Examining The Paradoxes Of Creator And Creation In The Light Of Ultimate Reconciliation Through Christ

Copyright © 2006 Nathan L. Bostian

Out of all of the doctrines of the Christian faith that cause problems for both believers and those who are yet to believe, the doctrine of hell seems to create the most problems.  The traditional view that hell is the last word God gives to the unrepentant, even if hell is a self-chosen reality, seems absolutely horrific if God is as loving and powerful as Christians say that He is.  How could God be anything like a loving Father if He is content to give up on any of His children, and allow them to suffer forever.  Wouldn't He keep reaching out to them if there was any possible way to reach them?  And if anything is possible with God (cf. Mat 19:26), is there ever a reason for God to stop reaching out?  Why then is hell apparently God's last word to a significant portion of humanity?

Or is it?

In the course of Christian tradition, many Christian thinkers have implicitly or explicitly spoken of the idea that hell may not be God's last word.  God may, in fact, reconcile all things to Himself through Christ. There are not a few texts in Scripture which hint at, or blatantly support this idea.  Most notable are St. Paul and St. John here, although other hints can be found even in the Hebrew Scriptures.  During the age of the undivided Church, the brilliant theologian and martyr Origen openly taught that hell was a redemptive process on the journey to an ultimate reconciliation of all things to God through Christ.  There were many in the Eastern Church who followed this line of thinking, most notably the great Trinitarian thinkers of the fourth century, the Cappadocians.

Through the middle ages and even into the renaissance this idea was severely muted, or transferred into images of a "purgatory" that would cleanse the "not-so-faithful" before they entered into the presence of Christ.  Purgatory, in turn, became something that one had to pay through the nose to get a Papal dispensation to get out of (at least in folk Catholicism).  This led to a rightful claim of "works righteousness" by Reformers who were sick of Shepherds who were slaughtering their own flocks for mammon.  So, the concept of purgatory, along with the implicit possibility of a redemptive hell, was thrown out along with the abuses of purgatory.

As the Reformation took hold, wreaked havoc on Europe, and ushered in the Enlightenment, the idea of a universal restoration was co-opted by non-Christocentric, non-Trinitarian thinkers who began to deny the reality of hell and the necessity of Christ.  To even think about hell in terms other than a final destination was (understandably) to put one outside of the Christian camp, and in with the likes of Deists and heretics.  The idea of a universal reconciliation through Christ ceased to be a live option for at least a half a millennia because those who would think about it denied the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the reality of hell.  And those who affirmed the Trinity, the Incarnation, and hell, would not even think about the idea of a redemptive hell or universal reconciliation.

Yet, in the last 150 years a new interest in a robustly Evangelical, Christocentric, Trinitarian, idea of universal reconciliation and a redemptive hell has arisen in several diverse thinkers such as the 19th century Presbyterian minister, poet, and novelist George McDonald, and the 20th century New Testament scholar William Barclay.  Others have held something like this idea, such as apologist and novelist C.S. Lewis (especially in his book "The Great Divorce") and Swiss theologian Karl Barth (especially in the implications of his doctrine of Christocentric election).  

When one considers seriously what a non-permanent hell might imply, one finds out that it could be the foundation for a solution to some of the thorniest questions of Christian theology, such as the relationship between Divine sovereignty and human freedom, the balance of grace and human responsibility, and the nagging questions about the power of evil and the goodness of God.  The following paper will consider the implications of a redemptive hell which assumes that such an idea is exegetically feasible based on the texts of Scripture and the consensual tradition of the Church.  I have written other papers examining Biblical issues related to this, and do not have the space to do so here.


William Barclay (implicitly) and Thomas Talbot (explicitly) sets up the following three propositions for Christians to affirm or deny regarding salvation:

1. God's Purpose: God loves all He has created (or God does not).

2. God's Power: God has the power to accomplish His purposes (or God does not).

3. God's Outcome: God will bring all creation to participate in His love (or God will not).

If the first two premises are true, then the third necessarily has to be true.  This does not deny consequences of freely chosen sin and separation from God.  It simply means that God will overcome them.  It means that God indeed created every person to love, and to reconcile to Himself.  It means that Christ's atonement has the power to bring every single person to be at-one with God.  It also means that the call of the Holy Spirit to receive this at-one-ment through Christ is persuasive enough, stubborn enough, and lovely enough that eventually every one of God's beloved will come to freely receive that love.

However, the majority Christian view of the outcome of all things is to deny proposition 3: that God will NOT bring all to participate in his love.  Sin and separation will have the last word.  Some will be lost forever.  While the Biblical texts, on a cursory reading, can certainly lead to this position (yet, I think many people see a way out of this within the text of Scripture and the Tradition of the Church), this position entails a logical denial of one of the first two premises as well.  You cannot deny premise 3 without negating either God's purpose or God's power, or both.

The traditional Augustinian / Reformed view is to deny premise 1: God does not love all people.  He has created some to be either "passed over" and allowed to be lost forever, or actively directed to hell by divine providence in double predestination.  This brings up very large questions about the love and goodness of God as our Father, which I think are ultimately insurmountable.  How could God be loving, or worthy to be called a Father, when He allows (or actively causes) His own children to suffer eternally?  The data provided to us from Scripture and a significant amount of Christian tradition is that God did indeed create all things for love and relationship with Himself.  God is Love.  He loves His enemies even to the point of sending His own Son to die for them.  He teaches us to Love our neighbors and our enemies so that we may "be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect".  There is no way that God purposed to create anything to hate or to exclude from His Love.

The traditional Pelagian / Semi-Pelagian / Arminian views (I realize they are not the same thing) deny premise 2: God ultimately does not have power to save all people.  He has created people with true freedom, and allows this freedom to ultimately defeat his purpose of love in at least a few, or some, or many, or even the majority, of persons across history.  This brings up questions about the nature of God as Trinity.  Is God "all powerful" or not?  And if not, is God worthy to be called God?  Secondly, is Christ's atonement really effective enough (strong enough) to at-one for all people?  Does something (of human effort) have to be added to make it effective?  Finally, is the Spirit too incompetent, impatient, or unlovely to call the lost to Christ?  The Biblical and Traditional resources we have seem to indicate that God is all-powerful, that the atonement of Christ is totally sufficient for the salvation of all, and that the call of the Spirit is completely competent, supremely persuasive, and ultimately lovely.

So, it seems clear to me that Scripture and [much of] tradition clearly affirms premises 1 and 2.  Based on the same resources, it also seems possible to affirm premise 3.  Yet, if we affirm premise 3 we are faced with the thorny question of hell.  If it logical that God will indeed save all people, is hell even a possibility anymore?  Do we have to edit hell out of our Bibles to believe God will save everyone through Christ?  I do not think so, and here are five propositions about the nature of hell in light of God's purpose, power, and outcome:

1. Hell is a reality and a possible destiny to be avoided:  Hell is vigorously affirmed by Jesus above all, the rest of the NT canon, the later developments of the OT, and the catholic, orthodox tradition of the Church.  It is not a question of whether there is a hell.  There is, and it is a deadly reality.  The question is: what is hell's nature and its purpose?

2. Hell is the natural consequence for denying God’s Love in Christ:  Sin is self-chosen rejection of God and a relational rupture which disconnects us from all of God's love, life, and purpose.  This ontological, organic disconnection from God has the ultimate natural consequence, if followed to the dreadful end, of total separation from all created realities upheld by God's will.  This we call hell, the negation of all goodness and all God-ness.  It is not imposed by God, but sadly allowed by God, as a parent who must ultimately allow his or her child to fall into addiction and self-destruction, having spent all available material resources to help them.

3. Hell is utter isolation from God and all others:  It is a cosmic quarantine which stops the infection of sin from spreading even further.  The only way out of quarantine is when the patient is cured.

4. Hell is the worst suffering imaginable:  In Biblical language it is compared to extreme loneliness, fire, darkness (notice the contradiction of metaphors here), and "the worm that does not die".  It, in short, is a reality that is horrible beyond what words can fully describe, just as "heaven" and "God's presence" (one in the same thing) are beautiful beyond what words can describe.  This is just sheer logic: If one negates all that is good, one is only left which that is bad.  If one negates all being, one is left in non-being, destruction, dissolution.  The only way that the rejection of sin does not follow logically to the snuffing out of the sinner's existence is if God lends some type of preventing grace in which, even in the utter isolation and suffering of hell, the sinner's existence is maintained.

I know there are some views which say that hell is non-existence, but I find this view exegetically and traditionally non-feasible.  It seems that once a person is created, they are never un-created.  But why would God keep alive persons in misery forever without end, if there was no way out?  Again, this would bring up the same questions about God's goodness, purpose, and power.

5. Hell lasts as long as we can possibly imagine: While some Scriptures tell us that hell's duration is what we translate as "eternal" (Mat 25.41; 25.46) or "into the ages of ages" (Rev. ch. 14 and 20), and that its destruction is "eternal" (2Th 1:9).  Other Scriptures give us the hint (not as a "prooftext", but as an insinuation) that hell is something temporary, something God will take us out of (cf. Psa 49:15, 139:7-12; 1Sa 2:6; Hos 5:14-6:2, 13:14; Job 14:13; Eze 16:53-63, ch. 37; Jer 30:24; 1Pe 4:5-6).  Furthermore, there are other Scriptures that blatantly assert that God wants to ultimately redeem and reconcile all things to Himself through Christ (Eze 33:11; 1Ti 2:4; 2Pe 3:9; 2Sa 14:14), and that He will indeed bring this about (John 3:17; 12:32; 1Jo 2:2; Acts 3:19-21; Heb 2:9; 1Ti 4:10; Tit 2:11; Rom 5:12-21; 8:28-39; 11:32; 1Co 15:21-28; 2Co 5:15; 5:19; Eph 1:10; Col 1:19-20; Philip 2:9-11).

To look at this in time, we would have to say that both heaven and hell start right here, right now, and they grow inside us, and in our society, as yeast spreads through dough, as wheat and weeds grow up together, and as an infection or a medicine spreads through the body.  Heaven and hell are not just eschatological (although their fulfillment is found eschatologically), they are the natural, organic outgrowth of what is going on in THIS age.  Is it not Christian teaching that there are "ages upon ages" of reality?  We live in one temporally and dimensionally bounded "age" of reality, and we live alongside other "spiritual" dimensions right now, and there will come still other ages beyond this age.  Furthermore, we do not know what the nature of time and existence will be in these ages, other than that they will be a progressive fulfillment of, and organic growth from, our current age.

This raises multiple questions about what "eternal" (Greek: "aionion"; Hebrew: "olam") means in reference to other ages, after our current spatio-temporal age is metamorphosized into something very different (as different as a seed  to a plant, or a single cell into a human). There is no real reason to believe that hell is a permanent destiny, either metaphysically, or in relation to God's purpose and power for creation.  It seems that hell, after all is said and done, may be a temporary redemptive consequence, designed to help us choose to turn from self to God.

It seems that "eternal" means something like "enduring as long as we can possibly imagine".  That is, that we will only be separated from God as long as we can imagine ourselves existing without Him and without His love.  As soon as we realize that we can no longer exist apart from Him, when we recognize our very being is hidden in His unfathomable love, and we repent from self, then we are reconciled to God through Christ.  As soon as we stop imagining illusion we become able to see ourselves in Christ.


The only way to avoid hell is to receive Christ: It is easy when hinting at universal salvation to fall into the trap of denying that hell is a reality on one hand, or denying the absolute nature of Jesus' atonement on the other hand.  While the idea of a "redemptive hell" certainly does not deny the reality of (nor the horror of) hell, the question remains: Can someone be redeemed from sin, death, and hell apart from Christ?  Is Christ just one of many Savior figures along side Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Muhammed, Marx, and Mister Rogers?  Or, is Jesus just an embodiment of some vague universal principal of divine forgiveness that is actually available to everyone even if Jesus never existed?  Or, is the Christ of the Christian faith something to be discarded in favor of the kinder, gentler, more politically correct Jesus that really lived 2000 years ago?

First of all, if we are going to speak of Jesus Christ, we simply have no information about Him apart from that data that we find predicted by the Prophets, announced by the Apostles, recorded in Scripture, defended by the Martyrs, canonized by the Ecumenical Councils, and witnessed by the Church.  I suppose one could object on the grounds that God's Spirit was active in inspiring and speaking through THIS (such as the parts of Scripture and Tradition that make me feel good and validate me), but that the Spirit was not speaking through THAT (such as everything that makes me feel bad or wrong).  I suppose we could invent historical-critical and pseudo-scientific reasons for testing Scripture to find out what is "authentic", only to find out that everything we want to be "authentic" is authentic, and everything we don't want is not authentic.  But all of this presupposes that the Spirit is fairly incompetent in inspiring that which has been universally accepted by the early Church.  Not only that, but all of this seems highly subjective, and smacks of a type of fundamentalism that wants to warp and twist the faith into whatever ideology it likes.  

Also, if we reject these canonical sources, we simply are left with speculation upon speculation upon speculation built into our own version of Christ, who, by the way, looks an awful lot like us (with nice teeth too!).  Yet, the only hard, non-subjective, non-speculative evidence we have tells us that the Jesus of History is the Christ of the Bible, and anything else is merely a human construction.  Worshipping a human construction has a handy-dandy name in Scripture and Judeo-Christian tradition: idolatry.

So, we are left with the Christ of faith who is the Jesus of the consensual, orthodox, catholic, Christian tradition.  It is this Christ who is repeatedly referred to as the person who must be received, believed, loved, followed, and acknowledged in order to be reconnected to God (cf. John 3:17-18; 3:36; 10:7-18; 11:25-26; 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1Co 3:11; 1Tim 2:5; 1Jo 5:12; Rom 10:4; Heb 2:3; Mat 7:22-23; 10:32-33).  He alone is able to make us at-one with God.  There is no salvation apart from Christ.

Part of the reason for this is ontological: Jesus is God Incarnate.  To accept Jesus is to accept God.  To deny Jesus is to deny God.  Know Jesus, know God.  No Jesus, no God.  One cannot accept God without accepting Jesus.  He is simply part of the package, and according to the canonical Sources, always has been.  It is simply impossible to repent and return to the Lord without returning to Jesus Christ as well.  In connecting with Christ we organically, ontologically re-connect with God.

Part of the reason is relational: Jesus brings at-one-ment to our relationship with God by becoming human like we are, by preaching, teaching, and healing, by dying, by rising again, and by eventually coming back to rule the Universe.  In Jesus, God relationally reaches down to us to raise us back up to Godself, since none of us will ever be able to jump up into heaven on our own power.  Jesus came to heal our broken relationship with God, and broken relationships are restored by two things: repentance and forgiveness.

But forgiveness implies a sort of relational substitution.  This is not a notion of substitution in legal terms, as if there is a Book of Law listing punishments and rewards that God has to fulfill in order to be a good God.  Instead, it is the kind of substitution of the just for the unjust that happens anytime true forgiveness is given.  If you steal $20.00 from me and I forgive you, I take the debt of $20.00 on myself, without making you pay me.  If you push me down a flight of stairs in anger and I forgive you, I take the consequence of the broken bones and bruises on myself, without demanding your bones be broken. If you say horrible things about me and hurt me, and then I forgive you, I take that emotional pain into myself without demeaning you.

The natural consequence of our rebellion against God is death and hell.  For God to forgive us, God must take that consequence into Godself and not allow it to happen to us.  Could God have done this substitution in secret, quietly taking suffering, death, and hell into Himself, so that no one could see or know He had done it?  Perhaps, but the rejection of God is public, so it would make sense that God's self-substitution would have to be public as well. Not only that, but we are made as embodied beings.  We tend to be very concrete (not to mention stubborn).  A secret substitution in Heaven would make no sense to us.  It makes more sense that God would prepare us for thousands of years for His substitution by cultivating in human society the counter-intuitive notion of sacrifice to atone for sin.  Then he would come publicly and fulfill this preparation as Jesus Christ.  Then He would constantly remind us of this atonement through proclamation and sacrament within His Church.

If forgiveness means real personal sacrifice on the part of the forgiver, this just makes sense to me.

But not only does God take into Himself our consequences as villains against Him, but God also takes our pain as victims who are abused within a sinful social system.  By His wounds we are healed.  Is it too bold to say that substitution and repentance work both ways?  For God to forgive us, he must stand in our place.  But God, in a sense, is to blame as well.  He made a wonderful, terrible system that went way wrong and has hurt a whole lot of people (not to mention animals and the environment).  The same gift of freedom that allows for real love and real fulfillment is the wonderful, horrible gift that allows for genocide and abuse.  For God to love us, and for us to love him and each other it had to be this way.  Un-free love is not love, but either the product of rape (if God forces love on the unwilling), or a pre-programmed robot (if God creates people who cannot not choose Him).

So, to create free, finite, growing persons who can choose to accept or deny love is "very good" (cf. Gen 1).  But at the same time it is horrible because it dooms an entire Universe to the prospect of endless varieties of disobedience and evil.  God knows this, and God "owns" this.  God is responsible for the system He has made, even if not for the individual choices of the free agents within it.  So, God takes "divine responsibility" for what He has done AND what we have done, and enters into every bit of the pain that we experience, takes it all into Himself, and defeats it in the resurrection.

The Triune God thus fully enters into suffering with us.  In the person of Christ, God experiences every bit of the pain we endure through humiliation, rejection, rebellion, betrayal, physical suffering, homesickness, injustice, and facing His own mortality.  In the person of the Father, God experiences the pain of helplessly watching the One He loves above all be abused, killed, and taken away from Him.  In the person of the Spirit, God experiences the pain of knowing it was possible to do more to save the One you Love, but not being able to.  And not only this, but as an infinite, eternal God who contains all time and space, God experiences this as an eternally present reality, completely atoning for an infinite amount of sin.

It is astounding what God did in Christ, publicly, for all of the universe to observe for all ages.  He heals the whole Universe by the once-for-all offering of Himself to atone for everything we have done and everything that has been done to us.  

But it is precisely the eternal nature of Christ's atonement and the universal scope of the love of God that is manifested in Him that tempts people to divorce God's love and forgiveness from the specific person of Jesus Christ.  The desire to affirm God's purpose and power to save everyone often yields to the perennial temptation to make the atonement- provided by a specific person at a specific place in a specific time- into some abstract principal of forgiveness and love available apart from the person of Jesus Christ.  It becomes easy to say that the person and work of Christ is either a pious myth that points to the universal truth of God's love (thereby revealing the theologian's complete lack of understanding of the historical sciences) or that Christ is but one specific instance, among many, of a fluffy, vague, amorphous ideal of divine love.  Either way, the canonical Christ- that is to say the real Christ- becomes merely a tool subverted to serve another ideology, either as a myth that illustrates the "ideal", or as a inspired savior among other saviors who lived this "ideal".

This amorphous universal "ideal" is then free to morph and change with the trends of the day until it becomes possible to use this "puppet christ" to justify things as twisted as killing six million Jews in the name of progress and purity.  True, this is a rather extreme example of what can happen when we abandon the specificity of Christ for some vague universal idea that He is supposed to embody, but any denial of the Christ of Scripture can destroy the Christian faith in lesser and greater ways.  The truth is, nobody can have a relationship with the Universe.  Nobody can be reconciled to an abstract.  Relationship, forgiveness, and reconciliation are things that can only happen between specific persons.  Forgiveness is not some disembodied universal principal.  Forgiveness is intensely personal, messy, and heartbreaking- like crucifixion.

If we abandon the specific Christ of the canonical sources we have not gained the "ideal", we have lost everything.  And God knows this.  God knows that humans cannot really grasp the universal apart from the specific, nor the abstract apart from the concrete (that is for angels to grasp, not humans).  That is why this universal Ideal of Love became a specific person at a specific time.  So we could see, touch, hear, and follow Him.  That is why He left records of Christ, and a community to continue His concrete presence on the Earth.  Jesus is the Logos Incarnate: God's Ideal made individual, God's Purpose made person, God's Reason made flesh, God's Word made human, and God's Plot for the Universe made into an Actor in the Drama.  If we loose His specific narrative and nature, we have literally no idea of what the Ideal is.  We become the blind arguing about the Source of the light.

But, since a dead Savior is really useless, and a dead Ideal is even worse, Christ's atonement was not complete by merely dying.  He had to defeat evil, death, and suffering to put death to death so that life could live forever.  This the Triune God did in the resurrection of Christ.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ destroyed hell from the inside out and led the captives of hell to freedom (cf. Eph 4:4-10).  The power of the resurrection Spirit is imparted to anyone who repents from sin and accepts the Lordship of Christ, so that they too may be raised from sin and death and seated in the heavenly realms with Christ (cf. Eph. 1:3, 1:20; 2:6).  In less abstract language, by accepting Christ and His atonement, we also receive His power to defeat and overcome evil, suffering, and death just as He did.

Now if there is salvation from hell, whether it is in this age or another, it is found in the specific person of Christ alone.  But how is this specific Person communicated universally to all of creation?  Does Christ, in "I Dream of Jeanie" fashion, magically appear to all people (perhaps at the moment of death) and say "take me as I am"?  Or does He employ another method to spread Himself to all people?

The Biblical and Traditional answer is clear: Those who receive Christ, who are indwelt by His Spirit, become extensions of His physical, mystical Body in the world.  We become the Body of Christ, His hands and feet (cf. Rom 12; 1Co 12).  Not only that, but we become Christ's "ministers of reconciliation" and God's "ambassadors", so that God is "making His appeal through us" (2Co 5:16-20).  We are sent into all the world to bear witness to Christ and to incorporate people into His Body, because those "who accept us accept Christ, and those who accept Christ accept the Father who sent Christ" (Mat 10:40, paraphrase).  

But is this just for this age?  Does our identity as Christ's Body, and our mission of carrying Christ to the lost, stop at death?  This is hard to comment on, because the Bible is really aimed at helping us through this age, not whatever comes next.  However, it does say that part of our job is to make the mystery of Christ known in the heavenly realms (cf. Eph 3:10-11), and that in the coming age we will judge and rule the universe with Christ (cf. Mat 19:28; 1Co 6:2-3; Dan 7:27; Rev 20:4).  We are not given the specific nature of our task in judging and ruling in these passages, but one would expect our mission will be consistent with the purpose of human judgment throughout most of Scripture.  Human judgment is never done for the sake of condemnation, but for the sake of protecting and restoring people to God.  If one is condemned, it is for the purpose of discipline, to turn them to God eventually.  Everything we are to do as Christ's body is ultimately redemptive, not destructive.  And then there is also that fascinating parable of Jesus where two righteous men speak to a wicked man suffering in Hades (Luke 16:19-31).  Why did they go to speak with him in hades if not for a redemptive purpose?  Why are we not given the end of their conversation?  We can say nothing for sure other than the fact that the door is open for the redeemed to reach out to those in hell.

It would thus seem like the Church has some role in the ministry of reconciliation after this age.  And if there is a ministry of reconciliation in the next age, hell is not God's last word to sinners.  Rather, Christ is His first Word and His last Word, the Alpha and the Omega.


Now that we have affirmed the reality of hell, the probability that hell is a redemptive process and not a permanent destination, and the necessity of Christ operating in and through His Church for salvation from hell, we have a crucial area to explore: What does the concept of a redemptive hell do for the 1700 year debate between theologians who stress divine sovereignty and monergism in our salvation (such as Augustinians, Calvinist, and Reformed Christians), and theologians who stress human freedom and synergism in our salvation (such as Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, and Arminians)?

It is my contention that the tension between these two parties simply dissolves once a redemptive hell and an eschatological reconciliation of all things is posited.  To demonstrate this in abbreviated form, I will use the acronym of so-called "five point" Calvinism (the "TULIP") as an outline to discuss how a redemptive hell resolves debates about grace and freedom. Under each point, I will briefly describe the "Calvinist" affirmation of each point, and the "Arminian" denial of each point, followed by the resolution found in a redemptive hell.  I freely acknowledge that this is at best a caricature of the many nuanced positions found on each side of the debate, yet due to space restrictions, it seems the best option.

"T" in the Calvinist TULIP refers to total depravity.  It means that sinners are completely and thoroughly corrupted by the effects of sin that they cannot choose anything good at all.  Not only are they corrupted by their own self-chosen sin, but they are born from a "mass of perdition" that is completely corrupted by original sin, so that humans never even have a chance to be good after the fall.  The corruption is not only a disconnection from God, but also a total blindness to the things of God, a volitional aversion to what is good, and the burden of guilt and condemnation inherited from the whole of humanity.  "In Adam's fall, we sinned all".  In short, things are as bad for us as they could possibly be.

This is denied on the other side by saying that while the natural consequences of sin are total depravity, God as a good Father does not allow us to fall that far.  He "prevents" our total corruption by giving us "prevenient grace".  Thus, due to God's grace and not our goodness, we always retain some ability to respond to God as we know Him and do what is right.

Yet, if hell is redemptive, both the worst possible case and the best possible case for humanity turns out to actually be the case.  Yes, it is true that humans are born into the bondage of sin.  The spiritual and physical DNA we inherit from our parents is corrupted, so that we no longer know the good, desire the good, or choose the good.  Our society is corrupt, and we are held in bondage to systemic, organizational sin.  We live in a world dominated by Satan, "the prince of this age", and his demons who wage constant warfare to pull us away from Christ.  We even bear the guilt and condemnation of the human race on ourselves before we knowingly choose sin for ourselves.  While this seems unfair, we must consider that none of us is an autonomous individual.  We are individual persons only in relation to other humans, and we derive our identity only in community.

Furthermore, we bear the communal responsibility for the systemic sins going on around us.  Think about the guilt of the good, law abiding Germans who simply allows the Jews to be murdered next door by the thousands.  Even as the stench of death filled their neighborhoods, these people went about their good lives, going to work and church, but never lifting a finger to ask questions about the death camps.  They may not have done anything to cause the situation, but they did nothing to stop it either.  They thus bear the guilt of evils they never directly did.

Or, take our own personal histories, for example.  Even though I am a very different person from who I was at age 18,  I still am responsible for what I did then.  Even if I got drunk out of my mind and wrecked a car, I am still responsible for that act when I am sober, although I may not remember it.  The responsibility for sin is thus carried through communities, through history and even through things we are not fully aware of.  We are not isolated individuals, but something like an extended identity that reaches through the whole race of humanity.  As such, we all share in all of the consequences of our actions across time and space, across history, even if we are not aware of it.  We share in ALL of the consequences of each corporate identity: corruption, disability, guilt, and condemnation included.  

The Bible calls this corporate identity either being of that race that is "in Adam", or of that race that is "in Christ" (cf. Rom 5; 1Co 15).  In Adam all die due to sin, but in Christ all will be made alive due to resurrection.  All is on both sides, and the same "all" that dies is the same all that is raised to new life.  Things are as bad as they can possibly be, but also as good as they can possibly be.

It seems that as time goes on, as the consequences for sin get worse and worse, God keeps on sending more and more grace to prevent corruption, and to call to Christ.  This exponentially growing cascade of consequences and grace keeps going from birth through adulthood to death and into the next age.  If someone makes it to the next age actively denying God's love, God allows the consequence of hell to be so monumentally horrid, and the call of grace to be so incredibly attractive, that it will eventually convert even the hardest of hearts.

So both turn out to be right: We are totally depraved (and getting worse).  But where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more, and God keeps pumping grace at us until His grace eventually overcomes our depravity, either in this life or beyond.

"U" in the Calvinist TULIP refers to "unconditional election".  This means that some sinners are unconditionally elected and predestined out of the "mass of perdition" to receive salvation, without any concern about what merit they have (because they can have none).  In less extreme versions of Reformed theology, the non-elect are simply "passed over" and allowed to fall into hell through their own natural consequences.  In more extreme versions there is an active double predestination where God wills to hate a portion of humanity (who, actually, are no more sinful than the elect), and send them to hell "for His glory".  The logic behind both the single- and double-predestination versions is usually that the suffering of those in hell will somehow make the pleasures of God's presence seem even more pleasurable by comparison, thereby bringing glory to God.  This makes God into a monster.

This is denied on the other side by saying that God only elects on the basis of His foreknowledge of humans.  In less extreme versions this is foreknowledge of those who will choose faith in Christ, or at least those with the capacity to have faith.  In more extreme versions this is foreknowledge of those who will persevere in good works and obedience and die faithful to Christ.  In both versions God effectively chooses those who choose Him first, or at least those who would choose Him if given the chance.  It presupposes that people are picked for salvation because they possess a certain amount of merit before God: either they are better than others because they can believe, or they will believe, or they will earn God's favor through good works.  This makes God play favorites.

So, is God a two-headed monster who damns people for what they cannot help, or a good ol' boy that helps those who help themselves?  Neither.  If hell is redemptive, then all are eventually, unconditionally elected in Christ, no matter how good or bad they are.  Furthermore, this election is Incarnational: it is accomplished in and through the Body of Christ.  Those Christ reaches out to are elect, those Christ does not reach out to are not elect.

Jesus says that "Many are called, but few are chosen (Greek: eklektos)".  This I take to mean that God is calling all people into His Kingdom through the work of the Spirit in prevenient grace.  Yet, out of all that are called, a few are specifically chosen (literally elected) to follow Christ, and in turn choose others to follow them.  Jesus chose twelve (later adding Paul) to follow Him.  He elected them.  How did they understand their election?  Did they understand it as a position of exclusive privilege, which allowed them to sit smug in their electness?  No, they saw it as an election to serve and to choose others and call them to serve Christ.  They saw their election as inclusive, not exclusive.  They were blessed to bless others, not to horde it to themselves.

The entire history of the "chosen people" from Abraham forward was a call by God to be blessed in order to be a blessing, to be elected in order to elect others (cf. Gen 12.1-3).  We are called by God's love, and we are chosen to serve others with that love.  Thus, election is not just something God does from before the foundation of the world.  He elected and predestined Christ and the members of His Body to be saved, and to save others.  All who they choose and call into that identity "in Christ" also become part of this predestined community because of their communal identity "in Christ" and rejection of their identity "in Adam".

Election thus becomes adoptive.  When a father adopts a new member into His family, He does not do it without the consent and desire of His existing family.  No good father would adopt someone who his family despises, no matter how much he wanted to adopt.  Likewise, God has told us He loves everyone, wants to save everyone, and wants His Family, the Church, to call everyone into relationship with Him.  He has given us the "keys of the Kingdom" to bind and loose the things of God (cf. Mat ch. 16, 18; John 21).  Those who we adopt, He adopts.  Those who we reject, He turns from.  But not without constantly convicting us, prodding us, and reminding us about His love until we finally repent and reach out to them.

This adoptive election is carried out through our "ministry of reconciliation" in this age and beyond.  In all ages, God's people keep reaching out to the excluded until all are included and all receive the Love of God in Christ.  I think that CS Lewis' fictional tale of the glorious citizens of heaven sent to love the wraiths of hell in "The Great Divorce" is a fantastic picture of this ministry.

Both of the typologies for and against "Unconditional Election" are thus essentially approaching the problem from the wrong perspective: both are exclusive instead of inclusive, legal instead of relational, and individual rather than communal.  When one looks at unconditional election from an inclusive, relational, communal standpoint, in the light of God's ultimate victory through a redemptive hell, then it all resolves.

"L" in the Calvinist TULIP refers to "Limited Atonement".  This means that the saving power of Christ's atonement is limited only to those who are elect.  The issue here is the intent, extent, and how potent Christ's work is.  Extreme versions of this theology will limit the intent, extent, and potency of Christ's work only to the elect, so that it is impossible that He could have atoned for even one more person.  Less extreme versions will affirm that Christ's atonement is potent enough to save all, but that the intent and extent are limited.  Still less extreme versions will affirm universal potency for Christ's work (it could save anyone who believed), and the intent of His work (He wants everyone to believe and be saved), but will deny the actual extent (because not everyone is predestined and called to believe).  This view interprets all of the Scriptures of God's love for "the world" and Christ's death "for all" in exclusive terms: They are re-interpreted to refer to the elect around the world and death for all of the elect.

This is denied on the other side by saying that the Atonement is unlimited in intent, extent, and potency.  It is intended to save all who believe, it is potent enough to save all who believe, and it extends to all who believe.  The only problem is that not everyone will believe.

This is quite simple to resolve in light of a redemptive hell.  On one hand, the atonement IS limited only to those who are elect.  But, since those who are elect includes all whom God has made, then the atonement includes everything.  Granted, this atonement will be applied only to some in this life, and others will have to literally put themselves through hell before they accept the atonement.  But, nevertheless, the limited atonement includes everyone, and thus is intended for all, extended to all, and potent enough to save all.  Some may not believe and receive it in this age, but God, through His Son and His Spirit, will not give up until they do.

"I" in the Calvinist TULIP refers to "Irresistible Grace".  This means that the Holy Spirit will not fail to draw the elect to Christ.  The Spirit is completely competent, and knows exactly how to work in the lives of people to bring them to Christ, because the Spirit completely knows the heart and mind of each person.  The Spirit is supremely persuasive, and is able to "sell" Christ in such a way that the elect will not fail to desire Him.  The Spirit is ultimately lovely, and the elect eventually fall in love with Christ through the Spirit's wooing.  Finally, the Spirit is just more stubborn than the will of even the worst sinner, and will eventually wait them out and not permit them to die apart from choosing Christ.

This is denied on the other side by saying that grace is never forced on anyone, and that humans are always free to deny the call of the Spirit.  Nothing is certain, and not even God can overcome human freedom, because to do this would be to destroy the capacity that makes love possible.

In view of a redemptive hell, this denial is correct, because the Spirit will not co-opt nor re-program a free person to make them choose God.  They can resist the Spirit as long as they want.  But here's the catch: The Spirit is more stubborn than they are.  They may resist for ages upon ages of relentless selfish suffering, but the Spirit will keep pouring on grace upon grace in the depth of their pain until they realize.  It may take a million-billion of our years, but the Spirit will reach them.

So to, the affirmation is correct.  The Spirit's calling is ultimately irresistible, not because the Spirit is coercive, but because the Spirit is completely competent, supremely persuasive, ultimately lovely, and infinitely patient.  A redemptive hell resolves and even affirms the insights of both sides on this issue.

"P" in the Calvinist TULIP refers to "Perseverance of the Saints".  "Once saved, always saved".  It means that those elected, those atoned for, and those called into Christ will not be able to fall away and loose salvation.  Jesus will never let them go, or allow them to leave once they have accepted Him.  What He has started in our lives, He will be faithful to complete until the Day of Judgment.  Unfortunately, this also means "Perseverance of the damned" as well, since they will be forever barred from choosing Christ no matter how many chances they are given.  In the end, those who deny Christ and "fall away" from the faith simply show evidence that they were never truly believers anyway (cf. 1Jo 2:19).

This is denied on the other side by saying that, while the power of the Spirit indwelling the believer is powerful, God nevertheless always leaves room for radical freedom of choice.  We can leave our "marriage" with God whenever we want, and God will permit us to go.  Most versions of this theology allow for a person to repent and return to Christ.  However, more extreme versions will also say that there is a sin (or sins) which we cannot repent from.  Once we have committed it, we are lost forever and have no hope.

The problem with both of these is that in both hell and death is the last word for a significant portion of the human race.  This is an extremely odd thing to say for a God who is all powerful, all loving, and who ultimately destroys death itself (cf. Rev ch. 20-21; 1Co ch. 15).  It is even more off to say about a God who's first and last Word to creation is His Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, who was sent to save all creation.  Not even death is supposed to separate us from His love (Rom 8:39).  It just doesn't fit.

However, the idea of a redemptive hell affirms what is true in both typologies.  First, the denial is correct in affirming that someone can "loose their salvation" by denying or drifting away from Christ.  Furthermore, it is an "unforgivable sin" to deny Christ, and as long as someone knowingly does this, they cannot be saved.  They stay in hell.  But, the moment they stop denying Christ, they may be saved.  

Yet, the affirmation of "Perseverance of the Saints" is correct that no matter how many times we fall away, God will find us and woo us back to Himself, until at last we choose never to deny Him again.  If we fall away a hundred times, He will patiently call us back 101.  If it is a million times, He will draw us back a million and one times.  He will never give up.  We may not persevere, but He will.  What He has begun He will bring to completion by the time of the final judgment.

This cycle of falling away and being drawn back ties into the image of discipline and hell being a "refining fire" that God puts us through to purify us and make us able to selflessly love Him and love others.  He tells us that the lost will have to enter the cleansing fire, like the fires that are used to consume garbage in the dump of Gehenna outside of Jerusalem (Mat 10:28; 25:41-46; Mark 9:42-49; Rev 20:10-15).  When the garbage is consumed, what remains afterward are those metals that are valuable.  Yet, God also tells us that every person will have to undergo testing and refining by fire (Mark 9:49; 2Co 5:8-11; Heb 12:5-10).  Indeed, some of the most powerful images of refining fire is not directed toward non-believers at all, but toward those in God's own chosen community (1Co 3:11-17; Jer 9:7-9; Dan 11:35; Gal 6:7-9; 1Pe 4:17).  St. Paul tells us that a person's "work will be shown for what it is, because the Day [of judgment] will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames".

We all will be refined and purged of selfishness until we finally choose to become the vessels of love, life, and purpose that God created us to be.  When we look at the eschaton with a view to God's ultimate purpose of reconciling all things to Himself through Christ, we see that many things begin to resolve.  The tension between freedom and sovereignty resolves.  The tension between grace and merit resolves.  The tension between the universality of God's love and the particularity of Christ's work resolves.  The tension between the consequences of our sin and the mercy of God resolves.  The tension between the incredible goodness, and inherent evil in creation and humanity resolves.  It affirms the truth found in the most optimistic and most pessimistic views of the human situation.  Furthermore it all resolves in a way which is Biblically and logically coherent, and consistent with the canonical faith defended and propounded by the Church through the ages.  When it is all said and done, it seems to me to make better sense of all of the data than any other hypothesis I know of.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.