a sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth
A few years ago at a family gathering my nephew, Rick, who is an Assemblies of God pastor, asked me, “Is it true that your church teaches that there is no Hell?” “Yes,” I said, “I believe that we humans sometimes create little hells for one another right here on earth. But as far as any possible afterlife goes, I’m convinced that there is no Hell.”
Never one to be short-winded, I went on, “Historically the Universalists – one of the two groups that formed our present denomination – were the ‘No Hell’ church. They taught that a loving God wouldn’t create a torture chamber called Hell, and then create us so flawed that we had to be sent there. Some Universalists taught that there might be a temporary hell, kind of like Catholic purgatory, where some very bad people went for a limited time. Others said there is no Hell at all. And all Universalists agreed that everyone would eventually join God in heaven.”
“How do you justify that doctrine?” asked Rick. “Humans aren’t infinite. We are finite, limited. So our sins can’t be infinite.” I said. “Imagine that I’ll live to be 100 years old, and I do 100 years worth of sinning. Should I be given an infinite punishment for just 100 years worth of sinning?
“Before you answer that,” I added, “Consider how long eternity is. It’s 10 million years, followed by 100 billion years, followed by a thousand trillion years, followed by a billion gazillion years – and after that you still have all of eternity ahead of you! You know the saying, ‘The punishment should fit the crime.’ A just and fair God wouldn’t give us eternal punishment, with no hope of parole, for only 100 years of sinning – it wouldn’t be justice, it would be pointless cruelty.”
Rick answered, “We don’t understand God’s justice. It’s beyond human understanding.” “That, to me, is dodging the question,” I said. “God gave us brains so we would use them. If we say, ‘We can’t possibly understand,’ then why should we ever think about any religious or ethical questions at all?”
“I see your point. But do you have any evidence for this?” Rick asked. His daughter was standing nearby. I said, “Is there any way you could send your own children to hell? No matter what they did, you would never want them to be tortured forever, would you?”
“Of course not,” he answered. “I love them too much.” “Then,” I said, “if we imperfect parents wouldn’t do that to our children, why do we think our perfect Heavenly Parent would do that to us? Wouldn’t a perfect God be even better than we are?”
“But God would also want justice,” Rick said. “Is it justice to torture someone for eternity?” I asked. “If God wants us to be tortured, then God is cruel, and I can’t worship a cruel God.”
“But God doesn’t torture us, Satan does,” Rick said. “Who do you believe created the universe?” I asked Rick. “God created everything,” he said. “If God created everything, and Hell and Satan exist, then God created Hell and Satan, right? And God created all of the rules about who goes to Heaven or Hell,” I said. “So God can destroy Hell and Satan any time, or change the rules. If God is all-powerful, then God is responsible for everything. And if the system isn’t fair, it’s God who created it, so it’s God who is responsible for the unfairness.”
The question of biblical “proof” ~
“I believe,” I said, “that if God created the universe, and if ‘God is Love,’ as the Epistle of 1 John (4:8 and 4:16) says, then a loving God won’t send us to Hell.”
“But that’s just one verse,” Rick said, “and it doesn’t say that there’s no Hell. That’s what I’ve been asking for, proof from the Bible that there’s no Hell.”
“You and I probably see this differently,” I said. “I read and love the Bible. We call it ‘The Good Book,’ but it’s not ‘the perfect book.’ It’s the classic collection of Western religious writings, the basic library of Judaism and Christianity. But God didn’t write the Bible in heaven and print it on a heavenly printing press. It’s a human book, written by human authors, in human languages, for humans to read and ponder. The Bible’s acceptance of slavery is morally wrong. It was written before we had science, so it gets most scientific ideas wrong. It sometimes contradicts itself. But it’s a Good Book and doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be valuable.”
Rick said that he believed the Bible is the Word of God without error, and asked again where the Bible says that everyone is saved.
“Well, the old Universalists liked to quote 1 Corinthians (15:22) in which the Apostle Paul writes, ‘For as all die in Adam, so all are made alive in Christ.’ So who are the ‘all’ that die from Adam’s sin?” I asked. “Everyone, right? And who are the ‘all’ who are made alive in Christ? It has to be the same ‘all,’ everyone. Everyone is saved, not just some people. And Paul doesn’t just say this once. He says the same thing in Romans.”
“Where?” asked Rick. “I don’t have the Bible memorized,” I said, “but I can find it.” (Later I found it at Romans 5:18, “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification for all.”)
Some Universalist “proof texts” ~
Rick asked me to send him a list of Bible verses. I repeated that’s not the way I understand the Bible. People tend to find what they want to find in the Bible. I think the Bible is a conversation about God, not a holy encyclopedia where you go to find out what God says on any given topic.
But my nephew wanted “proof texts.” So here are some Bible verses that suggest that the authors of the New Testament thought everyone would be saved:
In John 12:47, Jesus is quoted, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world but to save the world.” Then in John 12:32 Jesus says, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
Colossians 1:19-20 says, “For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile himself to all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Not just some, but all are reconciled.)
1st Timothy 2:3-6 tells us, “This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” In 1st Timothy 4:10 we read, “For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially those who believe.” (Especially those who believe, but not limited to them.)
Titus 2:11 tells us, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” And Paul writes in Romans 8:38-39: “I am convinced that neither height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And there are many more passages like this. Now, can you also find Bible verses about hell? Sure, if you read it in English. But in the original languages, Hebrew and Greek, the Bible doesn’t have any word that accurately corresponds to our modern notion of Hell. The Hebrew Bible uses the word Sheol, which really should be translated as “the grave” or “the place of the dead.” Sheol, like the Greek Underworld, was a place everybody went when they died, whether they were good or bad. It’s not a place of punishment, just a place of wandering and forgetfulness. That’s not our modern concept of Hell.
The New Testament speaks of Hades and Gehenna. Hades, named for the Greek god of the Underworld, is the same as Sheol, where everyone goes after dying. And Gehenna is a real location near Jerusalem. A garbage dump was located in the Valley of Gehenna. The fires in Gehenna never went out, because the garbage burned continuously. When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, he was using a symbolic word, a metaphor, to warn people of judgment in this world, not an eternal Hell in the afterlife.
And if translators agreed on what the Bible says about Hell, you would expect their translations to agree. But the King James Version used the word “Hell” 54 times, while the New International Version uses it only 14 times, forty times fewer than the King James translation. Young’s Literal Translation and the World English Bible never use the word Hell at all! So what does the Bible say about Hell? It depends on how you translate it from ancient Hebrew and Greek.
Again, I think the Bible is an important source of ancient wisdom, but there’s nothing magical about it. We should use our reason when we read it, just as we would with any other book. My point is the authors of the Bible didn’t say what the biblical literalists think the Bible says about Hell.
What is the future for Universalism?
As a Christian denomination, the Universalists grew rapidly in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and then went into a long decline. In the 20th century they became more liberal, accepting modern biblical scholarship, and broadened their religious outlook beyond Christianity – after all, if everyone is saved, you don’t have to be a Christian to be good. Confucius, Socrates, Aristotle, Spinoza, Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, are not Christian. But they have a lot to teach us.
Personally, I’m skeptical there is any life beyond this one. I’m inclined to believe that this is all there is. Like all living things, we have a certain amount of time, and then we die. But can we know whether anything lies beyond? I think this world, this life, is all there is, but I don’t know. The Pope doesn’t know. The Fundamentalists don’t know. No one knows.
So Universalism is my fall-back position: if there is an Old-Man-in-the-Sky kind of God like many of us were taught about when we were children, and if there is another life after this, then “universal salvation” is what I believe in. A God who created us, a heavenly Father or Mother, would not create us and then torture some of us for eternity. That kind of cruel god would be no God at all. In 1961 the Universalists and Unitarians combined to form the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, our present denominational body. So the old Universalist denomination is gone. But in recent years there has been controversy in some evangelical churches with a new wave of “universalist” thinking, coming from Christian authors like Julie Ferwerda, who has written a book, Raising Hell, and pastors such as Rob Bell, founding pastor of a mega-church in Grandville, Michigan, and Carleton Pearson, who was a prodigy of Oral Roberts.
Carleton Pearson preached that God’s love includes and saves everyone; he was tried by a council of Pentecostal bishops, found guilty of heresy, and lost his church. Despite being rejected by his evangelical Christian friends, Pearson still has hope for the gospel of a loving God. He says, “Loving our neighbor means loving everyone and everything you encounter without condition. Everything you experience has love in it somewhere. Each encounter exposes part of the self you must love, because each encounter reveals more of the essence of who you really are. Life is good. Life is God. He does not reside in a church, a Bible, a doctrine, or a sermon. He resides in you and me and everyone of us.”
And let’s let that be our Amen.