Why I am a Universalist, Part 3: The Gift of Hell

Punishment, to be moral and just, must be finite.

Rehabilitative punishment, as when I punish my sons or make hard choices regarding student behavior in my classrooms, is aimed at rehabilitating moral character. Thus, I use pain to help make the person aspire to greater levels of holiness (i.e., conforming to the image of Jesus). I call this teleological pain/punishment (i.e., goal-directed pain), pain as an means to an end and not an end in itself.

Thus, many universalists endorse a robust vision of punishment and hell. However, to maintain their commitment to God's goodness, they view Hell as teleological punishment aimed at rehabilitation. Hell, therefore, like a parent's punishment, is a gift, a hard and difficult gift, but a gift nonetheless. For only through rehabilitation can the person be reconciled to God. We can call this the teleological vision of Hell.

This view of Hell generally aligns with notions of utilitarianism. But there are other views of punishment. Specifically, most people counter universalists with notions of justice.

Specifically, the argument runs like this: God punishes, not to rehabilitate (although he may do this at times), but because it satisfies his sense of justice. Thus, when the American justice system executes a criminal it does so not to rehabiliate the criminal but to satisfy justice. We can call this vision the justice vision of Hell. Thus, according to the justice vision of Hell, when God condemns people to Hell for all eternity he does so to satisfy his sense of justice as a response to a sinful and unrepentant humanity.

There are, however, two problems with the justice vision of Hell.

First, for justice to prevail the punishment must be proportional to the offense. If you are caught going over the speed limit by 1 MPH and are arrested and sentenced to death we would say that this was unjust. Even if you were fined $100,000 we would say this was unjust. In short, justice demands that punishment be proportional to the offense.

Before modern legal codes and modern economies (where monetary amounts could be attached to subjective states such as "pain and suffering") this idea of punishment/offense proportionality was captured by the rule of lex talens, the famous "eye for an eye" formulation:

Leviticus 24: 17-22
If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone's animal must make restitution—life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death. You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the LORD your God.
Lex talens seems barbaric to our modern sensibilities. But the genius of the idea was that it provided a rough heuristic to make just decisions. Specifically, it ensured punishment/offense proportionality, a critical criterion for justice. And this proportionality was crucial to keep punishments bounded, circumscribed, and finite.

So now we see one problem with the justice vision of Hell: It violates a basic criterion of justice. By giving an infinitely agonizing experience of pain for an infinite duration for crimes/offenses of finite scope and harm we have an unjust God. Schematically:
Infinite punishment > finite offense = Unjust
And we know this intuitively. You'd move out of a country that executed jay-walkers. A country that did this would seem like a country run by Saddam Hussein, not the God of Jesus.

In short, the justice view of Hell is untenable by failing to deliver on its core criterion: Justice. Justice via Hell can only be reconciled to a vision of a good God if the punishment is finite and bounded. And this is just the vision the universalist holds to. In then end, only the universalist believes in a just God.

But beyond justice, God is loving through and through. God's justice is not his defining characteristic. His defining characteristic is love, compassion, and forgiveness. So, to imitate God, we are not governed by justice and lex talens as we move through the world. Listen to Jesus on this subject:
Matthew 5: 38-48
You have heard that it was said, "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth." But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
On the face of it, it seems crazy to assume that Christians are called to be more loving than God himself. That we eschew lex talens, but God will not. That we will forgive, but God will not. That we love our enemies, but God will not love his. True, God does have moral obligations to both his creation and himself. Particularly, God will stand up for victims. His love and justice compels him to to this. But, as we have just seen, and hinted at by Jesus in Matthew 5, God's love and justice are of a piece. Universalists argue that the biblical witness helps reconcile these two tensions in the vision of parental love. And as stated earlier, parental love and punishment are teleological: Hell as gift, as a form of "tough love" or "natural consequence" aimed at the rehabilitation of moral character.

The second problem with the justice view of Hell is its image of God. The view of God behind the justice view of Hell is, as I said in my prior post in this series, of a schizophrenic God where his love and justice are competing forces within him. For example, God's loving Fatherhood desires the salvation of all his children. God loves his children passionately. Unfortunately (!), God is also just. In the end, God's justice demands that his loving pursuit must cease while his justice takes over and demands bloody (literally!) satisfaction.

The idea behind this schizophrenic vision, where God's love and justice are in tension, is penal substitutionary atonement. The idea is that Jesus' sacrifice enables God to reconcile the competing demands of his love and justice. God's justice demands bloody satisfaction. But God's loves sends Jesus to death in our place. Thus, in Jesus, the requirements of love and justice are mutually satisfied.

But there are deep problems with penal substitutionary atonement. Penal substitutionary atonement attempts to reconcile the vision of God as Loving Parent with God as Righteous Judge. That is, penal substitutionary atonement attempts to create a kind of binocular vision, with one lens being God's love (i.e., the sacrifice of Jesus) and the other lens being God's justice (i.e., the demand of death to "pay" for sins). Penal substitutionary atonement asks that we focus on the cross with these binocular lenses, thus resolving the tension between love and justice.

But the view through these glasses is abominable. The lenses do not focus or resolve. Rather, they distort and confuse. And what you see with those lenses, even when looking at the cross, is grotesque.

Let me be clearer. Penal substitutionary atonement asks me to look at the cross, through one lens, as a demonstration of God's Parental Love for me. Yet, at the same time, through the other lens, I am also to see God as a Righteous Judge. But those two visions do not reinforce each other. They don't allow for the lenses to resolve and focus the image before me. Rather, the two images undermine each other. For example, penal substitutionary atonement asks me to accept that God is this kind of parent: He's a warm loving parent until I make my first mistake. After that infraction he demands that I should be killed. He demands this because he's not just a parent, he is also a holy and righteous judge.

What kind of parent is this? A good parent? Surely not. It is a demonic parent. That's what penal substitutionary atonement does, it turns God into a grotesque, counterfeit "parent." What parent demands the death of their child for minor (or even major) moral failures? Are humans parents more loving than our Heavenly Father? Surely not. Yet this is the vision most Christians subscribe to.

The only coherent way to resolve this dilemma is to hold strongly to the vision of God as Loving Parent. That is, God's justice is not opposed to God's love, demanding something of God's love it cannot give alone. Rather, God's justice and the punishment it demands must flow from God's love. Succinctly, it is because God loves us that he punishes us.

In short, only a teleological/parental vision of punishment is able to reconcile God's love and justice. And the bible amply testifies to this vision, where God inflicts pain or suffering in order to redeem and purify. Given that this is the only coherent theological vision of Divine punishment, one with ample biblical witness, it seems reasonable that all biblical visions of Hell and punishment be read through that lens. That is, all biblical visions of Hell must be seen as teleological and finite, aimed at the purification of the sinner.

Two question present themselves at this point. First, why are not the biblical writers clearer on this point? Why is this teaching not more explicit in Scripture? Well, many core Christian doctrines are not clearly witnessed to in Scripture. Although they seem obvious to us now, the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity are not explicit in Scripture. They are generally hinted at, but these teachings are by no means OBVIOUS. In the same way, I argue, the doctrine of universal salvation is also hinted at in Scripture. That is, many of the deep revelations of God were just not very clear to to the New Testament writers. These were "mysteries" and the writers confessed to "looking through a glass dimly." They were only dimly grasping the reality they had been exposed to. I believe that universal reconciliation was something they glimpsed (Paul certainly did) but did not fully grasp. Thus, all we have in the bible are these hints and partial glimpses. We are left with the task to see where the finger was pointing toward.

A second question is this: How will this teleological vision of Hell work? What will God be doing with people in Hell to cause them to repent and turn to him? I don't know the answer to this, but here is my best guess. I think it will happen in a way analogous to what happened to the Prodigal Son. That is, after death we will be exposed to the "natural consequence" of our sinful life. Just as the father allowed his prodigal son to waste his life in loose living. But after a season, the wages of sin will exact its toll. We will, as the prodigal son did, "come to our senses" and repent. We will return home, and freely so. No coercion will be required, just the natural outcome of a sinful life. And this is grace. The father, by allowing his son to journey into the consequence of sin was displaying his wisdom and grace. Salvation for the prodigal son could only occur through the gift of hell, through the wages of sin, through a death.

The death of what? In the moment of salvation--the turning toward home--something dies. Specifically, the sinful self, in all its pride, is killed off and buried. And this renunciation of sin is no "work" performed to "earn" our salvation. No, this renunciation of sin is as natural as dying.

And as natural as being born.


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11 thoughts on “Why I am a Universalist, Part 3: The Gift of Hell”

  1. Marvelous post. I would say that my journey to universalism began while a student at Harding, in part as a result of mission trips I made to Europe between my sophomore and junior years. From that experience I derived a sense of the role that environment plays in one's view of reality and religious beliefs. How could it be that an honest mistake based on centuries of tradition like getting sprinkled or attending a church where an organ was played could lead to one dancing on the griddle for ever and ever? A person's heritage growing up can never be escaped. How can a Jewish person whose whole family perished in the holocost objectively consider Jesus? How can a person born in a hovel somewhere in the 3rd world be held accountable if they never hear or happen to ignore a few radio broadcasts telling them about Jesus?
    In another line of thought, a family member close to me once said they could not fathom how a finite sin could lead to infinite punishment, a sentiment I share. The unfairness of it pushes people away from chrisitianity, in my opinion.

  2. Evolutionary psychology, universalism, and now you're dogging on substitutionary atonement?

    Yeesh. I'm going to be reduced to a fanboy.

  3. Steve,
    Thanks for the comment. I'm going to pick up just on that theme in my next post. I'll probably pull from your comment to start it off.

    Well, the odd mix of ideas is the product of having a psychologist dabbling in theology. My blog is kind of like a theological train wreck. I line up psychology and and I line up theology and then I let them smash into each other. It's kinda fun. Messy, but fun...

  4. "Take risks, make mistakes, and get messy" That's what one of the youthful speakers at my son's high school graduation said this past May. I have always been averse to all three, probably to my detriment, should have kept in mind all things in moderation. I like your train wreck image. May the crashes continue.

  5. Jason,
    That is a deep question and one that deserves a very full answer. Unfortunately, today is a busy day for me. So I'll post this note so you know I've heard you and will come back to this question.

    But here's a very short answer.

    When Jesus speaks of his own death and his cross he doesn't use the language of penal subsitutionary atonement. He describes his cross as a lifestyle, a path his followers must travel. He shows the way, we follow.

    More specifically, we die to the old self, through the participation of the Spirit, and carry about in our bodies the death of Jesus. Thus, my whole life becomes cruciform, shaped by the way of Jesus. And this path is my salvation and the salvation of the world.

    The wrath of God is satisfied in the cross because God's wrath is directed at sin, not sinners. God seeks the destruction of sin, not sinners. And through the way of the cross sin is eradicated, bit by bit. In short, the cross is about my sanctification, my "being" saved, rather than my shifting status from Lost to Saved.

    That is a quick hit. I'll return to this later, probably after my series. In the meantime, any theologically-informed readers want to list some good reading that gets at this topic?

  6. @Richard - "Well, the odd mix of ideas is the product of having a psychologist dabbling in theology."

    Actually, I don't find the mix of ideas odd at all. Instead, I'm surprised because your opinions and approach to theology line up pretty well with my own ... something I'm not used to seeing among church of Christ folks.

    I was actually thinking about doing a bit on my blog about universalism, but I think I'll begin by linking my readers here. Please forgive me if you get harrassed by a fundie or two.

  7. Matthew,
    Feel free to link here, but I'd like to read your take on universalism. I'm saying nothing very original here, there are some good blogs that have worked this ground already.

    Also, I just found your Trailhead about the bible and homosexuality. It looks great. I'm looking forward to reading it.

  8. Dr. Beck,

    I have only recently come to your blog so pardon the extreme tardiness of this post.

    As a life long C of Cer I have grown up hearing PSA trumpeted. I have always been uneasy with the good cop/bad cop roles of Jesus and God inherent in this model. But bringing up the contradictory and disturbing views of God in PSA is a non-starter in the C of C. Despite my misgivings about PSA I never heard another model put forward to take its place. With nothing to fill the vacuum I have been forced to use PSA as my model for understanding the cross.

    Recently I have been exposed to two other views of the cross.

    The first is the “Example View of the Cross”. Where Jesus’ coming set a pattern to be emulated. We are truly to take up our cross and follow Jesus. This relieves much (though not all) of the philosophical tension created in PSA. The second is the “Victory Model of the Cross”. Jesus is seen as winning a decisive victory over Satan, death and sin at Calvary. This model elevates Satan to a mythic godlike status (interesting given your current topic of discussion) and causes one to wonder why it was so hard for God/Jesus to win.

    Even in light of these two other views and my strong wish to find a new prism though which to view the cross I feel much of the biblical witness points toward PSA. The symmetry of Passover and the cross seems compelling. And verses like 1 John 4:10 (to name one of many) seem to speak directly to PSA as the model for the interpreting the cross. So I find myself at an impasse.

    I echo Jason in asking if not PSA then what? I eagerly await your further elaboration on the subject.


  9. JHR,
    I was talking to a theology prof friend the other day and he declared to me that "PSA is dead." Apparently, a ton of new scholarship is coming out rethinking the PSA formulation. It may take time for all this new scholarship to find its way to the broader church audience, but I think the the alternative visions of the cross will grow more and more common.

    For my part, I rejected PSA in college without having a good replacement. So I worked with a soteriological vacuum for much of my life. With the new scholarship, I'm cobbling together a vision of the cross. So, what I offer here is just a work-in-progress. I hope you find it helpful.

    First things:
    We must recognize that the NT does not present a coherent and systematic theology of the cross. All we have in the NT are metaphors. I think we need to realize that it is WE who make these theories, like PSA, and then say that THIS IS THE TRUTH. So, if we claim the notion that talk about the cross is metaphorical, we declare that the language of the cross is best expressed in poetry.

    This may be a scary prospect for some, but I find the vision liberating. It means that your words and mine will only do violence to the cross if we try to speak concretely about it. You and I can discuss the cross if we discuss it like a poem. But if we discuss it like logicians, well, we'll damage this precious thing.

    The Poem of the Cross:
    If we approach the cross as poem, what do we see? To me, I see these things:

    1. Gift. The idea of PSA is that Jesus died for us, to save us. In some way, we would have died, should have died, if Jesus did not "take our place." Read poetically, I believe this. I believe, in some mysterious way, my sin made me God's enemy, but, through Jesus, God's wrath was dissipated, diverted, "satisfied." In short, I own the poem that the cross is a gift. What I don't own is a logical analysis of the poem, where the PSA mechanics (God wants to kill me, but kills Jesus instead) are read as some sort of legal procedure compelling God in some way. I reject PSA as fact. I accept it as poem.

    2. Death. I also own the poem of the cross as a death. Jesus said that to follow him is to die. Again, I don't literally die (although my faith may demand that). Rather, like Paul said, we carry in our bodies the "death of Jesus." This view of the cross signals the end of self-centered living. If cross-as-gift produces gratitude and praise, cross-as-death produces a disciple of Jesus.

    3. Birth. I also own that poem that the cross is a birth. That by identifying with the death of Jesus (baptism) I also inherit his life. Not immortality, but the power of his life. Paul calls it the power of the resurrection.

    4. Identification with the Victim. In the cross Jesus becomes the innocent scapegoat. In Jesus' humble birth and his ignoble death with thieves, his whole life was one of siding with "the least of these," the victims of violence and cruelty. To live the cross is to stand with the victims. We see this when we say things like "whenever you help a homeless person you help Jesus." We get this notion--Jesus as victim--from the cross.

    In short, I hold to all these metaphors. The poem of the cross I've called it. I just refuse to systematize or prioritize the NT metaphors. For the cross is a mystery and any linguistic system purporting to tell us "what happened," as PSA does, is a linguistic idol, a human construction we create and call the Truth.

    Poems are not "true." They simply move us and transform us in ways beyond our logical thought.

    In sum, JHR I think you cannot approach the cross as a philosopher in search of truth. I think you need to approach it as a romantic in search of love.

  10. Wow ! All these comments are in 2006! I just started reading this blog! Love it!
    Since my search for the truth of hell, I realized most of the proof disolved or reaked of traditional teaching. I have since learned to believe in both Universalism and Justification. I believe Jesus' death on the cross is Justification! It is finished. What changed is that I believe the debt is paid wheather you believe it or not. Jesus died for all! Life is peaceful if you believe thougth!!

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