judge according to context. The question here is: Will you take the risk and try and offset your wickedness with a couple of good deeds, to tip the scale in your favour? You can try. But good luck to you.
But there is a way in which you can be free from worrying about that, and this is through faith in Christ.
But if you know the way out, a way where your salvation is guaranteed, but don’t take it, you are the biggest fool there is. And you’re probably pretty proud and wicked for thinking you don’t need Jesus but can do it on your own. You will be judged accordingly. That judgement seems pretty bleak for you, to be honest.
Those who believe in Jesus receive eternal life – their eternal judgement is decided. (John 3:18). But you can’t believe in Jesus unless you are told (Rom 10:15). Therefore, those who are not told are judged according to works and their conscience. According to context. However, those who reject Jesus stand condemned already (John 3:18) because they were too proud and wicked and thought their own good deeds would save them. Once again, we see context is important.
Books like "23 Minutes in Hell" and other books about people supposedly going to hell and living to tell the tale, or those where they've supposedly gone to heaven, I think are unhelpful and perpetuate myths in this discussion that are not Scriptural - like Satan torturing people in Hell and that sort of nonsense.
The John 3:18 verse says, “whoever does not believe is condemned already, because He has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” This does not mean that people who are ignorant stand condemned already, because, once again, how can anyone believe unless they are told? (Rom 10:15).
So to wrap it up here: we have no idea on the outcome of every single person who ever lived except for two groups – those that accept Jesus and those that reject Him, with full knowledge and willingness as to what they are doing. Everyone else God judges based on conscience and context – what and who they do know.
Those who persist in wickedness of all kinds, whether they be rulers of countries practicing injustice or the guy next door who persists in cheating everyone, will find wrath and fury (Romans 2:5). Obviously, because justice requires a consequence. Will this wrath and fury lead to eternal condemnation? Very possibly. Or perhaps not. God will judge. Do they have a way to guarantee that the judgement will not end in hell? They do now, if we tell them about Jesus.
That’s probably why Romans 2:15 says that people who don’t know God’s ways (his law) are either accused or even excused according to their conflicting thoughts and conscience. I honestly can’t see how anyone could read Romans 2 and come to any other conclusion I’m presenting here.
Many will die never knowing Jesus and He will judge well and perfectly, because He is perfectly good and perfectly just.
This is nothing new
What I’m presenting is nothing new. I spent two years mulling over this doctrine of hell to come to some of the conclusions I’ve come to. In the interim I’ve read theologians new and old and just read the Bible for myself with this question at the back of my mind. I see no injustice done or being done to us by God at all in this light.
The reality is that I think Rob Bell’s book is good in that people need to address this issue. However, there’s just way too much philosophising taking place around this discussion. There are too many assumptions, too much reading into Scriptures and Christian theology. There’s also too much emotion and too little study and wrestling with the issue sincerely.
There’s also too much of “God must be like this and fit into that” rather than seeing that God is, well, quite capable of knowing all and understanding context and judging each individual himself and not obligated to fit into our boxes, categories, and limited understandings of what justice and love should look like. Why even Christians persist in making up rules for Him outside of Scripture is beyond me, but yet we do it.
The summary of all this is to say that we should not presume we know the outcome of God’s judgement for everyone. The subtitle of Bell’s book, The Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, is rather silly. Can anyone really tell us the fate of every person who ever lived? No, I fully doubt it. When it comes to anyone’s ultimate fate, we leave that up to God, but that doesn’t mean we don’t preach a warning message about God’s fiery judgement which will fall upon all of those who persist in wickedness. Including Christians, who won’t go to hell, but will certainly lose significant rewards that God wants to give them (See 1 Cor 3, although this requires another discussion). And it doesn’t mean we don’t preach God’s amazing salvation which includes His Holy Spirit living in us to live lives that are worthy of a calling as God’s very own.
Justice will always catch up. Love wins. Justice wins. That is the Gospel.
* [THEOLOGIANS NOTE: Paul must be referring to unbelievers in vs 6 – 10 because of vs 12 and Romans 1, and his mention of ‘every human being’ in vs 9. If he wasn’t he would be supporting a salvation by works. It can’t be referring to heavenly reward for believers due to the context and vs 9.’]
About Ryan Peter
Ryan Peter is a writer, journalist and ghostwriter from Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes fantasy, sci-fi, inspirational fiction, and on faith. Ryan is also part of the New Covenant Ministries International (NCMI) translocal team.