The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Could a universalist believe in hell as "eternal conscious s

[size=150]Dec 19, 2010[/size]
From … ll-as.html

Disclaimer: This post is simply a thought-experiment. I do not believe that hell is eternal torment. I am simply musing on a what-if question.

It is common knowledge that if one believes that hell is eternal conscious torment (ECT) one is not a universalist. So if a universalist finds herself persuaded by the biblical and philosophical-theological arguments for hell as eternal suffering she will, at that point, drop her universalism.

Now I think that if she does so she is being a little too hasty. Why? Because it seems to me to be perfectly possible for a universalist to believe that hell is eternal suffering whilst remaining a universalist. How? Two possible ways strike me:

  1. You may believe that Hell is ECT but simply believe that nobody will actually go there because God will graciously save everyone before things come to that. One propenent of this is J. A. T. Robinson who argued that hell (which is eternal) is the real fate that faces anyone who is walking in sin—the natural and deserved consequence of such a way of life. But, in Christ, God will redeem all such people and God will not allow things to reach that stage. (See my foreword to Robinson’s book for a better explanation—see below). [NOTE: I doubt Robinson would be happy about the way that I explain his view in above]

  2. However, I wish to float a different option here. One in which some people actually do go to a Hell of ECT … and exit. Is such a thing possible? I do not see why not.

First, consider the following. You get a new car and pay for it with a finance deal. The arrangement is that you pay X per month for three years at which point you face a choice:
(a) You may pay off the difference between what you have paid and the value of the car and keep the car.
(b) you may hand the car back and pay nothing more.

On option (a) the money that you have paid is treated as payment towards the purchase of the car.
On option (b) the money that you have paid is treated as rent.
During those three years the payments are the same and whether they count as buying or renting may well be indeterminate. It all depends on what you decide at the end of the three years. If you choose to pay the difference then the previous payments are considered as payment towards buying the car. If you decide not to then the exact same payments are not considered as payment towards purchasing the car.

What I wish to point out is simply that we can make sense of one and the same payment as counting as either one thing or another.

I do not suggest that there would be a direct analogy with hell. However, I can imagine a view in which the sufferings of hell would be eternal for the person who continued to refuse the grace of God in Christ (ECT). But if that person turned from rebellion to God’s grace offered in Christ then the very same sufferings would have served a different function (perhaps one of enlightening them as to the true nature of sin and its consequences).

Some may object that, on the analogy, they would still have to ‘pay off the outstanding balance’ and that is eternal punishment—so they would not receive any “get out of jail/gaol free” card. But, of course, if one believes that Christ’s death on the cross is adequate to pay any debts we owe (and defenders of penal substitution would) then Christ pays that debt off on our behalf.

Some may then object that our temporary sufferings of hell would still have paid some of our debt and Christ paid the rest. This, they may say, is not right because we contribute nothing to our own salvation. But, on the imagined view I am describing, the sufferings of the person sent to hell who later repents are not counted as paying off their debt. If they never repented then those sufferings would be a part of paying off their debt (which would never be fully paid off). But if they are united to Christ then those sufferings are construed differently.

Add to this the claim that nobody will resist the offer of the gospel forever (a claim that I defend in my book The Evangelical Universalist). What we would have is a view in which universalists could believe that people are sentenced to eternal torment in hell … and that they would get out.

Obviously, this is a very sketchy view and it would need a much more careful explication and testing. But I think that it may have some legs.

That said, I am not too fussed one way or the other whether it works or not because I do not think that the case for hell as eternal torment is that strong anyway and I explicitly reject it in TEU

I posted this up cause I wanted to comment on it (from your blog).

I’m one who does presently hold that Hell is forever in scripture and Universalism is true. I think I’m similar in that I tend to think or argue that God pulling people from a hell which is designed to last forever is not a contradiction. Most people argue that if God does then it’s obvious that hell had an end (for that person).

A while back I posted a question to Thomas Talbott regarding the eternal life of Adam and Eve. I asked because on one hand before death entered the world, they must have had eternal life. But after the “fall” they didn’t. But if they didn’t any longer than how can the former be called “eternal”? The former would then have to either be called something like “conditional eternal life”. But then if they’re in the graces of God then does Cor 13 apply to them to “always protect” them? Something’s wrong with the imagery.

I tend to read that the first hell (death) is very identical to the second hell (2nd death) and so as I understand the garden story, when God warned Adam that he would die if he were to cross the line, I don’t believe God meant it was a temporal sickness. The imagery I see is that it is a fixed; permanent or eternal. It’s hard to imagine that God meant “Don’t’ eat or touch this tree otherwise you’ll die for a few days and then come back”.
But as I see the revelation of God, He reveals to us that even something as fixed and permanent can be defeated by God making resurrection even more amazing.

So I tend to see the eternal imagery of the Lake of fire (2nd death) to be identical. However, I argue that due to Paul’s stance regarding God’s right to render mercy to whomever he pleases (and whenever he pleases), he reserves the right to render mercy to people even in the 2nd death.

Amazingly enough, from a particular Arminian, he held that if God did render mercy to anyone in hell, that would be unjust.

But, similarly like you, I see it that God can save people from an eternal hell and it won’t change the fact that hell was eternal based upon the condition of God; which is no different than the 1st death - that is to say that the 1st death is eternal as well if God does not intervene. And so I see it the 2nd death is eternal as well as long as God does not intervene.

Cheery-o ol chap,
How’s that for UK English.

Going back to your analogy you might say I’m arguing like this:

If a person establishes a 5 year finance contract to purchase a car. After 2 1/2 years into the contract, he pays the remianing balance. Would someone say he had established a 2 1/2 year contract? No. It really was a 5 year contract even though he paid off the balance early.

So if Hell is eternal the does that necessitate that God cannot render mercy to someone in hell? I would argue no. If God saves someone from a hell that is intended for eterninty, the person will be saved from it and it was eternal all along.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this but that’s how I’m seeing things.


Robin: However, I can imagine a view in which the sufferings of hell would be eternal for the person who continued to refuse the grace of God in Christ (ECT). But if that person turned from rebellion to God’s grace offered in Christ then the very same sufferings would have served a different function (perhaps one of enlightening them as to the true nature of sin and its consequences).

Tom: This is very nearly my own view, Robin. And let me add that something like this is an attractive option for those libertarians who, like myself, view LFW as a metaphysical precondition to human fulfillment and perfection in Christ. Basically what one could advocate is a kind of EUR (not the Euro, and not a European anything, but an open-ended eventual universal reconciliation). If LFW is a necessary part of the sort of human becoming which God purposes for us, then strictly speaking there’s no terminus ad quem God can draw that forecloses upon a genuinely open future with respect to free choices. As people engage the truth about themselves in the eschaton (and we’re all just speculating on what that would look like, we don’t really know) they encounter the consequences of that engagement and, depending upon their response, exit hell and move Godward or continue to suffer for their actual, ongoing rejection.

So hell is at best ‘potentially’ eternal in the sense that so long as one rejects, one suffers the consequences, but one’s state can never be ‘irrevocable’. Creatures can never irrevocably solidify in evil (however long they may habituate in this life or the next) or otherwise make a choice to irrevocably reject God. LFW doesn’t require the capacity to irrevocably abandon ourselves to metaphysical hopelessness. So long as we exist, even in hell, the God of love is present as creator/sustainer and pursuer, and that means our very existence is God’s invitation to us and is thus a fundamental openness to move Godward. Creaturely existence just is this possibility of Godward movement. But since the creature has to participate, synergistically, by freely choosing, no terminus ad quem can be set by God that would spell the end of its freedom to so become. God has all the time in the world and love will pursue us as long as it takes.

Does this mean some could—conceivably—continue to reject God? Yes. Forever? No. One can never arrive at having successfully rejected God forever, at having finally gone through all the opportunity there is. Given that eternity will always lie before us regardless of how long we’ve been rejecting God, a soul in hell will always have a future with God. What’s the likelihood that at least one person will just go on and on and on, never surrendering? What’s “never” mean here? It means having foreclosed on all opportunity. But given the nature of time and of created being as ‘openness to God’, that’s just not possible. All I need to say is that at every present moment, the suffering wicked are free to choose responsibly on some level and move Godward or continue to renew their rejection. They are not free to redefine their NATURES as choosers sustained and loved by God and foreclose on a future with God.

I think most universalists will not be comfortable with this “open” approach to UR. But like I said, for us who take LFW seriously (metaphysically speaking, in terms of its being essential to the fulfillment of God’s purposes for human being), there aren’t really any other options. We can’t (or shouldn’t) suppose that at some point God just decides that enough is enough and then compatibilistically determines people to choose rightly.

Having said all that, in the end I don’t think non-UR folk will respect this understanding of ECT. They will think it finagling. You haven’t violated the meaning of any of the words (“eternal,” “conscious” or “torment”), but what folks mean by the “eternal” in “ECT” is that one is irretrievably fixed in a state of irrevocable suffering.

Just my thoughts,


Thanks guys, these are really helpful thoughts. I think that they advance the discussion. Cool.