Shall all be well? Will the Goodness which is God’s own nature from which He created all things, and with which all things derive their aboriginal goodness be restored? Or shall there be some space in the vaults of eternity where evil and darkness and privation still persist? To answer this, I will lean heavily on the arguments of David Bentley Hart in his 2015 essay, “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of Creatio ex Nihilo”. Hart threw down an iron gauntlet upon nearly the whole Christian theological tradition when he argued, “the God in whom the majority of Christians throughout history have professed belief would appear to be evil (at least, judging by the dreadful things we habitually say about him).” No amount of hand waving and easy dismissals can escape the gravity of Hart’s moral claim in this statement. To assert that God consigns any of his creatures to the unending torments of hell, whether by predestining them to this estate or allowing them to choose it freely, is a moral claim on the highest order – and such claims must be justified if they are to hold any moral value whatsoever. If Christians wish to assert that God is not merely good, but Goodness in himself, and that all he creates is good, while also claiming some portion of his handiwork is doomed to eternal ruin, surely we must supply some kind of countervailing evidence that would allow us to name God as Good in any morally meaningful sense while something so manifestly horrible as the everlasting destruction of his creatures continues to be a feature of his creation.
While there are many angles that one can argue for Christian Universalism, the primary focus in this discussion is moral intelligibility. The long-standing position that hell is an everlasting state of endless ruin is a staggeringly massive claim, precisely because it is an eternal claim. As such, it requires serious moral reflection and justification. For the sake of brevity, I will conclude the ‘To Hell with Them?’ series with more questions than answers, if only to provoke serious thought in the hearts and minds of those who might be inclined to take the question of an eternal hell as an unassailable axiom that they must not doubt in spite of its unconscionable distaste. For those who insist on maintaining a view of eternal conscious torment of the damned, against all moral arguments stemming from the nature of God himself, I offer no help – some people are in love with the idea of hell, and who am I to disabuse them of such a dark, if not tragic romance?
Of course, when speaking of the eternality of hell, justifications are offered – from the most naïve appeals to ‘the Bible tells me so,’ to more sophisticated efforts of biblical interpretation, to the magisterial dogmas and traditions of the church as they have been codified over the last millennium and a half. In the interest of space, I will not detail the nature of the arguments in favor of the eternal punishment of the damned because, with notable exceptions, this posture has been more or less a given in the history of the church. In such a view, it is rather obvious that the Bible affirms eternal damnation in its judgement passages, whether in the parables of Jesus, or in the relatively sparse warnings to be found in the Pauline Epistles, or in the vivid imagery of St. John’s Apocalypse. Moreover, the theological witness of the church (especially in Western Christianity) have developed theories of Divine justice that maintains that sin is an infinite offence against God because he is infinite and when we sin we have denigrated his infinite honor.
Whatever weight these, and other arguments have taken in church history, the amplitude and force of eternity itself, renders them as something rather light – especially if they are, in the final estimation, false. The Christian Universalist may, and should, put the question to such views. Have proponents of eternal hell properly understood Scripture, or is their reading incorporating a set of theological presuppositions that might actually been alien to the authors of Scripture? Can we offer a meaningful moral defense for eternal retribution for temporal actions? Do we wish to ascribe an infinite magnitude to the sinful actions of finite beings that would necessitate perdition that will stretch on in an unending duration of torment?
Which brings me to something most fundamental: can we partition the moral goodness of God from his justice or mercy or love? This question cuts to the heart of classical theism which asserts that God is simple, meaning he is not composed of part justice and part love and so on. If we want to assert that God is comprised of a homunculus of god-parts, perhaps we can place greater weight on his wrath than we could upon his mercy. Still the problem arises in the disproportionate ratio of naked power to Divine love because such a relationship of Divine attributes runs aground on a reef that might very well end up reducing God’s justice as nothing more than a temper-tantrum for humans having the temerity to reject the mercy offered at the cross, as if God could behave as an all-powerful teenager licking his wounds in the wake of unrequited love. If we want to abandon the church’s traditional grammar for God, then it could be argued that an unending hell is more morally intelligible. But of course, in so doing much of our coherent theological language collapses. To put it another way if God is a composite being, rather than the Being-beyond-being whose existence is identical to the simple plentitude of his perfection, which Christianity has historically maintained, then it might be right to assume that God is not morally culpable for the moral wreckage of his creation, though even this is doubtful. If we wish to discard God as simple and infinitely good in favor of a composite of divine attributes it is nearly certain that we will end up rendering him as something like more like an intemperate dictator who predestines some to damnation or an inept well-wisher whose purposes in creation are thwarted by creaturely freedom, and not the triune One who is the source of all goodness.
This leads inevitably to a couple foundational questions – First, if humans are indeed created in the image of God, and our moral reasoning has, at least some analogical relationship to the moral nature of God, can we account for the moral proportionality of eternal conscious torment in hell? Second, how can God be all good and all powerful as Christians have historically insisted, while also maintaining that the everlasting ruin of his creatures, which he created originally as good, is in keeping with a faithful account of Divine power which is an expression of, and indivisible from his goodness? It is not my interest to answer these questions for proponents of the eternal conscious torment of hell as much as it is to highlight the immeasurable moral stakes of their position. My contention, and here I will leave it at the level of a bare assertion, is that no coherent answer is possible and that Christians should abandon all talk of the infinite goodness and power of God if they wish to maintain the prevailing view of hell.
Christian Universalism does not dictate that hell does not exist, such a proposition could hardly be supported by Scripture. All that a Christocentric Universalism maintains is that hell is not forever, and that all creatures will eventually be restored to God in and through the saving work of Christ – there is, after all, no other name by which we must be saved. This means that Christian Universalism is far more than mawkish sentimentalism, or a flaccid wish, rather, it is a bold and coherent reading of Scripture and the best of the Christian tradition. While the case for Universalism might not be able to chase away every objection at first blush, its primary argument is not difficult to follow – Christ’s victory is such that no evil will be allowed to persist in the unending ages of eternity, and no creature however great or small will be lost forever to that evil. Consequently, all will eventually be converted to Christ and restored to the good that God intended for them when he originally created them.
The traditional position of the church that at least some people face the specter of hellfire forever is based on a series of misinterpretations of Scripture as a whole and of its constituent parts, as well as a long and sordid history of doctrinal developments. These dogmas, however antique and long-standing, run the risk of relegating the Christian gospel to perpetual moral hazard. The stubborn fortification of indefensible doctrines, especially those that demand that faithful Christians submit to under threat of censure of the church comes at incredible cost. In the end, defending the indefensible leaves our theological traditions on the brink of systemic collapse as these errors have virulently duplicated and reduplicated on a geometric scale. If we want to retain the intractably flawed dogma of an eternal hell, we might be better off being honest by saying that God is not actually good and stop requiring Christians or imploring the world to believe otherwise. I would argue that while many of the finest minds in church history have held to dubious views on hell, we do them no honor in perpetuating their theological miscalculations.
Can we continue to call God a loving Father if we are willing to concede that he does things to his children that no decent parent could ever contemplate doing to their child? Was Christ’s cry from the cross, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do,” a hollow gesture that the Father had no intention of honoring and the Son knew would resound in nothing but ineffectual failure? Does the Christian evangel depend on the threat of burning hell to drive us into the love of God or else? Can we meaningfully call God morally good if in the end any individual can be irretrievably lost to their own moral evil by their own choosing or even worse God’s? Most importantly, I ask the question we all too often fail to ask ourselves, and in so doing make the intolerable familiar and the contemptable a matter of orthodoxy – what if we are wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time in the history of the church that she has erred grievously. Repeating a falsehood long enough and loud enough does not make it true. Perhaps in discovering the right questions we will be better prepared to discover the right answers.
When it comes to the weightiest issues surrounding the destiny of creation and the goodness of God, surely we can do better than be complacent in seeking out the truth or worse, be satisfied in hiding behind comfortable orthodoxies and dogmas that shelter us from seeking out the truth of these matters at all. I have become convinced that the assertion that all things in Heaven and on Earth have already been restored by Christ’s death and resurrection, and that this completed work will be actualized in each and every one of God’s creatures. To fall short of this, would be, in my estimation, to eventually be forced to attribute evil to God, because the ruin of his creatures is evil. Nothing and no one is ever lost forever, the love of God must encompass all things because all things exist in, for, and through him. Whatever the process, however long and painful it must be, Christ’s victory is so final, so utterly triumphant over all that stands opposed to his goodness and love, that evil will not be able to endure forever in his creation and certainly not in the creatures who are made according to his image. Surely, all shall be well, indeed, must be well because this purpose is precisely what God had in mind in creating all things.
This wraps up my To Hell with Them? series. I will continue to post on the topic of Christian Universalism in the future.
For further reading here is David Bentley Hart’s article “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of Creatio ex Nihilo”