Can we believe in hope beyond hell?
Robin Parry famously wrote a book defending the possibility – even likelihood – of universal salvation. He originally wrote it under a pseudonym of Gregory McDonald. Parry is one of many evangelicals who are beginning to challenge us to take the traditional doctrine of hell out of its position as a core doctrine and move it to the area of debate and ambiguity. We have invited him to address the annual Gospel Conversations conference in July. As told to Tony Golsby-Smith, here is Robin’s story of how he started to change his mind on hell.
Many Christians, when asked, say they believe in hell, but the traditional doctrine is truly horrific and to spend much time pondering it can be psychologically traumatising. Here is how Jonathan Edwards described hell in 1741:
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider . . . over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; . . . It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long forever, a boundless duration before you . . . ; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance. . . . You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, . . . you will know that all is but a point to what remains.”
Interview by Tony Golsby-Smith
I remember in the late 1990s coming to believe that God could save all people without violating their freewill. However, I was equally convinced that he would not do so. Many, I thought, would end up burning in hell. That led me into a period of crisis in my faith. How could I find heavenly joy in the new creation if some of my loved ones faced unending despair? How could I love God if I thought he could have saved them but chose not to? Indeed, how could God be love in God’s very essence if he chose to damn them instead of healing them? And how could God’s final victory be a complete victory if, in the end, Christ’s saving work for some/many/most people comes to nothing? He died to save them, but they are not saved. It looked like sin caused a lot more damage than Christ was able to undo.
These questions set me off on a journey of intense biblical and theological exploration for a couple of years. The conclusion I came to was one I had previously thought unimaginable for a Christian: in the end God will reconcile all people to himself through Jesus. I now consider this conclusion to be both biblical and orthodox.
I came to appreciate that God created all humans in his image, with the destiny of being united to him. And God commits himself to bring the cosmos to the destiny for which he created it. Thus, although we all have sinned and alienated ourselves from God, he loves us and desires to save us from sin and its consequences. Indeed, in Christ God has done precisely that. Christ came to represent all humanity before God, and as our representative he died for all and was raised for all. In his death and resurrection, the salvation of all humanity is achieved. By the Holy Spirit, God is now at work drawing people into the salvation already accomplished in Christ. And this seeking of the lost sheep will continue until the Shepherd finds them all and brings them back.
I still think that there remains a place for ‘hell’, for experiencing the consequences of our actions, but this hell is not the end of anyone’s story. There is always hope beyond hell because the shape of the future is determined by the Christ, not by sin, and that future is resurrection, not death.
Gospel Conversations provides a forum for followers of Jesus with a curious mind to explore our faith more broadly. We are intellectually curious but we ground our curiosity in our belief in the dying and rising of Christ as the core of all reality. The gospel raises a rich world of questions that conventional Sunday sermons don’t usually address, regardless of denomination. Gospel Conversations takes a creative approach to framing a deeper understanding of the gospel and what it means to us today. Our speakers range from a diverse community of Christian thinkers who are leaders in their various fields of knowledge in history, design thinking, theology, and organisational leadership – among others.More