I want you to be dead honest with me (and yourself) about something. Does it bother you, at any level, that, according to traditional conservative theology, probably somewhere around 90-95% of people ever born on this planet are going to end up in Hell? I mean, even a little bit? If you really can be honest, you would have to admit that it does. If it doesn’t, then either you don’t really believe it deep down, or you are a very cold-hearted person. Think about it. If you meet 100 people in the course of the day, 95 of them are supposed to spend eternity (that’s forever and ever and ever…) in a place devoid of all hope, all love, all grace, and which is the very definition of personal suffering. How could such an idea not bother you?!? Truth is, this teaching bothers most people, even among those who believe it. It bothers conservatives so much that they will hardly ever talk about it, even from the pulpit. You find a traditional evangelical church on any given Sunday and see how many of them preach a sermon on Hell. See how many even mention it in their gospel presentations! That’s right, in the very message that they say people need to believe in order to avoid Hell, they don’t even mention it!! Oh sure, they’ll talk about “being separated from God,” but come on, folks, that’s so vague. But don’t be mistaken – the ambiguity is on purpose. They are afraid to tell you the “truth.” They are afraid to tell you that if you fail to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, then, according to their theology, you will go to Hell. That is, unending, conscious torment and suffering with absolutely no hope of escape. Whether the fires are literal or not we’re talking about unimaginable agony that goes on forever and ever and ever and ever…
Ok, you get the point. I mean, seriously, who are they trying to fool besides themselves? These people claim that they love non-Christian people so much and yet they are afraid of giving them the whole story? Why dance around it? We have no problem telling people who smoke that they’re going to die of lung cancer. We have no problem telling people who drink too much that they are going to get cirrhosis of the liver. We have no problem telling people who are really overweight that they are going to die of a heart attack. We do these things because we love them and we don’t want them to suffer these fates. Yet, these are nowhere close to the tragedy of spending an eternity in Hell, right? So, why the hesitancy? Why are they trying to sugarcoat it? The truth is that it is psychologically impossible to live a full, happy life while simultaneously entertaining the thought that most of a person’s loved ones, neighbors, and friends will, should they die today, face a torture that defies the imagination. Oh, and don’t forget about how quickly the pews would empty and the offerings drop off if they started telling people they were going to Hell. You see, it’s no longer popular to threaten people will torment in the afterlife. However, if you really believe this is going to happen and you claim to love people, then it is your responsibility to tell them the whole truth. Am I wrong?
At this point in the article, a fundamentalist may be ready to jump up and shout “Amen! You go, Jordan!” I hate to bust his bubble, but I’m not writing this article in order to motivate conservatives to start preaching about Hell, but to point to the fact that their lack of preaching on the subject either means that they don’t care or that they don’t really believe it. Or, perhaps, at some level, they’re just keeping their fingers crossed and hoping that it’s not true. You see, they’re suffering from the cognitive dissonance that is caused by believing in a loving God on one hand and yet believing He is capable of sending 95% of the precious people He created to utter destruction and despair without an ounce of mercy. They are haunted by a seemingly unexplainable paradox in their theology: that the God who lovingly nurtures us might send our children into a perpetual, inextinguishable fire. You see, they know this deep down inside, and because they can’t reconcile it, they repress it and avoid it.
And the other reason I’m pointing it out is that I know how it feels, because I’ve been there. However, I am not like most people. I could not just bury it in my unconscious mind and go on pretending the problem didn’t exist, especially after losing someone close to me whose destiny I was unsure of. And that’s why I went on a three year journey to investigate this profound and dark theological problem. The result is this new series. I found the answer to the problem of an eternal place of torment in a lesser known, but at one point vibrant, doctrine known as universal reconciliation. In its simple form, universal reconciliation is the theological belief that all human beings will eventually be reconciled to God through the power of His love. While there is great diversity within this theological tradition as to particulars, all adherents agree that hell, if they believe there is such a place, will not be eternal, but temporary and remedial in nature. The belief postulates that Jesus Christ did not just potentially save all people through His death and resurrection, but that He actually saved all people through His death and resurrection. Christian Universalists (to be distinguished from Unitarian Universalists) do not believe that Jesus can rightfully be called “the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14) unless he actually saved the entire world. We believe that God has both the desire and the power to affect the salvation of all mankind, and that He does this, not through coercive threats, but through patient love that sometimes includes discipline and judgment. We believe that the traditional view of hell makes God into a monster worse than the likes of Adolf Hitler, a mean and vengeful deity who would ignore cries for mercy age after age from those precious souls He made in His image. This picture of God has led a countless number of people to abandon the faith and has caused needless terror in the hearts of both Christians and non-Christians alike. This series shall seek to alleviate those fears and to reconcile a God of love and a God of justice in a way that is logically, theologically, exegetically, and morally sound. You will discover that the story does not end with the tragic loss of 95% of the human race, but “happily ever after” with God and His beloved eternally united in love. If you are one of those conservative Christians (or anyone else) who have silently wondered about these things and struggled with this problem, then I encourage you to stay in touch with this blog in the coming months as I am going to ask the questions you have secretly struggled with and longed to ask yourself. As I build my case, I hope that I will be able to provide answers that will put your heart at rest and give you the freedom to fall in love with God in a deeper way than you ever thought imaginable!
In this first post, I’d like to talk about my journey from the traditional literalist view to the Universalist view. Since my childhood the belief in hell tormented me. I was terrified of going there. I was scared to death of burning alive forever. Every time I imagined myself being on fire I would get a chill through my body and a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. I remember a particular Saturday afternoon when I was riding in the car with my parents and sister and we started talking about heaven and hell. As the conversation progressed, I grew more and more anxious. My mom was talking about asking Jesus into your “heart.” She submitted that those who had done this were “born again” and would go to heaven when they die, while those who died without asking Jesus in would go to hell. It suddenly dawned on me that I could not remember a moment in my life I had done this. What if? What if Jesus wasn’t in my heart? What if I died and went…to Hell?
I burst into tears! I began screaming, “I don’t want to go to hell! I don’t want to go to hell!” My mom tried to reassure me that I had already “prayed the prayer.” I kept insisting I didn’t remember, so when we got home, I prayed with my mom to ask Jesus into my heart. I was overcome with emotion and felt like a burden had been lifted off my shoulders! At that moment I knew that Jesus lived in me and I was going to heaven. I could have never imagined that the fear of hell would soon return to haunt me for most of my life.
When I was getting ready to graduate from 8th grade and prepare for high school, I faced a dissatisfaction for the first time in my relationship with God. I remember feeling grieved that the way I was living was hurting God’s heart. One Sunday morning I was sitting in church and prayed for forgiveness for the way I had been living and treating people. I made a commitment to Jesus that day that I would begin seeking Him out. However, I made a tragic mistake in that I began reading and studying end times/apocalyptic literature; I was fascinated at the time with whether or not we were living near the second coming of Christ. For those of you who have read these books or are familiar with the Left Behind Series, you know that the violence and anger of God is the emphasis here. Basically, he levels the physical earth and kills billions of people who are unwilling to come into relationship with Him (would you want a relationship with someone like that?). I now believe this to be a serious misunderstanding of the book of Revelation – a writing filled with cryptic symbols – but at that time I swallowed whatever those authors wrote. I was obsessed with it. This was the beginning of my fear of God’s wrath and losing my salvation. I was terrified that I would be either “left behind” at the Rapture or cast into Hell at the final judgment. Make no mistake. Much of the confusion about Hell comes from taking this last book of the Bible literally.
Like I said, the stage was set. As I progressed through high school I became a raging fundamentalist. I threatened classmates with Hell if they didn’t turn to Christ, promising them assurance of heaven if they would only repent. The most ridiculous thing about all this was that I was unsure myself as to my own fate! I became very rigid and legalistic. I took everything in the Bible literally and believed that God was angry – very angry. I used to make the “end times” the focus of the discussion in our Bible club. I taught how God was offering America the opportunity to repent and avoid judgment so that a spiritual revival could sweep the nation. I believed that the “foolish” people I went to school with were going to incur the wrath of God for rejecting Christ and laughing at the Christian group I started. The saddest irony was that back when I rededicated my life to God, the thing that upset me most was the way I had been treating my peers, but now, after becoming more “committed to God,” I was actually treating them worse than before, this time excusing my uncaring words in the guise of “Biblical truth” and “faithfulness to God.” Pretty crazy, huh? I developed a vision of God as a monster and became one myself. This is what happens when people have a view of God where He is punitive and willing to subject His creatures to an eternity of torment in the depths of the fiery pit.
My judgmental attitude made me highly critical and judgmental not only of non-Christian people, but of other Christians too. I preached a hell, fire, and brimstone gospel and put down other Christians who weren’t as committed as me (or so I thought), who didn’t have the same theology as me, or didn’t have enough faith to believe the message and share it with others. This continued through most of my early college career. I was a tried and true legalist to the core, but the funny thing about it is the more fervent I became about the Bible and what I thought was God’s holiness, the less assurance of my salvation I had. The truth is that my fundamentalism was ultimately fueled by the uncertainty of my own heart. I felt constantly defeated in my own efforts to live up to what I thought were God’s standards. The strain that I felt from feeling like God was going to send me to hell if I didn’t think, feel, or do X, Y, and Z was beginning to bear its ugly fruit in my life as I grew increasingly depressed.
It would get worse as the months passed. One day I was reading a book by one crazy author in which he said that there was nothing in the Bible that said we needed to be loved. Love is something we desire. Not something we need. What we really need is to be holy! And not only do we need it, but God demands it. It was nice to experience love from God, he contended, but being made into a holy person was what really mattered and you didn’t need to feel loved for that to happen (see the series entitled Our Loving God if this is the kind of nonsense you were brainwashed to believe at any point). After all, it would do you no good to go through your whole life feeling like God loved you if this would lead you to believe the mistaken notion that because He loved you He didn’t still require you to be holy, right? He claimed it was better to live life without love and end up in heaven than to live with it and end up in hell!!! Can you believe that?!?!? Pathetically, this ludicrous statement fit in with my view of God and Hell at the time. I fretted that maybe it was true. Maybe feeling like I wanted God to love me was distracting me from my pursuit of “holiness”. Avoiding hell now became an obsession (and yes, MANY Christians – especially of the most conservative, fundamentalist type – believe this either explicitly or implicitly. Read what they write and you will be shocked)!
Not too long after engaging in such “uplifting devotional reading” I began experiencing panic attacks. I would wake up in the middle of the night clutching my chest, trying to catch my breath. I was terrified that if I died in my sleep I was going to go straight to Hell. One afternoon, in the throes of feeling like a failure that just couldn’t get it right and would never make heaven, I said aloud in complete honesty for the first time something that I had been feeling for months, something to the effect of “I’m so sorry God, I know you really want me to be holy, but I really need you to love me!” I cannot stop myself from getting emotional as I write that statement, because it breaks my heart to look back and think that I felt God could be so unmercifully cruel. I was constantly terrified of going to Hell and in the midst of my fear, I was living in it already. Yet, I didn’t know at the moment I said it, but that was a prayer that the good and gracious God who truly does love us would slowly begin to answer!
Discovering Grace and Love
Not long thereafter, a gentleman came up to me at church and asked if I wanted to do a study with him. I had known this guy for many years since my boyhood and he had always been an encouragement in my life, so we met several times and I opened up my heart to him and told him of my struggles and fears. He brought me a booklet that we then began to study that started to open my eyes in a new way to the idea of God’s grace. For the first time in longer than I could remember it felt as if the clouds were beginning to lift. As the months passed I began to dive deeper and deeper into this idea of grace, finding ultimately that it was rooted in the love of God.
Slowly, I began to change. I judged others less. I extended grace to and felt empathy for people who struggled. I stopped focusing on sin and judgment and more on the promise of Jesus to bring us truly abundant life. I began to feel differently toward those who didn’t believe the same as me. I began to feel kindness for those who were different than me. I began to feel compassion for those who were hurting. I even began to be honest about my own struggles, weaknesses, and brokenness for the first time. It was truly liberating! I desired to drink of the love of God more deeply, and, more than ever, I truly, from my heart, wanted people to know not a God of anger and wrath, but the God who was full of love for them and wanted them to know it and experience it to the full! Lo and behold, contrary to the claims of that crazy author, the love of God was what was making me more holy! I felt so much love from God and desperately wanted other people to feel it too. It had brought me so much healing and I wanted others to experience the same – not just people I liked, but ALL people! For the first time in my life, I genuinely desired even my worst enemies to feel it. What a far cry from the legalism of my teen years! Now in my mid-twenties, I realized that the way I had approached people and life for many years had been riddled with arrogance, judgment, stubbornness, and pride. I was sorrowful for the many people I probably turned away from God because of the hateful and threatening messages that I had delivered. When I was younger, I had not been humble enough to listen, but too eager to preach. My view of God as wrathful and punitive and my hellfire message had kept me immature, but now I was growing up in the love of God.
And so it was, in the midst of this growth into God’s love that I began hitting an obstacle, one that had really always been there, whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not. I was less and less able to ignore the fact that I felt deeply troubled by the idea of an eternal place of torment. I could not reconcile how God could be so loving and forgiving to me with nothing but a desire to bless me and heal me, while at the same time looked with vengeance, wrath, and condemnation on those who didn’t believe. The remnants of the former centerpiece of my own misguided gospel preaching and teaching, that which provided the punch line to my appeal to fear, was the very belief that was slowly, subconsciously creating a crisis of faith for me that I wanted nothing to do with. Though it was affecting the way I felt toward God, I pushed my struggle away and kept trying to ignore the issue. I guess I just tried to convince myself that God knew what He was doing. It was unsettling and, even then, in spite of my awareness of God’s love for me, the belief in Hell would still cause me uncertainty about judgment day. There was always that thought: What if? It took a couple more years and many more doubts about my own final destiny until an event took place that forced me to face the issue head on.
The Search Begins
In April of 2006, just a couple of days after Easter, my grandmother passed away at the age of 91. This was devastating to me. It wasn’t just the loss of a grandparent that I had been extremely close to, but, according to my theology at the time, the passing of someone who had believed something very different than me about how to “get to heaven.” The thought would haunt me and no matter how many times I repeated to myself the same old tired lines, I couldn’t escape it. Then, I began to dream about her. Nothing bad. She would just pop up in my dreams at night in the nonsensical way that dreams form – but – it was happening a lot and I knew something was stirring inside me. Finally, one night in the car with my life-long friend and Christian brother Nick I let it all out. I was angry with God. How could He send her to a fate of eternal torment? How could He justify doing that to someone who had made the simple mistake of believing the wrong thing? Why couldn’t He have come up with a way to convince her of the gospel message? How could God do such a thing to someone I loved so dearly? I realized that there was not going to be any pat answers that were going to solve this one.
After the honesty of that night, a floodgate was opened and questions that had run through my mind for years poured in. Why would God create people who He knew when creating them were going to end up in eternal suffering? I wanted all people, even my worst enemies, to be reconciled to God and know His love, so how could God just give up on them and seemingly not care about it? Wasn’t He going a little overboard with the whole thing? If Jesus died for everybody’s sins, then what were they being punished for? How could I love a God who would do something that seemed like it was so cruel? How could I worship someone who, if they were a human and did the same thing, I would call them the worst of monsters? How could a God of love be so unrelentingly unmerciful? How could I reconcile the image of a tender, loving father with someone who had devised the worst of torture chambers? How could it be that I could have more mercy on God’s enemies than GOD HIMSELF did? How could I serve someone any longer who could be so heartlessly cruel and torture someone WITHOUT END who simply made the mistake of believing the wrong thing?
It was unbearable and I couldn’t take it much longer. Slowly, I was becoming bitter toward God and I knew that I was gradually losing my faith. I was tired of presenting the so-called “good news” to people that basically was a message of “Serve God or face eternal death!” And I was sick and tired of fearing that maybe I was the one who had the wrong belief and would end up in Hell. I had to do something brave that I had not done before. I needed to conquer my fear of being “deceived” by people outside of my theological tradition (that’s another fear tactic that the fundies use to keep their followers in line). I had to find out if anyone else in my faith had struggled with what I was struggling with. I had to find out if anyone else had the doubts and questions I did. And, most importantly, I had to see if any of them had come to any conclusions or resolved the matter and arrived at a peace of mind. Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to change my position on eternal torment, no matter how much it was destroying my love for God. I was convinced the Biblical argument for it was rock solid. And so let me tell you, I was in for the shock of my life.
I first read a book that presented several different views on hell. About half way through the book I came to the stunning insight that there were times in the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments where the Hebrew and Greek words “forever” did not literally mean “endless.” I also began to come across something that I had heard here and there from people in Bible College (who I thought were outside the pale at the time when it came to Biblical doctrine) and that was that scripture often employed rich and colorful metaphorical language about judgment that was not fulfilled literally in the past. For someone who was a bit proud of his ability to interpret the Bible, I was left thinking that there was more to the story than perhaps I had previously suspected.
And that is what the rest of this series is about. I am going to present to you the discoveries I made along the way to finally concluding about three years after I began my research that Jesus Christ was indeed the savior of ALL men (1 Timothy 2:1-6). For example, did you know that the majority of early Christians believe that God would eventually save all people? Did you know that there are Greek words that mean “endless” but that these words were never used by Jesus or the apostles in connection with post-mortem judgment? Did you know that the word ‘hell’ appears nowhere in the entire Old Testament? You may be scratching your head and saying, “Gee, I never heard that before.” Welcome to the club! Neither did I.
It is amazing how our churches and the theological traditions we grow up in like to “protect us” by shielding us from all the data that is available out there (and it really is out there and available for anyone who wants to take the time to look). You know – holding the party line for “our good.” The truth is that many theologians and Bible teachers are very stubborn. They are proud of their theologies and traditions and often think that they have our best interests at heart by withholding information that they are afraid might keep us from believing what they are convinced is the “truth.” The fact is, they are fallible just like you and me (and often well-intentioned). You deserve to hear all the views on a given topic and to decide for yourself. This journey in my life is a huge inspiration for the whole idea of “The Christian Independent.” After realizing how much of what I was led to believe about church history and bible interpretation simply wasn’t supported by the facts, I made up my mind to do my own research and conduct my own readings into a variety of Christian traditions and then form my own independent opinion on the topic – whether the theologians liked it or not! No longer was I just going to accept what some preacher or scholar told me – no matter who they were and how many letters came after their name!
Finally, at Peace
I don’t struggle anymore with where I’ll be after I die. I’ve finally, after all these years, been freed from the fear of death – exactly what the Gospel is meant to do! Yet, this moment didn’t come until after I had accepted universalism was true. Sure, some Christians can get there and do not believe in universalism. The difference between me and them is that not only do I have this assurance for myself, but I have it for everyone! While I want to see everyone begin a relationship with Christ, I no longer feel the need to threaten them by putting a spiritual gun to their head through the threat of Hell. Instead, I patiently step out of the way and wait for God to reveal His love to them in His perfect time – even if that’s in the next life. Giving up the belief in eternal torment has not been easy in light of the social pressure to conform. Yet, as I look back, I realize that it is undeniable that the further away from the belief in eternal torment that I got, the more loving I became and the more joy I had. It was impossible to avoid being transformed by my ever-increasing awareness of how amazing God’s love really is. In the end, universalism saved my faith. Without it I would have grown to hate God for the cold-hearted, sadistic person He would have been to brutally torment someone forever in Hell, an attitude which would have only reinforced the sense that I myself was going to end up there. Had I not discovered it, I shudder to think of what would have become of me emotionally. Had I not finally gained assurance of my eternal destiny (and that of others) and discovered that God is a Being of Love who would never do such a horrible thing to His own creatures, I would have sunk into despair and I think my former belief would have destroyed me. Actually, I know it would have.
I’ve decided to do this series in a way that is creative. I will present the information in the form of a story. The characters will interact in a dialogue as they seek to find the answers to these troubling questions in their own lives. So I invite you to join me as we review the philosophical, exegetical, and historical evidence for why and how Jesus Christ will, in the end, reconcile every man, woman, and child to His abundant heart of love. Come and learn why God will not rest until the lost sheep has been rescued, the lost coin has been found, and the lost son has come home. I’m excited and I know you’ll be blessed to find out that the God you already know to be love itself, is far more loving than you could ask or think (Ephesians 3:20-21)!