Recently a reader named Ben, commenting on my posting of the hymn, Christ Shall Have Dominion, took issue with the concept of Hell. He says he believes, instead, in universal salvation, and that he has Scriptural warrant for it. I have invited him to explain his position. He is a guest in my cyber-living room, and I trust he will be treated accordingly.
Modern people, Christians included, are uncomfortable with the concept of everlasting punishment for sin. When we see a medieval painting of souls in torment in Hell, we would much rather see something else. Nevertheless, Hell is part of Christian doctrine.
Jesus Christ Himself mentions Hell sixteen times. I counted. He describes it as a place where the fire is not quenched and the worm never dies–rather like a kind of spiritual landfill, where there’s always something burning and always vermin crawling around, gnawing on the contents. Not a nice image.
If there is no such place, then why does Jesus say there is? If it’s only a figure of speech–and there are plenty of them in the Bible–then what is Jesus talking about? If there is no Hell, then what is the sentence handed down on unrepenting sinners who refuse to accept their salvation in Christ?
Consider His parable of the rich man and Lazarus, in Luke 16. The rich man is not being punished for being rich, but for being selfish and insensitive, turning a blind eye to real suffering that was literally at his doorstep and which he could have easily alleviated.
Some aspects of this parable are surely figurative speech; a parable, after all, is a story. Our Lord was, among many other things, a story-teller. So perhaps the conversation between the rich man in Hell and Abraham in Heaven is not meant to depict something that actually happens, but rather included to make the point.
But as for the rest of it–well, if the rich man is not in Hell, where is he? If he, too, is to be saved out of Hell, then why doesn’t Jesus say so?
Wherever there is true repentance, God provides forgiveness. This the Bible clearly teaches, throughout both Testaments. But where there is no repentance–not only a change of heart, but a change of behavior–there is judgment. The rich man in the parable changed neither his heart nor his behavior. For him, understanding comes too late–if it can be said to have ever come at all. Even in Hell, it looks like he still hasn’t learned his lesson.
God, says St. Peter, “is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). This is surely the ground on which universalism is based. But will all sinners come to repentance? In Revelation, they don’t repent even after God pours all sorts of terrible judgments on them.
That’s as far as I’m going to go today. Please, everyone, feel free to comment.