Why I Don't Believe in an Eternal Hell - Christian Universalism
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Why I'm a Christian Universalist
I grew up in a Christian fundamentalist environment. Over the years, I developed a deep-seated terror of the idea of an eternal hell. Because of this, I eventually suffered a devastating mental breakdown centered around thoughts of my own damnation, and this finally drove me to find new beliefs I had never even anticipated. Today, I believe that one may have a Christian faith while rejecting the idea that anyone will spend an eternity in “hell”. This is not to say that no one will be punished after death, but that this punishment is temporary and remedial (for the person's own good). Christian Universalism is the belief that, through Christ, God will eventually bring all people into a relationship with himself. The doctrine of Universalism makes sense to me because many Christian scriptures explicitly state it; because it was widely taught within the early church, seemingly unchallenged by the church for hundreds of years; because it can be inferred from the Christian conception of God’s nature; and because scriptures that seem to contradict the doctrine can be viewed as either mistranslations or misinterpretations.
The Bible Explicitly Supports Universalism
First of all, I personally value the Bible as a source of spiritual wisdom. The Bible explicitly states the doctrine of universalism in many places. First Timothy 4:10 says that "God, … is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe". Notice here, it says he is the savior of all people, especially of those who believe. It doesn’t say he is the savior of only those who believe, but especially of those who believe. Romans 5:18 says that Christ’s sacrifice “…leads to justification and life for all people. See how it says justification and life? It isn't talking about merely a physical resurrection for all people, but new spiritual life and forgiveness for all people. Christ himself is quoted as saying, "I … will pull all people to myself" (John 12:32). There are many more scriptures like these. Theologians often try to explain away these scriptures by saying things like the word “all” means “all the elect”, or “all who believe”. But the Greek word for “all” undoubtedly means the same thing that it does in English: simply put, it means “all”.
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Universalism Was Unchallenged by the Early Church
I also learned that universalism was openly taught and widely believed throughout the early Christian church for hundreds of years, only being formally denounced as heretical in the middle of the sixth century. For most of the years prior to this, there is no record of the doctrine having be censured or even criticized, despite the fact that very many ideas were continually being attacked or censured as heretical throughout these years by the church. Dr. Hosea Ballou, who served as the first president of Tufts University in Massachusetts, informs us in his book The Ancient History of Universalism that for hundreds of years, Universalism was explicitly taught by such eminent church fathers as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa with widespread acceptance and little or no evident resistance from within the church.
Philosophical Justification for Universalism Based on God's Nature
Next, my concept of God leads me to believe in Universalism. I believe that God is Love. If God is Love, then surely he wants the best for every person. Many scriptures support this. 1 Timothy 2:4 says "God … wants all people to be saved". I also believe God is powerful enough to accomplish whatever He wants. Isaiah 46:10 says “I (God) will accomplish all that I please”. When Christ’s disciples once asked him “Who can be saved?”, part of his response was, “With God, all things are possible”, by which we can infer: God can save anyone! If God desires that every person be saved, and he is able to bring about all that he desires, how can anyone not be saved? The doctrine of eternal damnation suggests that either God’s love or God’s power is deficient.
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Study of the Greek Texts Supports Universalism
Finally, I’ve come to believe that scriptures which seem to teach
eternal punishment can be viewed as either mistranslations or
misinterpretations. I base this belief on the opinions of certain highly
esteemed Greek scholars such as William Barclay, who wrote a wildly
popular series of commentaries on the books of the New Testament, and
discusses his own Universalist beliefs in his book William Barclay: A Spiritual Autobiography. I also base this conviction on my own study of Greek, which I've studied for several years, including formally for two years at the University of Tennessee (although my mastery of Greek is insignificant when compared with William Barclay's formidable expertise on the subject).
word that is consistently translated as “eternal”, for example, is the
Greek adjective “aionios”, derived from the noun “aion”, which is best
translated “a span of time” “an age”. An “age” typically denotes a
lengthy, yet finite period of time. “Aionios”, as an adjective based on
that noun “aion“, need not carry greater weight than the noun it was
based upon. If we take the English noun “day”, for example, and turn it
into the adjective “daily”, then “daily” suggests the same time frame. A
daily shower would not refer to a shower taken every week, or every
year, but every day. So perhaps a better translation of “aionios” would
be “age-lasting” or “pertaining to an age”. A number of respected early
Christian writers described “aionios” punishment or fire as God’s way to
eventually bring the punished souls back into fellowship with himself!
Such uses of the term “aionios punishment” would make no sense if the
term refers to punishment with no end. Additionally, such references to
an end of hell’s punishments for the individual were often made without
much explanation by the authors, which would suggest that ancient
readers would not have noticed a linguistic or theological contradiction
that would demand further explanation.
William Barclay, in his book William Barclay: A Spiritual Autobiography, says that "aionios" denotes something that pertains to God, and the word for "punishment" (that is, the Greek word "kolasis"), which originally meant to prune trees, never denotes anything but remedial discipline. Thus, according to Barclay, the Greek terms which we have generally translated as "eternal punishment" are better thought of as meaning "that remedial/corrective punishment which God, and God alone, is fit to give".
So I’ve shown how Christian scriptures, Universalism’s seemingly orthodox status for hundreds of years in the early church, and the Christian conception of God all support the doctrine of Universalism; as well as how scriptures which seem to contradict it may seem to do so because of misinterpretation. For these reasons, and many more, I believe that a Christian perspective invites a belief in universal salvation far more than it invites a belief in the salvation of only some. Due to the potential psychological and social impact of the widely proclaimed doctrine of eternal torment, I urge not only those of you who call themselves Christians, but even those of you who aren’t religious to closely examine these issues, lest we allow a dangerous error to continue thriving.
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