|The Bible Discussion You Will Never Have
Of course, Bryan takes this business of hell too far. We all know
that the Bible isn't the uncontestable "Word of God", don't we? And isn't
it true that laypeople shouldn't gnaw away at difficult and subtle
theological problems too deep for them? After all ,they don't have the
in-depth theological education that their ministers have. And anyway,
Bryan is less-than-reasonable in taking the definite teaching of the early
Church literally. Isn't he?
I love picking up these books in Christian bookshops that have
titles like Issues Confronting Modern Christians - tackled head on.
Topics Most Christians Are Afraid to Face.
I pick them up eagerly expecting to read something really radical in
them. But a quick look inside the chapters usually reveals yet another
conservative look at homosexuality, or sex before marriage, or how modern
morality is going downhill.
Unfortunately my interest quickly wanes. (I say unfortunately because
perhaps if I read enough of these opinions, they might drum some sensible
traditional concepts into my otherwise recalcitrant brain. However that is
another subject, and we won't dwell there.)
Instead I want to introduce the topic you can never really discuss
freely and openly in your house group or church. One that I have never
found in one of these "radical books" mentioned above. Every time I bring
this subject up, other people drop their dialogue. I encounter either
anger, or at best, sympathy for me, but no further discussion. Mostly I
find evasion. Evasion of any willingness to even look at it, to open it
So I am intrigued. In fact I enjoy the topic, and would love people to
talk it through with me. But it doesn't happen. Maybe one day it will.
Much of my interest is of course based around the fact that I can't find
anyone to really go through it. I confess that. This tells me there must
be something in it.
By now you have waited long enough for the topic to be introduced.
However I had to do all the preamble. If I introduced the issue up front,
you might have immediately stopped reading this. Therefore I had to state
somehow, that if I mentioned the topic to begin with you could have ceased
looking. And written me off.
I even wrote that line deliberately: "And written me off." Because I
don't mind being written off at all. In fact I am going to get around that
as well before we get to the meat.
You see, this topic is not my idea. No, indeed. In fact I only got
interested in it by chance. I stumbled upon it, and would have dismissed
it immediately had I not seen the impressive number of respected
theologians and people through the centuries who stand behind this belief.
So doesn't bother me if you write me off.
But remember you are also dismissing the opinions of people in history
such as Benjamin Franklin, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, William
Barclay, Karl Barth, Thomas Paine, Robert Burns, Samuel Coleridge, Charles
Dickens, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Milton,
Alexander Graham Bell, Florence Nightingale, Isaac Newton, and Jacques
Ellul, to name but a very, very, few. There are also oodles of worthwhile
web sites devoted to it with expositions from the centuries available for
Okay, enough. Here is the topic. Purposefully buried in this paragraph
in case you had skimmed. It is the topic of universal salvation.
When Christians first hear this phrase, warning lights go on, as they
now have with you. Let's do the definition first. Universal salvation does
not claim all religions lead to God. Not on your Nelly. It claims that
each and every person ever to live and die will be saved by the love of
God displayed through Jesus Christ. In other words that Jesus Christ will
ultimately save every single human being.
Let's get pedantic now and really turn you off. Universal salvation
obviously claims that no human beings end up in hell. First thing we are
going to look at it are some Bible passages by the way. Just a few. I have
highlighted words such as every and all.
Isaiah 45:22-23: Turn to me and be saved, all you ends
of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have
sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be
revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue
John 12:32: But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will
draw all men to myself.
Romans 5:18: Consequently, just as the result of one trespass
was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of
righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.
1 Corinthians 15:22: For as in Adam all die, so in
Christ all will be made alive.
1 Timothy 2:5-6: For there is one God and one mediator between
God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for
men - the testimony given in its proper time.
1 Timothy 4:10: [... and for this we labor and strive], that
we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all
men, and especially of those who believe.
Takes a long time to see those words, all and every. It
might take you years, because nobody preaches about them. But the words
are there. They are scattered throughout the Bible in reference to the
saving grace of Jesus. Go check the Bible for yourself.
To get back to my original point however, I am merely saying here that
you won't be able to discuss this issue. An in-depth look at it will be
too difficult for your Pastor to handle.
Now there are some other factors to consider while we are on this
topic. Ramifications is one of them. If you think that people are heading
towards hell, then there are some awful particulars you have to live with.
Let us say you are thinking of telling your neighbour about the saving
power of Jesus, and you arrange to see him on Saturday. But, come
Saturday, turns out your son gets a place in the top football team, and
you go to watch him play instead. Meanwhile your neighbour gets hit by a
bus, and dies. Goes to hell forever.
You have to live with the knowledge that you could have told him, you
might have got through to him, but you let that opportunity slip for a
reasonably good excuse. Your neighbour is now going to spend one hundred
years roasting in hell, no, one thousand years roasting in hell, no, one
million � no, forever, in eternal pain and torment because of your
decision that Saturday.
Furthermore, you are going to have to answer to God for not speaking to
the neighbour that Saturday, on the feeble defence of watching your son
play football. A game of football for your neighbour's eternity in hell.
And you think you are going to enjoy Heaven, with that trip hanging on
your shoulder? Just remember, if you take Jesus' parable of Lazarus
literally, while you are sitting in Heaven, you can actually see Hell, and
the torment the residents are enduring there. You will see your neighbour
there. You will be daily reminded of your wrong decision.
The ramifications of holding a consistent belief in condemnation to the
flames are awesome. Think them through. There is no way you could live
with these details. Think of someone you witnessed to in the wrong manner,
and turned them off, and it really was your fault. You blundered in, and
messed it up. So they die and go to hell because of your fault, your
inadequacy in presenting the message.
Another debate often thrown up is the old argument, "If everybody is
saved by the grace of God demonstrated through Jesus, then why become a
believer? What is the point?"
This is exactly the issue Paul had to write about in Romans Chapter
Six. The previous chapter, Romans Chapter Five, is the one where Paul
waxes eloquent about all men being saved. Spends a lot of time towards the
close of the fifth chapter talking about how one mans sin introduced
death, the act of dying, for all men. Then goes on to say how God's free
gift brings life to all men. Evangelical Protestants tend to split the
On one hand they agree with the "all" of dying. All means everyone
there. But on the other hand they say that Paul doesn't mean all men
receive life - oh no! He means just those that acknowledge Jesus in this
life. The second "all" apparently doesn't mean everyone.
Well, Paul expects his readers to then ask the question above, "What is
the point of becoming a believer?" and he starts Chapter Six with the very
words, "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may
increase?" Then he proceeds to answer that question. But again I won't
include it here. Read it yourself.
If you are a new believer, you might not have encountered the threat of
hell that much. It is not Religiously Correct (RC) to talk about it today.
Today's Pastors go for evasion. They say, "Oh, that's God's business". Or,
"I don't preach hell". They soft-pedal it. But if you push one hard
enough, he will tell you, "Yes, non-believers are going to hell."
In the New Message Bible, currently selling well throughout the
world, the author has this to say in his introduction to Proverbs:
Many people think that what's written in the Bible has mostly to do
with getting people into heaven - getting right with God, saving their
eternal souls. It does have to do with that, of course, but not mostly.
What a copout. The writer knows that it is not RC to speak about hell
and damnation, so he soft pedals it, and goes on to say how the Bible is "
� equally concerned with living on this earth."
He also says other RC things like, "In our Scriptures, heaven is not
the primary concern, to which earth is a tag-along afterthought."
This is all church-speak in the new millennium. If that writer believes
that our personal decisions here lead either to an eternity in heaven, or
an eternity in hell, then he has absolutely no right underplaying it. He
should be out front there, preaching and telling everyone to the best of
his ability that this seventy years here is a nothing compared to
I mean, the guy says "not mostly". Is he saying that seventy years on
earth is more important than a million years in hell? Give me strength.
Unfortunately he is like nearly every other church leader. He holds
back on his message of damnation because it is not acceptable to preach
it. In fact, he probably has reservations about it, and won't come out
readily and admit them. Well, if he believes in people going to hell, then
he needs to state it. The price is too great.
There are further reasons why the Pastors can't really drop the
Having hell there is a great method of social control, of keeping the
churchgoers in fear, of keeping them nice and moral, lest awful things
happen to them. It is the backdrop to so much preaching about Christian
living, but just sugar-coated these days. We hear so much about keeping
our spiritual lives clean, of holiness in case God deserts us. Hell
doesn't get mentioned, but it is there behind the scenes, hovering
Us Christians, we even turn it into the message of good news. The other
day I saw a guy on a roundabout with a printed jerkin on. Preaching and
haranguing the passing traffic. The front of his shirt read "Hell is for
real". And the back something like "Turn and repent".
I sat in my car awhile watching him, reflecting how this was how our
church society presents the message of Good News. Good grief. I told
someone else about it. They commiserated with me, but had to stick to the
fact that ultimately, the haranguer was telling the correct message.
Time for a quote. Here is a goodie, this time from a Reverent.
The single most important cause for the Western World's great
defection from Christ has been the church's teaching of a literal hell.
For if we examine the last three centuries of Western history, we can
see very clearly how the central atheistic figures of this period were
turned away from Christianity basically because of the teaching of hell.
And by now we can also see far more clearly the nihilistic and
catastrophic results of this atheism. For example, from people like
Nietzsche and Wagner we have seen the fruits of Hitler and the entire
Nazi period. And what was the teaching of Christianity that turned
Protestant Nietzsche and Catholic Wagner against Christianity? A literal
From people like Feuerbach, Marx, and Lenin, we have seen the fruits
of people like Stalin and Mao and the misery of Communism throughout the
world. And what was the "Christian" teaching which more than any other
caused Feuerbach, Marx and Lenin to see Christianity as an "opiate"? The
fact that Christians preoccupied with getting to heaven and avoiding
hell were willing to turn their backs on the body politic and let it go
to here-and-now hell -- the only real hell there is. And why did Freud
debunk religion in general and Christianity in particular as "illusion"?
Again, it's a matter of historical record. Freud had a Christian
governess who terrified him with threats of hellfire when he was barely
old enough to talk. Therefore Freud couldn't wait to fashion an
interpretation of human life that would completely eliminate the need
for religion and its terrifying denials of the human body.
Here is one final thing to bring up in the discussion.
It is the observation that Christians don't want to believe it, or even
to consider it - yet non-Christians will readily consider it. Now you will
say that is because non-Christians have an agenda, and that is to avoid a
confrontation with Jesus. You might also be right in many circumstances.
If there is an agenda on one side however, there may also be one on the
other. Christians might not want God to forgive everyone because it will
have meant their religious activities were done in vain. That there was no
need for them to engage in those boring church renovation works, sing
endless songs, print off church newsletters and vacuum the vestry.
I would have expected believers, who claim they want to love more, to
leap at the possibility that our God of love was actually gathering in
every living human being to himself. At the very least I would have
expected they would investigate the option. But they won't even look,
won't even examine the scriptures in the main.
Now I don't expect for a minute that this article will persuade anyone
in Christendom to change their views on this topic.
The ramifications of seeing the Good News of Jesus as simply that,
simply a message of life for all men, of life at some stage, of the
overpowering encountering of the majestic and irresistible love of God
either now or at some future time, are too broad. It challenges too much
that Christians have learned. It is far easier to retreat into Churchdom,
into the fold of the blessed, the saved, and attempt to hold the fort
until Jesus comes again.
But please don't tell me the Bible teaches that non-Christians will go
to hell. No, I've changed my mind. Tell me, face to face, with a Bible
between us, and some time to discuss it. Speaking of which.
One night after I had done a lot of reading about the concept of
Universal Salvation, I decided I want to discuss the topic at this evening
group I go to. About eight or so people are in this group. The leader is
always telling us we should feel free to bring up any topic we like.
Nothing is sacred in this group. His name is Colin.
So I ask the group, especially Colin, if I can discuss this topic I
have been thinking about. Without telling him the topic.
"Absolutely," says Colin, gesturing with his hands.
"It is a controversial topic," I say.
The interest of the others is quickened, and Colin is not perturbed.
"No, go ahead, that is what this group is for," he reiterates. I start to
feel nervous. "I mean it is quite an argumentative topic. It may cause
But their curiosity is up now. "Please go ahead," several chip in. I
pause. "Okay, but I will keep it short, and we will just look at a few
verses in the Bible to lay out the thing."
Colin is very relaxed, this is what he is hoping this little group will
do, feel free to discuss anything. "The topic is one that is called
universal salvation. Now I'm not saying it is true now, I am merely saying
I have been looking at it for a while, and it is a very interesting one."
I can't swear it, but I feel a stiff silence has suddenly descended.
Could be just me. I push on in the still atmosphere. "I am going to get
several of you to read verses out of the Bible that tell us how everyone
in the world ends up being saved by the work of Christ. Everyone. Sandy,
you first, your verse is Isaiah 45.22."
I give everyone in the group one of the verses I quoted above to read.
I tell people to take notice of words like "every" or "all". The silence
is deafening as they finish reading their verses. I am aware of this, but
force myself to bring my piece to a close.
"We've only looked at a few of these verses, but they do seem to
suggest that all men will be saved don�t they? Like I mean that eventually
the love of God through Jesus is so great that it will totally overcome
evil. And the devil gets nobody in the end."
"Why, what has Bryan said that is wrong? He just read some verses out, and
tried to start a discussion. Now we are getting told at the outset he is
wrong without even examining the topic."
"Any thoughts on this," I ask.
The floodgates immediately open. From Colin. "This is a classical mistake
of taking verses out of context. If you look at verses like this without
reading the context they are placed in, then this is how this fallacious
type of thinking can emerge."
Bryan, you silly fool, I tell myself. You should know better. Bill chimes
in from the other side of the room. Bill loves controversy.
Colin is in full flight. "I had to deal with this sort of thing at Bible
college. These modern professors with all their liberal theology. The Bible
is very clear on the fact that there is a heaven and a hell, and that the
unsaved are going to hell unless they repent. I will not allow this group to
be exposed to such heresy as is being suggested here."
Oh boy, oh boy, I lean back in my chair. Should have shut up son, should
have shut up. Keep your opinions to yourself. But Bill is at his throat
like a tiger. His blood is up.
"Look, not five minutes ago, you were telling us that anything could be
discussed here, and now an interesting topic comes up. Suddenly it is
out of bounds. Let me ask you this. Are you saying that if a baby is
born to unsaved parents, and then dies before it reaches the age of
understanding, that baby will go to hell? Is that what you are saying?"
Colin pauses. He is trapped. But he commits. Courageously. "Yes."
Bill explodes. "You may be entitled to your opinion, and I will be
entitled to mine. I cannot believe that a God of love would do that."
I hardly say a word for the rest of the evening. But tempers flare up
and down. Eventually the host phones the Pastor for an opinion. I'm
thinking, well this is Christendom yesterday and today. You want an
authoritative answer, ask the clergy.
He comes back with his answer. 'Peter says it is another of those AFLs.
Awaiting Further Light.'
Oh, you religiously correct animal Peter, I murmur to myself, unsure
whether I admire or despise his one liner.
I try it again. I want to discuss this topic. I want it public. This
time I am a guest at a large house, sitting with the hostess, and a
younger man. He is leading an evangelical team. We loosen up awhile, then
I broach the topic.
He leans back. The lean contains the feel that he has an intelligent
person in front of him, that he should be calm here, and lead me through
the mire of strange opinions I have. All that in one lean. The brain is
marvellous isn't it, sensing these attitudes which may or may not be
correct, but seem to fit the occasion.
"I can understand how you feel on this one Bryan." Whoa now, that�s my
line. This guy has been Dale Carnegied too. Watch it. "I think none of us
would be human if we didn�t ask that question of ourselves. None of us
want our neighbours or friends to go to hell."
Oh, that is good. Laying out the baited lines, agreeing with me. He
must pounce soon. "You know Paul never mentions the word hell once", I
"Correct. That's not where the problem is. It's Jesus who talks about
hell a lot."
"True, but some commentators feel he is talking about a hell on earth
that people lead themselves into."
"I concede that, but we need to look at the general breadth of
understanding of the church over the centuries. The church, and
theologians in general, have taken the topic seriously and believe that
the Bible does point towards a distinct hell."
I'm going to get this joker. Didn�t think it would be so easy though. I
expected better from him. "Surely just because the majority of theologians
believe in it doesn�t mean that it shouldn�t be examined again. Plenty of
theologians, and the church in general, were against women voting.' I
can't resist being the funny guy here. In front of my wonderful female
host. 'Of course, that judgement does give them some credibility doesn�t
Polite laughter, but my opposite sees the comment as flight rather than
fight. He won't let go. "Yes but you are left with an interesting question
then. Why should people commit to Christ if they are going to heaven
Gotcha. I'm starting to lose interest already in this conversation. Why
doesn�t he read Romans Chapter Six where that exact question was asked two
thousand years ago. "If hell is the only reason people should come to
Jesus, then we are in a pretty bad state aren't we?"
He knows he has overstepped, and takes flight again himself. "It is a
very difficult one for us all Bryan. Take my parents. We have talked with
them on numerous occasions about the Lord, but they have not made a
decision to follow him. I dearly love my parents and do not want them to
go to hell."
I push him more.
"We are talking here about a God of love. More love than we could ever
understand. A supreme being, bigger than this universe, composed of love.
Can you imagine him taking your parents, who loved you, did some good
things, did some bad things, lived ordinary lives for seventy years, and
then throwing them into a fiery pit for one hundred years? No, one
thousand years. No, one million years. No, forever."
"I can't claim to understand that Bryan. That is where faith comes in.
I don�t know everything that lies behind the decision making of God. I
just have to believe that his action for my parents will be based on love,
even though it doesn�t seem like it to me."
Well, that was honest even if it did sound screwy. He engages me closer
now. "You wouldn�t truly be a loving Christian if you didn�t ask these
questions Bryan. Every believer would ask the same questions. But the
Bible is plain about it." He is coming in for the kill. "Let's pray before
we get going. Do you mind if I commit us to the Lord?"
"No, go ahead," I say, already feeling there is a manipulating prayer
coming, remembering when I was younger and had discussed religion with the
Mormons at the door, and they, too, asked if they could close in prayer.
"Lord, each of us has many questions about how you work, and the nature
of heaven and hell. There are many things that are quite difficult for us
to understand, quite difficult. I know that I do not have all the answers.
We also have friends and families that we love dearly and do want to see
descend into the pit. We pray that we will be fervent and faithful in
witnessing to these loved ones, and we ask your forbearance with them. And
also with us.
"I would like to commit my brother Bryan, with his questions, to you. I
pray that you would guide him into a clear understanding about these
matters, that you would enable him to see your plan for mankind. We commit
ourselves to you. In Jesus name, Amen."
There is no need to extend the conversation. Why could he not analyse
his own words? That if God works in Christians lives, and Christians
cannot understand how God can chuck innocents into hell, perhaps God is
telling them something of his nature? But he was such a nice young man. He
was so genuine.
Moving on again - I am talking with a lady now. She has been married and
divorced twice. Can't seem to make it in relationships. And she knows why.
When she was a young child, she was sexually abused for three years by one
of the elders of her conservative church. She had no-one to talk to,
nobody to open up to. The situation was out of her control. Her
compensation in later life is to create controlled situations for her
social and relational life.
She knows she does it, but cannot change. Her marriages fail due to her
attempts to manipulate controlling situations. Counselling and in-depth
therapy have revealed all this to her. But it is too deep to alter. She
looks forward to the rest of her life in loneliness. Her hackles rise when
she hears of acts of love being performed by Christians. There is a block
against the church.
Who can blame her? Who can say to her, "Well, it doesn�t matter, you
should turn to Jesus despite these experiences"? Who could condemn her to
an eternity in a fiery pit for circumstances like this? She is enduring a
version of hell on earth as it is.
Now there is an older man listening to me. He is well respected
nation-wide as an advisor to young leaders in the Church. I hardly know
him, but am sharing my deepest feelings with him. He listens. Without
comment. He is a loving man. He empathises with me. I can feel his
strength. Here is a man who would always listen, who would weep with you.
Later that evening we talk again, on more general topics in a group
now. One of us asks him how he feels about Moslems. He works in Islamic
countries sometimes. "There is something about their religion that is
disturbing - the violence. I simply cannot see how religion can lead
anyone to do some of the things the Taliban do. Incredible cruelty."
My attitude changes from that morning. "Sounds a bit like the
Christians during the Crusades," I venture.
"Oh, you're right, there are many things that we in the Church have to
answer for. Our history is nothing to be proud of, you can be sure of
I press on again.
"In fact it must be pretty hard for some people to come to Christ, what
with all the garbage the Church has thrown up over the centuries. All the
The word "division" reminds him of a story.
"You know, the other day I got a call from a colleague who asked me to
speak at a rally with John Brownley. Thing is, John once said from a stage
in front of five thousand young people that he would never be seen on the
same platform as someone from the Uniting Church." He laughs at this.
"Anyway, old John has changed. Joins us at the ecumenical meetings. We
have Anglicans, Presbyterians, Wesleyans, Baptists and other denominations
there. Even Catholics. Times have changed."
I lean back in despair. Here is a respected leader, an advisor to
up-and-comers nation-wide, congratulating himself that he meets with
Catholics these days. That progress is indeed being made. The vast
irrelevance of denominational settings, of religion itself, overwhelms me
temporarily. Is this where we are at? The world has more civil wars than
ever, millions still starve, AIDS is rampant in Africa, but well, you
know, I've got some Catholic friends. God must be pleased with that sort
But he is nice. He is so nice. I can't even blame him for his
conservatism. He has suffered the non-thought of church committees, of
religious conferences, of tentative conversations where niceness prevails,
where the boat can only be rocked a little, where fiery young man are
politely listened to, knowing they will eventually come down to earth and
be doormen, handing out hymnbooks on Sundays.
On my wall is a painting by Rembrandt - Jeremiah lamenting the fall of
Jerusalem. It was unthinkable in his day, as the demise of the
institutional church is today. Or is it?
 Revd Robert Short, Claretian Publications