Musings about Universalism, Part 7: Why Only Universalists Believe in God's Justice

Another standard objection you often hear in response to Christian universalism is this: What about God's justice? By subscribing to universalism are you not ignoring willful disobedience and the cries of victims? Isn't universalism kind of like a get out of jail free card? Plus, if everyone gets to heaven what prevents people from sinning and living it up in this life?

Let's address some of these questions.

First, to be honest, this post only needs to be about twenty words long. Let's try it:

Universalists (of my ilk) believe in hell and that God will punish sin with vigor. The only issue is if this punishment leads to any ultimate good.
Well, that's 27 words. Close. But really, the phrase universalists believe in hell--only four words--should suffice. And with that, we can end this post. This whole justice angle is just not a legitimate criticism.

But since we are all here I might as well say a few more things about this topic...

To begin, if you've been reading along you know I believe in hell. Again, the only difference between Christian universalism and the traditional view is what happens way, way down the line. Think long term. Think about billions and billions of years of hell. So psychologically speaking, from the perspective of the tormented person, there really is no practical difference between the universalist view and the traditional view. Think about it. Our minds can't even comprehend a number like, say, a Googolplexian. Practically speaking, we are talking here about an eternity, even if the number is finite as the universalist contends.

To be sure, some universalists might balk even at a Googolplexian of torment. That's fine, but that isn't the point I'm trying to get at here. What I'm trying to gesture toward, in floating these incomprehensibly large numbers, is that the traditionalist just isn't thinking hard enough about what an eternity of conscious torment really implies. More, how could a traditionalist justify an eternity of torment as more just than a Googolplexian of torment? Does justice necessarily involve eternity? And if it does, I'd love to see the moral logic behind that argument.

Unfortunately, however, it is at this point--when asked to provide a positive theological or moral account for how an eternal punishment fits the definition of justice--where the traditionalist tends to retreat into incoherence. Which is fine I guess. It's just that I thought we were having a theological conversation. You know, where arguments are exchanged. I mean, it's fine to ask questions about universalism and justice, but you need to play ball and offer your own positive argument addressing the problems with the traditionalist view of hell and justice. I can explain why universalism is just. Can you explain why the traditional view is just? Personally, I've never heard a persuasive argument from a traditionalist on this issue. Whenever an argument is offered it usually boils down to this: "God sends people away for eternal torment and this is a just outcome because, well, God is doing it and God is just." Which is just about as circular an argument as you're ever going to find.

Which brings me to my second point. What do we mean by justice? At it's heart justice is about proportionality and balance. This is why Lady Justice is always holding scales. When we see proportionality and balance in outcomes or opportunities we say something is fair or just.

In light of this, how is an eternal punishment or torment proportional or balanced? Can an eternal punishment even be placed on the scales of justice? An eternal punishment shatters the very definition of justice. You can't set an infinity down on one side of the scales of justice and keep droning on as if nothing odd just happened. You have some serious explaining to do.

Again, this is where I think the traditionalist needs to make a positive argument. How can you believe in an eternal punishment and still hold to a recognizable conception of justice? This is why I don't think universalists have anything to fear from traditionalists on this score. For it is the universalist, perhaps surprisingly, who is positing a vision of the afterlife that is just. An afterlife that is built upon notions of proportionality and balance. In short, justice is what universalism is all about! By contrast, the traditionalist is using the word "justice" but he isn't using the term in any way we could recognize. In the mouth of the traditionalist the word "justice" is a shell, an empty cipher, signifying...what exactly? I don't know. But you can't call it justice.

Which brings me to my third point. What is being balanced out in justice? Often it's the harm done to victims. We want justice for the victims. You kill or rape someone we want you to pay for your crimes. The punishment should fit (balance out, be proportional to) the crimes. That would be justice.

And so you often here a lot of self-righteousness from traditionalists on this point. We are the ones, it is insinuated, who care about the victims. We think God will get back at those murders and rapists.

But it's at this point where the traditional account starts to move in a troubling and very dark direction. I agree that a part of God's punishment and judgment is about making sure victims are honored and that perpetrators of horrific crimes aren't getting a free pass. So I agree. Hell awaits.

But what, exactly, are we wanting God to do to "set this right"? What gets us a just result for the victims?

Let me ask this question: what would God need to do to a perpetrator, torment-wise, to get a victim to say "That's enough."? Think of the Saw movies. Is that what we want God to do get justice for victims? To get pay back by setting up horrific and psychotic punishments for perpetrators? How far down this road do we want God to go?

See, while I agree that any view of God's justice involves God's dealing with perpetrators, we are coming close to some pretty sinister territory. The point is, when we speak of God's justice for victims, of having perpetrators pay for their crimes, we have to keep God's love also in view. Otherwise we will lose our way, wandering off into a nightmare of revenge. Yes, Hitler (he always comes up in these discussions) shouldn't get off easily. But is it just and loving to have Hitler live in a Saw movie for all eternity? Or could we, after a Googolplexian of Saw-like experiences, numb and sick at the spectacle of horror going on and on and on, finally say "Enough."?

When is the blood lust of heaven sated?

For our part, universalists insist that justice must involve reconciliation. This is a key insight in George MacDonald's sermon Justice, that no amount of punishment (because it's just a mounting pile of pain) gets us a just result. Yes, punishment is involved in justice. But peace must be the ultimate goal. And the point here isn't about pity for the perpetrators. I don't know how much torture Hitler will have to endure for me to say "Enough." But I can imagine such a horizon existing in my heart (not that I get to pick that horizon, I expect six million Jews are better positioned to judge...but wait, oh I forget, the Jews are also in hell, being tormented right along with Hitler...silly me). But this isn't just about the perpetrators. It's also about the hearts of victims. Heaven can only be realized when the torture, hate, blood lust, vengeance and pain fully come to an end. For both victims and perpetrators.

Which brings me to a final point. One root of the problem with the traditionalist view is this notion that God is schizophrenic. God is like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. God's got this loving side and this justice side. And you get either one or the other. If you accept Jesus into your heart you get the loving side and skip the justice side. Conversely, if you reject Jesus you get the justice side and miss the loving side. But you never get both at the same time.

To be quite frank, this whole notion that God can't love you because his justice has to be satisfied is, well, nice words fail me. Maybe you have to be a parent to really get this, but my love for my kids is the same as my "justice." If my son throws a ball through a neighbor's window it's neither loving or just to let him just walk away. My love and my sense of justice aren't battling it out inside of me to determine which side of me my son will experience. No, it is both loving and just--and this is the key--to get my son to walk over to the neighbors, ring the doorbell, and face the music. Love and justice are the same thing. This is the great insight at the heart of the theology of George MacDonald.

When you talk about God you talk about all God's attributes at the same time. You don't talk about God being omnipotent or omniscient. God is both, at the same time. In the same way we cannot talk about God's love or justice. So let's be clear. God isn't torn about you. God isn't in two minds about you. God isn't ambivalent about you. God doesn't want one thing for you but be compelled to do the exact opposite. It's not a this or a that. Mercy or justice.

God simply loves you.

And that isn't offered up as a wishy-washy sentiment. That's the most terrifying thing I can tell you. Yes, God's love should wash over you like a warm embrace. But it should also scare the bejeezus out of you. God's love isn't a get out of jail free card. Just ask the nation of Israel. Just ask Israel what it's like to be loved by God. Is God's hesed a get out of jail free card? Uh, nope. So why posit this bifurcated, Gollum-esque, Multiple Personality Disordered God of the traditionalist view? Again, let's go back to the prophets. Master the prophets and you master the language of heaven and hell.

I could go on and on. But this is enough for now. In summary, I don't think universalism has any problem with God's justice. In fact, I think universalism is the view that gives us the most coherent account of God's justice.

If anything, I think it's the traditionalist who has some serious explaining to do.

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75 thoughts on “Musings about Universalism, Part 7: Why Only Universalists Believe in God's Justice”

  1. I'm skeptical that any kind of pain or torture is required for divine "justice", if such a thing exists. The idea of making a person suffer as punishment and to provide emotional release for the victim is a very human one. For better or worse, what we call justice is just revenge by another name. Does God really have an itch that can only be scratched by making his creation suffer?

    I'm taking this even further in my head and wondering if there is any coherent, concrete, non-circular definition of "justice" we can concoct from the perspective of an omnipotent being who can instantly right any wrong and heal any injury.

    Taking the issue in another direction, if justice exists as a cosmic ideal rather than a petty human foible, surely God's version of it must be greater than ours. If I forgive someone who sins against me, is God obligated to as well? Or is God going to burn that person in hell for a week to pay for it despite my protests? If the latter is true, then I am a more merciful and benevolent being than God. Surely such a possibility is silly (unless we throw out the concept of God as a benevolent being, which is certainly a possibility, albeit an uncomfortable one).

  2. Could you perchance answer the question of why you think a googleplexian of punishment is necessary? I mean, it seems as though if the restoration of the heart is the goal, time required would be different for each person. Some convicted murderers "face the music" in their first year in prison, and some convicted bank executives never do. A googleplex seems like a long time, even for a human as warped and screwed up as myself.

    Also, given the fact that none of us really ever completely "accepts" Jesus (we don't - not completely), do you think it's a tenable position to say that we're probably all going to hell - at least for a little bit? Sort of a - dare I say it? - purgatorio.

    Thanks, Josh.

  3. The only reason I float the googleplexian to show that justice can be achieved in a finite amount of time. That is, posit this crazy big number and ask, couldn't punishment of that duration get you the justice you want? If not, lets make the number bigger. And bigger. And bigger. Until we get you the punishment you think would be just. But in the end, we would now be talking about a finite number. That's the important move I'm trying to make. To challenge the notion that justice is only achievable with an infinite amount of punishment.

    Regarding you last thoughts, opinions vary. But for my part, I think, yes, we are all going to a "hell" of sorts. For most of us, though, it will look a lot like confession, remorse, and repentance before the people I've wronged in this life.

  4. My thoughts move in a similar direction. I've always found it exceedingly strange that I'm supposed to forgive everyone while God will not. Why am I to be more loving than God?

    So I think you are right, their needs to be a union between Divine and human forgiveness. Each working alongside each other.

  5. You echo my thoughts exactly.

    God asks us to love even our enemies. Either God will torture for eternity those He loves - which is as unloving as it gets - or He only loves the "elect" and hates His enemies - which means He asks us to do something He is incapable or unwilling to do. Neither is a biblical view of God.

    Professor Beck, thank you for presenting an excellent explanation of Christian universalism.

  6. Richard,

    i'm not convinced, but i'm far more open to your breed of universalism than others.

    i just wanted to ask you about your Saw movie reference. Our moral intuitions may recoil at the thought of God being the perpetrator of Saw-like scenarios. But aren't there biblical incidents that do come close?

    i'm thinking here of the Babylonian and Assyrian captivity. The captors did some things to the Jews i find comparable to the Nazis. Yet God claimed (so to speak) that Babylon and Assyria were 'the paddle' *He* was using to 'spank' Israel.

    Now, i know we could make a good case that this was disciplinary correction and not retribution--i'm not denying that. My point is, don't we have biblical examples of punishment (regardless of purpose) that at least strike us as similarly "harsh" as the Saw-movie idea you mention? If so, then how do these incidents fit into your conception of justice?


  7. "While a satisfied justice is an unavoidable eternal event, a satisfied revenge is an eternal impossibility." - George MacDonald

    MacDonald helped me to see how very much this life matters, that Jesus wasn't kidding when He talked about making peace both with your brother and your adversary in Matthew 5:21-26. The traditionalist excludes himself from the severity Jesus promises by retreating into the "there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." The traditionalist himself fails the test of justice when he does not take his own wrongs seriously because he believes himself to be forgiven, and therefore not hell-bound, and so not required to give a damn, because that, too, shall be forgiven.

  8. Any sin a human commits is finite in nature. Even Hitler's crimes, as expansive and atrocious as they were, are finite. Infinite punishment for finite sins is not justice. It's torture.

    Although there are universalists out there who do not believe in any kind of punishment for any one, I'm not one of them. Justice is necessary. However, God is love. Love is His very nature. Everything God does is out of love, as you mentioned. When God punishes sinners, the purpose is redemption and rehabilitation, not torture.

    I never understood why some Christians put God's justice so far above God's love, forgiveness, and mercy. In the Bible, Jesus commands us to love our neighbors and enemies, and to forgive seventy times seven (or something like that). How could God expect us to be loving, merciful, and forgiving if He isn't?

    I do not know exactly what God's punishment would entail. Personally, I highly doubt God uses physical torture. My best guess would be some kind of purification process, where we are confronted with all the terrible things we have done. Depending on what kind of life you lived, that experience could be hell.

    The doctrine of hell was the biggest (although not the only) reason I left the church I grew up in. Many of my friends were wonderful people, but they were non-Christians. I could not comprehend how an all-loving God could eternally torment them just for not belong to the right religion. I'm a very imperfect person and I would not do that to my worst enemies, let alone the people I loved.

    Universalism has freed me from the fear and guilt the doctrine of hell instilled in me. It has allowed me to have a relationship with God where before there was nothing but terror.

  9. This makes me think about the implications of humanity being made in God's image. To me, it seems that much of our confusion about the justice of God stems from trying to make him in our image, replacing God's justice with ours. If Christian life is really about being transformed into the image of Jesus, to be deified, then one of the ways we'll know we're on the right track is because we'll see a gradual union of Divine and human forgiveness.

  10. Hi Guy,
    Again, convincing people isn't my goal. I'd just like universalism to be a part of chorus we call "the church."

    Regarding you question. My issue isn't with a horrific punishment per se. It is, rather, the issue of such a punishment being finite or infinite. A finite experience of the sort you describe--like the one off visions we see in the OT--I can get my head round. My worry is only if one insists that God will do that to a person over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over...

  11. I remember reading D.A. Carson's Gagging of God some years ago and he says something like: people go on sinning in hell, thereby incurring more punishment, so it's not infinite punishment for finite sin but ongoing punishment for ongoing sin. Then there's the argument of Piper (drawing on Anselm I think) that sin is primarily an offence against God who is infinite and therefore deserves infinite punishment. Any thoughts on those views? I have no idea how an eternity of people being punished by God, and still opposed to God, squares with God being 'all in all'.
    Thanks for these posts, they're invaluable.

  12. "The idea of making a person suffer as a very human one."

    "If I forgive someone who sins against me, is God obligated to as well?"

    Stimulating thoughts, Paul. . . but I would be wary of minimizing the analogies between humans and God when it comes to justice yet then maximizing them when it comes to forgiveness.

    Frankly, if someone murders my family, I will somehow need to find forgiveness for him. But how many of us would want or respect a judge trying the case who's final ruling was, "I forgive may go free now."

    I think using analogies (including my own) between God and humans when it comes to issues of forgiveness and justice need to be explored further.

  13. I know the Anselm argument. But truthfully, I don't know what it means. In the calculus of "a sin against an infinite God deserves an infinite punishment" I'm not sure the two instances of the word "infinite" are being used in the same way. In the first use we are talking about God's Otherness. In the second use we are talking about a temporal clock, which wouldn't even apply to a God outside of time. That is, the statement looks "proportional" on the surface (by putting two--undefined--words into a sentence) but I've never seen anyone unpack the moral calculus at work in any clear way.

    Nor does the formulation take into account that God is infinitely loving and merciful. This goes to the bifurcated God problem I talked about in the post.

  14. richard,

    i guess i'm confused then--what role do Saw scenarios play then? i understood the Saw references to introduce an additional feature--not merely infinite punishment, but also severe or gruesome punishment.

    If your point is merely about infinity, then isn't your point about justice equally made by punishment consisting of a constant pin prick (as long as the pin-pricking lasts infinitely)?


  15. I guess I'm also confused. My point isn't merely about infinity but about an infinity of torment (Saw as an example, to anchor the thought experiment).

  16. Thanks for your response. What sometimes strikes me is how traditionalists (who in theory say verses should be interpreted carefully in context etc) will string together proof texts that seem to support their position, so the Psalm about 'against you only have I sinned' + Matt 25 ('eternal punishment') + 2 Thess (shut out from God's presence) = eternal conscious torment because 'Bible teaches it'.

  17. Richard,

    Okay, so...what do you think about this?:

    The contrary-to-justice intuition arises when torment-type-punishment and infinity are taken together.

    *Finite torment (OT examples abound) squares with your sense of justice.

    **Infinite punishment that doesn't amount to torment squares with your sense of justice.

    But not the combination.

    (But maybe you don't want to affirm **?)


  18. First, I'd like to quibble with the phrase "your sense of justice." I'm talking about everyone's sense of justice. If someone has another definition they would like to use I'm fine with that. But they need to define both what they mean by justice and how that definition fits the notion we call justice. My use of the word justice isn't idiosyncratic or my opinion. I'm referring to a meaning that is stable across cultures and across time.

    Regarding your question, yes, what I'm pushing back against in the post in the combination. A hell that is just a kind of limbo isn't what I'm going after in this post. Nor am I talking about annihilationism. Both those are off the radar screen in this post. I'm talking about the classical "eternal torment" view.

  19. Richard,

    i wrote "your sense of justice" because of what you've previously said about moral intuitions. --that intuitions are the anchoring source for these concepts and they can't be falsified by special revelation. "Your sense of justice" doesn't necessarily entail subjectivity--Hume didn't think so, right?

    But on that note, do you really believe there is a univocal sense about what justice is across cultures and time? Even if i thought our moral senses are generally reliable, i'm not sure i could buy that. It seems entirely unverifiable and just plain unlikely. Really--a member of a tribe of cannibals in New Guinea will have the same sense of justice as i do?

    Maybe i'm misunderstanding "sense" here.


  20. There are some Biblical themes that really illumine this idea of punishment and its role in justice for me.

    #1 - Cleansing: we Christians, conditioned by lots of preaching against the pharisees, look down on the purity codes of the Torah, but they tell us something true about sin and our relation to God. If we have sinned we must get clean to get back into right relationship with God. The Prophets and the Psalms take this insight deeper teaching us that it is our heart that must be cleansed, not our skin. Or as Jesus put it - it is not what goes in, but what comes out of our mouths that makes us dirty. Baptism as practiced by John and the disciples is an extension of this theme. It reminds us of the need for repentance, and that coming out of slavery involves crossing the Red Sea, and entering the promised land means crossing the Jordan.

    #2 - the Refiner's Fire: the prophets understood that God's punishment was toward an end. It was taking the raw stuff of our lives and purifying it for glory. The fire is not destructive but creative.

    #3 - the Remnant: God's punishment of Israel is never destruction. Indeed, punishment is only a potential. Israel is presented with opportunities to turn and God relents from punishing frequently. What is presented as a certainty is God's preservation of Israel. God will preserve Israel toward the restoration of the temple, the arrival of the peaceable kingdom and so on.

    #4 - Parenthood: Dr. Beck uses this imagery himself in the post. God is described as Father and Mother many times in the Bible and out of this parenting image come God's will to correct sinners. That the outcome of punishment coming from our eternally loving parent is toward the good of the child ought to be plain.

    The one that I like best, though:

    #5 - Seeing in a mirror dimly: In my experience the best "punishment" is no punishment at all, but merely a correction of wrong understanding. Who hasn't had the experience of someone we love and look up to being disappointed in us? That disappointment is a powerful punishment far more crushing than a beating and the reason is that it is a transformation of our vision. For a moment we see ourselves the way the person we admire sees us and that vision reveals simultaneous truths:

    We are created good and we are loved.
    We have not lived into that goodness or that love as we should.

    Seeing ourselves with that clarity IS the punishment. Seeing our sin for what it is and how it hurts ourselves and those we love with true piercing insight is the source of pain. Such a true understanding should kindle an intense desire for self-correction. I believe that seeing ourselves as God sees us is our destiny and it will be heaven and hell in the same moment.

  21. Aric,

    If i remember correctly from our previous chats, i know you don't include this, but i understood Richard to include #6--Retributive punishment in his concept of hell.

    Richard--have i misunderstood you here? Do you think justice has a retributive element? i guess that's what i took you to mean when you talked about honoring the victims.


  22. Traditionalists knee-jerk with the Adoph Hitler thing a lot - universalists strongly agree. But the traditionalist view fails to show concern for the 6M Jews - especially since there's a chance that some of them did not walk the aisle during an "alter call", "pray the sinnner's prayer", and "accept Jesus into their heart". And if God has consigned some of the 6M Jews to an eternity of literal burning hell because of that, why demonize Hitler? Hitler looks like the Downy snuggle bear when comparing him to God. Justice???

    I wonder about the traditionalist Christian who fetishizes the sadistic eternality of hell. Why is that person so sure that they themselves are above the same reproach/judgment? Pharisaical self-righteousness, religious arrogance/presumptuousness, (particular attitudes Jesus personally condemned), self-centeredness, neglegence of the hungry/sick are also finite sins against an infinite God. If a day ever comes where everyone of us (as supposed Chrisitians) see the mirror clearly and assimilate our own personal sinfulness before a holy God, we might finally realize that we are ALL in the same pool - everyone of us desperately need God's mercy - a theme very prominent throughout scripture. Christ centered universalism might begin to make sense in regards to "justice".

    Gary Y.

  23. I see your point about Hume. I agree that subjective appraisals about what is "just" will differ. For example, liberals and conservatives differ on how "fair" they think something like affirmative action is. But both agree that a criterion of balance and proportionality is the key issue. That is, they agree on basic meaning of the term. So all I'm saying is that, yes, two people can have different felt experiences about what is or is not just and expect little by way of convincing each other via argument (i.e., I don't think anytime soon liberals will convince conservatives about affirmative action, and vice versa), but the meaning of the word justice is understood and agreed upon.

    Regarding the cross-cultural universality. Yes, there is a rich literature on this topic showing that fairness and reciprocity are innate features of human moral psychology.

  24. I think that the cross shows retribution for the empty promise that it is. It is our sinful nature that makes us feel the need for retribution. God's love is capable of saying "father forgive them for they know now what they do" from the cross. In the cross we see that the destruction of sin is not vengeance, but mercy. Our vision is corrected. (see my #5). Like the soldier we fall to our knees and say surely this was the Son of God.

  25. The Anselm argument is incoherent. Proportionality in justice means making the punishment fit the crime, not making the punishment fit the victim of the crime. It doesn't matter if you assault JimBob or LadyGaga you are punished for the assault not the victim. For infinite torment to be just they must demonstrate an infinite crime, not a very finite crime against an infinite being.

  26. Okey-doke, I think you have convinced me. I'm all about logic and asking the question, "If this were true, what else then would have to be true?" -- "If eternal hellfire is justice, then what must justice be?"

    Of course, it's all moot with me, since I have an Orthodox theology which doesn't really much believe in the western idea of hell anyway. But still, good job, good argument, good logic.

  27. Why not bring it down to the "ground level"of real existance? Why not say that what a man chooses to do with his life will bring affirmation and reward (internal/external) and that this is reward or punishment (if one chooses to disobey the law and suffer consequences, etc.)? That way "god" isn't the ultimate cause of justification for our existance nor is "god" the ultimate punisher to make things right. This way, man is responsible for his choices as to the values he chooses and society is the means of holding accountable criminals.

  28. Well, our intuitions just don't match up there. i think even the cross has a retributive element. And even the NT God says "Vengeance is mine, I will repay."

    But i'm still waiting to see if i understood Richard to include retribution or not in his general line of universalism.


  29. "God is described as Father and Mother many times in the Bible and out of this parenting image come God's will to correct sinners. That the outcome of punishment coming from our eternally loving parent is toward the good of the child ought to be plain."

    Now that I have a one-year-old, the utter barbarity of conservative Christian positions becomes even more apparent. I would never "punish" my child with pain and misery. Instead, I would correct my child and let him see the natural consequences of his mistakes, being sure to intervene whenever a consequence may be unbearable for him.

    Someone recently asked, "what would your child have to do to make you punish him with torture forever?" The answer, of course, is nothing. And a God who arranged such a punishment for his "children" would not be a God worthy of calling "father".

    Christians who want to worship Moloch instead of God ought to worshipping him by that name.

  30. I, personally, don't fit retribution into how I see things. But I think it's pretty easy to incorporate retributive justice, if one felt it was theologically necessary, into a universalist soteriology.

    One could subscribe to universalism with or without it.

  31. Richard,

    So what did you mean then by hell is still a way that victims are honored (if not some form of payment for the crime)?


  32. What about the Carson argument that people go on sinning in hell, thus meriting more punishment? so it's proportional but just ongoing. I agree the Anselm argument is incoherent, but puzzled that it carries such weight in some circles.

  33. A universalist would be perfectly fine with the notion that as long as people go on sinning they would prolong hell. The part that is dubious is that, in the face of God's love and chastisement, that a person could go on sinning for eternity.

    As for why the Anselm argument carries so much weight, it's an example of what psychologists call confirmation bias.

  34. Richard,

    i feel dumb because i can't remember the name of the paper or tribe, but in a class the other day, this point was raised, and someone mentioned a paper about a tribe in Africa that actually didn't display any of the same reactionary attitudes we take for granted--praise or blame and the like. It was a moral psychology paper, and it was in the context of Strawson's work on reactionary attitudes. Are you familiar with that piece?


  35. Great post Richard, of course we could also argue in the face of traditionalists, that we as human have evolved a more mature sense of justice than God has.....

    While I admit to a bit of tongue in my cheek in what I just wrote, one thing I've come to recognize for real (and I'm generalizing here) is that a character trait among people leaning "conservative", is that reality is compressed to black and white, and that there needs to be an enemy.

    Anything that can't be reduced to black and white is called being un-principled. And if there isn't an enemy, there's no way to make an identity by being on the good side.

    This makes me wonder whether at heart, this drive for an eternal hell isn't so much theological, as it is existential.

  36. Forgive the conceit here, but I think that the core doctrinal issue has yet to be addressed. Recall Bill Bright's explanation of the atonement from his Four Spiritual Laws (I know that tomatoes would be coming my way, if that were possible over the internet, but I hope we can agree that the man had a great name): A great golf separates us from God, that only the cross can bridge (I paraphrase). For most Evangelicals, I think, the problem of rendering "infinite" that Richard cites can be solved: "No amount of human effort can ever make us acceptable to God." Thus, we are completely at God's mercy which is graciously offered through Christ.

    Clearly, this view is indebted to Luther's "sola" pronouncements (grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone), as well as to the view that all our good works are as "dirty rags" to God. At root this becomes a question of whether grace perfects nature or destroys it--a Medieval dispute between Thomists and Augustinians, I believe, with Luther taking the latter, Augustinian view. The rest plays out from the initial position.

    Unfortunately, I'm not enough of even an amateur scholar to give you chapter and verse from Thomas and Augustine, but I'm pretty confident that it's on this question that the root of these disputes is found.

    I hope no one will think I'm arguing for the "sola" point of view. In fact to show not, I'll throw in an argument against eternal punishment: It justifies the Inquisition. That is, if torturing a person to death saves their soul from eternal hell, it ought to be done. If that's not a reductio, I don't know what is.

  37. I have two replies to this.

    #1 - it still seems impossibly arrogant to believe that the human will is so powerful that it could go on resisting God's love for ETERNITY. If punishment is proportional and therefore finite it seems that any reasonable person would have to allow for the possibility that even the stoniest heart would eventually crack. In other words with Carson's argument I think you'd almost have to take a position akin to Barth which allowed for the hope of universal salvation if not the certainty.

    #2 - God must be a very bad teacher/parent if with an eternity to punish and lavish love on sinners God cannot convince people. It must be very ineffectual punishment in hell and very tepid communications of love if an eternity doesn't result in transformation of the sinner. Even our horrible prisons don't have 100% recidivism. This view makes God out to be pretty incompetent in my opinion.

  38. Tracy,

    You wrote:
    "That is, if torturing a person to death saves their soul from eternal hell, it ought to be done. If that's not a reductio, I don't know what is."

    That presupposes that Christian ethics is utilitarian in nature. i don't know anyone personally who'd claim such a thing. A person could believe in eternal punishment *and* still believe that ends do not justify means.


  39. Aric,

    Your #2 proves too much. If failing to convince everyone in an eternity of time proves a deficiency in God's power, then so does convincing everyone in a small amount of time.

    "God's so powerful that He will eventually convince everyone." If God was *so* powerful, there wouldn't be any "eventually" to it.


  40. Wait, i meant #1. Sorry.

    #2 presupposes that the purpose of punishment in hell is parental/instructive in nature. i don't know anyone who claims (a) that hell is eternal and (b) the punishment in hell is corrective in nature.


  41. guy,
    My guess is that this is the research about behavior in the Ultimatum game. Which is a fine point to raise, but doesn't really undermine the point about cultures sharing a basic, likely innate, sense that fairness and justice involve balance and proportionality. Every culture understands the moral logic lex talionis, if not on how that should be implemented.

  42. Dr. Beck,

    First, let me thank you for clearly stating your interpretation of scripture. I am following the ongoing dialogue (that's a generous term) that is currently taking place online regarding this very subject and it seems that most are posting blogs and Twitter messages that really have very little to say about their own interpretation but instead, simply display their disgust with the opposing viewpoint. With you as the exception, I have seen this most frequently with those who find themselves closer to you than the other side.

    What I have appreciated from those in the traditionalist camp, specifically those with Reformed theology, is that they have clearly stated their interpretations and have given exact scriptural references. Of course we could debate their interpretation of scripture all day but at least we know where they're coming from.

    My question for you, most sincerely and humbly is, where in scripture do you find your interpretation mostly clearly articulated? I understand that you may not be able to list one single passage but can you at least provide some understanding of the scriptures you have read lead you to this interpretation?

  43. Hello Kalum,

    On the right side of this page are past discussions - look for

    Defending Universal Salvation
    Universalism: A Summary Defense
    Why I Am a Universalist Series (and Resources)

    "Why I Am a Universalist Series (and Resources)"
    is broken into several "chapters", the first where Dr. Beck discusses this from a Biblical perspective.

    Hope that helps.

    Gary Y.

  44. I just wanted to say to everyone that it has been a joy reading everyone's comments on this post! The ones I have read (i haven't been able to read EVERY one) have been very thought provoking and it has been encouraging to see people with different beliefs discuss the topic without attacking one another. And once again, Dr. Beck I have loved this series! Another book possibly in the making???

  45. Hi Kalem,
    You ask an important question that really requires a whole post. But to give the passage that most clearly articulates my view:

    God is love. (1 John 4.8)

    Unfortunately, I think the Reformed read that passage like this:

    God is love.* (1 John 4.8)
    *that is, God loves only the elect. The rest are predestined to destruction.

    In short, I think they are ones fudging the bible.

    See, universalism really isn't a doctrine. It's a way to describe who God is, of seeing love in every last verse of the bible. True, that can seem hard for some, particularly when we read the passages about judgment. The way most people seem to handle this is to qualify the love of God, to crack God into two parts, his love versus his justice. A universalist just refuses to do this, the cracking. And if you look at the prophets you see that the cracking just isn't biblical. God's love and punishment of Israel is just the same thing, and love always wins in the end. It's really just that simply, biblically speaking.

    But for a bit more, here are some other passages that I see as painting the end of all things, the eschaton, the time after judgment, hell, and punishment:

    For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1.19-20)

    When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all." (1 Corinthians 15.28)

    For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all." (Romans 11.32) the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Philippians 2.10-11)

  46. I would agree whole-heartedly with your last statement of ponderance. Perhaps the best work I know that clearly explicates this is something Richard has referred to in numerous posts: Ernest Becker's two-part magnum opus "The Denial of Death" and "Escape from Evil".

  47. Hi guy,

    I presume that everyone is utilitarian, all things being equal. (If I'm not breaking a divine command or unconditional principle, it would be absurd not to do the greater good.) So what would the overrider to the greater good be in this case?

  48. Hi Tracy,
    I'm not sure if this is the direction you are going in, but your comment converged upon something I've been thinking about. Specifically, I think there is an important point of agreement between the universalist and the Reformed tradition. And it is this: Salvation is 100% God's work.

    The only reason the Reformed tradition has to adopt a doctrine like double predestination is that Reformed theology is thanatocentric, where our destiny is built around the death-event. Universalism, by contrast, is not thanatocentric and, thus, allows God's salvific efforts to continue through punishment and beyond. But the basic idea is the same: God's election is unmerited and irresistible. The only difference is the thanatocentrism.

  49. Hi Mike,
    A while back I wrote a post about this, about the existential consolation that comes from knowing that others, but not your tribe, are going to hell.

    Heaven is a border of existential consolation. And every heaven needs a hell...and fuel.

  50. Hi Keith,
    That means a lot coming from you. I kind of consider you to be the godfather of universalism on the Internet.

  51. In "On First Principles" Origen certainly squares retributive justice with universalism. I'm not sure he offers a convincing argument for it, but he seems to think there is a place for it.

  52. I don't see any need for you to apologize.

    Yes, but if hell is eternal and punishment is not corrective in nature you've just thrown us back onto the proportionality problem above. This was a continuation of the conversation on Anselm's argument.

  53. If there is time there is "eventually". In some other universe we can't conceive of without time things might happen immediately, except then they wouldn't "happen" at all because there would be no when. The issue isn't really with the amount of time, but whether it is finite or not.

  54. "God is like Gollum," haha.

    Thanks for this series Dr. Beck. As a struggling traditionalist, this has provided wonderful insight into universalism.

  55. Dr. Beck,

    Thank you for this wonderful and thoughtful series, as all your writing is. I was just talking to an older and wiser acquaintance and in the discussion she mentioned her idea of Heaven and Hell, which I thought you might enjoy. It was a simple vision of Universalism, as everyone is immediately joined with the Father after death. However evil people do still "go to Hell", but their Hell is to feel God's love. For what is more torment than to spend an eternity being loved by someone you hate! A both love & justice filled solution!


  56. Hi Richard,
    I think it bears on your complaint about "thin" theology and practice in previous series, though I must confess to not having thought ahead very far... If I--a Christian--see a non-Christian as destined for eternal punishment, two consequences seem natural (I use "natural" since there is no entailment here, but the motive for the Christian is attenuated): 1. I am very motivated to help you with the "going to hell" part. And 2. I don't see much point in helping you with anything else, since you are going to hell anyway, if I don't succeed with #1. Now, if nature cannot cooperate with grace (become perfected) and all that it does apart from grace is "dirty," then I not only lack any robust rationale for loving any non-Christian in "thick" way, I have a strong motive not to lover at all: my efforts are futile, with one exception. It is: perhaps my love for you might win you over to Christian faith.

    But here's a little problem: if everything about you is deserving of hell, there is nothing intrinsically worthy of love about you. And that's not conducive to following the Great commandments.

    In short, I think a sober case might be made that "thin" theology blocks spiritual formation. And the Medieval dispute about whether grace perfects or destroys nature is very germane. Or so it seems to me.

    BTW: About 30 years ago I was weirded out by a question a philosophy prof asked after we'd had a frustrating debate in his office (I'm sure I lost but was just too ignorant to know it). Giving up his effort to convince me he said, "Well, what would you like to be true?" A was incredulous. A philosophy prof who cared about anything other than the pursuit of truth?! When I first started reading here, sometimes I was weirded out in the same way, when you would do things like wonder where someone is going with their thoughts. Scandalous to ask! What does any decent person do other than seek the truth?! Well, it's not just that you've helped me become more comfortable as a "Post-Modern." I think this is also relevant to spiritual formation: A person who continually allows questions of truth to trump questions of love and practice is also "thinning out" her/his theology. It turns out that decent persons need to ask a lot more... Thanks for that.

  57. I'll second the amen, and add that I think Becker's work fleshes out a frame work in which to engage Christ's life that is more powerful than the frame work of Atonement. As does Tillich.

    I'll check out your post Richard-

  58. Dr Beck

    What would be your most academic response to the traditionalists that say that universalism negates the purpose of Jesus dying on the cross? That is, if we all will eventually get reconciled, why did Jesus have to be crucified?


  59. I think you missed the most majestic verse.

    2 Corinthians 5:19.
    God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself...

    Something at once both personal and cosmic. It's all sorted, the problem is fixed, it's all good!

    Great post and lively discussion!

  60. Hi Jon,
    My best answer about why Christ had to die would be based upon Rene Girard's scapegoating theory. The best biblically based primer on the Girardian approach is S. Mark Heim's book Saved from Sacrifice. My review of Heim's book can be found here:

  61. Richard, I just found out about your blog from a friend. I'm a big Greg Boyd guy but I'm finding your thoughts that are disparate from Boyd's incredibly compelling. You probably have touched on this in other blogs but I've yet to find it so I'll ask it to you (or anyone else that can answer it). Within your view of God's justice, could the concept of annihilation fit in your view or is that problematic as well?

  62. Hi Joshua (btw, wonderful profile pic),
    You can also count me as a fan of Boyd.

    In Part 4 of this series I talked about my relationship and ultimate break-up with annihilationism:

    But here's the deal, these posts are highly polemical, so I sound more argumentative than what I really feel. That is, while I don't think annihilationism is the best approach it is far, far from the worse. And I do resonate with many of its theological sensibilities and have benefited a great deal from its exegetical work (e.g., the way its brought attention to how we are to understand the word "eternal").

    So all in all, I consider annihilationism to be a partner and friend in my attempts to get people to reconsider traditional notions of hell.

  63. Thanks for the response - I'm honored! I was looking for the earlier parts in the series (without doing a lot of scrolling on my problematic laptop trackpad) so thanks for the link.

    Growing up in an extremely fundamental (whatever that means) Evangelical church, the concept of eternal torment was as foundational and obvious as the sky being blue. It took a few good years of prayer and study to come to the solid belief that eternal torment is unbiblical and kinda silly. I've been "in the closet" about the belief for a few years now - even during ministry times where I had to go against my convictions in order to keep them a secret (not really proud of it). I just made my beliefs public through an article on my blog site and I'm waiting for the fallout.

    I've still not fleshed out exactly what I believe regarding hell and your articles have been incredibly helpful. Thanks again!

  64. Yes, if there is time there is eventually. But if God is powerful enough to do it in t amount of time, then why not t-1?


  65. Hi Joshua,
    Do you have a link to your blog? Several of us here are also recovering from growing up in toxic fundamentalism.

  66. I don't think its a matter of traditionalism but accepting the bible for what it says. I admit it doesn't make sense. But the Bible says Tormented day and night forever. It's a matter of how you can twist that statement. And this statement: "where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED." I'd love to believe this is not true. But also there are Near Death Experiences. I'm not talking about people who are resuscitated. I'm talking about the ones that are resurrected. I've found several stories of people resurrected after being placed in the morgue and they say hell is forever. Not only that; their stories pretty much agree with the fundamentalist view of the Bible. Except for the eternal security part. Apparently we don't even have that. The reality is reality. I appreciate the logical argument but God has logic totally beyond our own. Who knows, Maybe in heaven you can spend a literal eternity forever in hell and afterwards get out. I'm not talking finite either. An infinite time in hell and then afterwards get out. Supposedly time doesn't exist there so maybe it's all a scare tactic. But I'd rather be scared worried and die of an ulcer in this life then end up spending a literal eternity in a literal hell which our minds may not logically be capable of understanding the justice of.

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