The debate over hell has been renewed over the past decade in the Evangelical world due at least partially to celebrity pastor Rob Bell’s recent book Love Wins, in which he makes a compelling case for postmortem salvation—that people can choose Christ even after they die. Bell makes a case for universalism, the belief that all people, regardless of how they lived their lives or what they believed on earth, will eventually be saved by the all-encompassing and never-failing love of God. In the end, God’s love wins.
Many say that universalism is a more “palatable” belief about hell than say, eternal conscious torment, especially compared to the popular Calvinist position that God Himself predestines many people to experience such fate. And while that is certainly true, I don’t think the easy-to-swallow beliefs of universalism are all that make the doctrine worthy of examination and discussion. Especially since an orthodox reading of the gospel and God’s mission in the world place God’s love and hope in Jesus at the center of the Christian message.
God is eternal conscious love
Scripture proclaims with resounding hope that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God voluntarily collides with the broken reality of our world. In this Christ event, God absorbs humanity’s sin and triumphs over the forces of death and evil. The God of the Bible is not the unmoved-mover of Greek philosophy, nor is He the God who predestines the “irredeemable” to eternal conscious torment. Rather, He voluntarily suffers for human beings because He is moved with deep and daring compassion for our pain and loss. He knows that it is our wounds that lead to sin, so He has come to heal and restore, not punish and destroy.
A God who says “love your enemies” can hardly expect us to take seriously the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. And a God who says He has come to “make all things new” can hardly expect us to believe that destruction and eternal suffering is one way to accomplish that end. “Only the consummate love of God is capable of encountering reality and overcoming it,” says Bonhoeffer. God’s love is unfathomable, extraordinary, relentless and superlative. There is nothing else like it in all existence.
We should never underestimate God’s love, nor can we overestimate it either.
At the heart of the good news of Jesus is that God loves the unlovable. Love-for-the-unlovable is not only the way in which God consciously and voluntarily acts in the world through Jesus, but is the very core of God’s eternal being. God is eternal conscious love. This will never change. This God, who can be described in no other terms, stands in direct opposition to the god of eternal conscious torment. A god who torments eternally and destroys indiscriminately is not the God Jesus points us to, and therefore cannot be God at all. Such a being is an insecure and unstable demigod rather than a vulnerable and life-giving Savior.
God doesn’t hope for eternal suffering, rather God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).
Hope is essential to the Gospel
The belief that God predestines humans to eternal conscious torment doesn’t align with God’s eschatological mission of hope and what the Bible says about the coming cosmic renewal where there will be no more pain, evil or suffering. No. Eternal conscious torment can’t co-exist alongside of the coming reality where God’s eternal conscious love will be made concrete and universal; the coming cosmic reality where God “will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere” (1 Cor 15:28).
In his book Surprised by Hope, Wright sketches out “the big picture of cosmic redemption that the New Testament invites us to make our own.” The gospel is about renewal and hope, not destruction and eternal torment. God’s mission is about eternal redemption and healing, not final destruction and the co-existing punishment of human souls. Wright continues:
God will redeem the whole universe; Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of that new life, the fresh grass growing through the concrete of corruption and decay in the world. That final redemption will be the moment when heaven and earth are joined together at last, in a burst of God’s creative energy for which [the resurrection] is the prototype and source.
We should never underestimate the power and possibilities of the resurrection, and nor can we overestimate it either.
The God of eternal conscious love is cruciform, continually and vulnerably emptying Himself to embrace the wounded-sinner, offering real hope to the unlovable and irredeemable. For at the core of God’s nature is a love-for-the-unlovable and hope for the hopeless.
That is the core message of the Gospel.
So if we are going to lean one way—either in the direction of eternal conscious torment or the direction of eternal conscious love—I would want to lean into the latter, for it is the way God leans in Jesus: He wants everyone to be saved and to know Him for who He is: eternal conscious love.