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Universalism and The Threat of Hell:Will Everyone Eventually Be Saved?
Article by Paul Helm
University Of Liverpool
Those who have held that all men will finally be saved have often believed that this follows logically from the character of God. They have held that since God is essentially and omnipotently loving it follows that he could not allow any human being to suffer an eternity of torments in hell. For such Christians there is a serious stumbling block, namely those sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels which unequivocally speak of an eternal separation between the saved and the damned. How often the sayings of Jesus say or imply this is open to dispute, but that some of them do (e.g. Matt 25:41, 46) is beyond question.
Faced with this evidence the universalist may deny its authenticity, regarding it, for example, as a later interpolation of the church. Alternatively he may claim that Jesus had not fully fought free of the teaching of the Judaism of his day. I shall not comment on the merits of these and several other approaches, but instead look at one particular suggestion that claims that in such sayings Jesus must be taken to be preaching rather than theologizing, endeavoring in an “existential” situation to turn his hearers from their evil ways by issuing threats or warnings.
One recent example of this approach can be found in the writings of John Hick. Although he thinks that there may be reason to doubt the authenticity of such sayings, he supposes for the sake of the argument that Jesus threatened eternal punishment.1 But he claims that such warnings or threats occurred in the context of personal admonition and exhortation.
Jesus was neither propounding a theological theory nor defining theological doctrines. He was preaching to contemporary men and women, warning and challenging them with vivid parables and images. He was standing with them in the flow of human life at a certain moment in time, trying to get them to wrench themselves round in the direction of their lives and open their hearts to one another as fellow children of the heavenly Father. In this situation he was in effect saying: If you go on like this, heedless of your neighbour, you will come to absolute disaster; for this way of living ends in spiritual self-destruction.
Professor Hick supports this by saying there is nothing incompatible about the statements “If you will not repent you will be eternally damned” and “You will not be eternally damned”; and this seems to be correct. But contrary to what Professor Hick appears to think, in order for them to be logically consistent it is certainly not necessary that the first occur in a different context, and fulfill a different function, from the second. The question of context and purpose, of whether Jesus is preaching or theologizing, is irrelevant to the question of consistency. The conditional does not have to be a threat; it could be a prediction. There is nothing necessarily “existential” about the statement, “If you eat unripe apples you will get stomachache”; and nevertheless it is perfectly consistent with the statement “No one will get stomachache.”
So on the question of consistency Professor Hick seems to be correct. However there are other objections to his view which he does not consider and which raise serious difficulties for a universalist. For although the sentences “If you do not repent you will go to hell” and “No one will go to hell” are formally consistent, the first could not be uttered as a threat if the second were also uttered or if its truth were in some way known to the one to whom the first was uttered. So our question is, on universalistic assumptions, could Jesus threaten or warn against eternal hell.?
In order to formulate objections clearly it is necessary to distinguish between two kinds of universalism. Let us call universalism which asserts, on whatever grounds, that no people can be finally lost “hard” universal-ism. And let us call universalism which asserts that no people will in fact be lost “soft” universalism.
There is a corresponding distinction to be drawn between “hard” and “soft” particularism.3For the particularist who argues that some but not all men will be saved, the salvation of such men is due either to the will of God or to the will of men. But the parallelism between universalism and particularism is incomplete in that hard particularism is not entailed by the will of God—at least, I have been unable to find such a case in the literature. To find discussions of such questions it is almost essential to consult seventeenth century writers. Not even the most ardent supralap-sarian, or the strongest believer in particular redemption, would argue that it is inconceivable, given the character of God, that all men should finally be saved. For instance, the supralapsarian William Twisse, the prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly, argued that the salvation of the elect did not require an atonement, for God could have freely pardoned them without it. A fortiou (presumably) God could have pardoned all men without an atonement.
Twisse could have argued both that God could have saved anyone without an atonement and that he could only save a limited number; but in fact he appears to argue that God could have saved all men (Nos nihil dubitarnus quin omnium hominurn salutem facile procurare posset deus [“We do not doubt at all that God could easily procure the salvation of all men”]).4John Owen, at one time Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford under Cromwell, though disagreeing with Twisse on the question of the necessity of the atonement, likewise argued that the decree to create the universe was an act of God’s freedom and the decree to save some was also an act of God’s freedom. Hence (presumably) God was free to save more (or fewer) than he did, and free to save all.5Neither of these writers makes the point explicitly; it has to be dragged out of them by inference. B. B. Warfield is a little more explicit: “So far as the principles of sovereignty and particularism are concerned there is no reason why a Calvinist might not be a universalist in the most express meaning of that term, holding that each and every human soul shall be saved.”6Those who argue that the salvation of any is due to their free will must be soft universalists.
Which version of universalism does Professor Hick espouse? It is not clear. As he presents the matter he notes that on one traditional view universalism follows from the divine attributes.7If he accepts this argument consistently he is a hard universalist, for such attributes are necessary properties of God; and what they are alleged to entail, the final salvation of all men, is likewise going to be necessary; and therefore no one could finally be lost. On the other hand Professor Hick recognizes the problem that certain views of human freedom present for such a version of universalism, and this seems to take his position in the direction of “soft” universalism; for he appears to hold that the threats could be ignored, but in fact will not be.
Whether we take Hick’s view about the threats to be a contribution to a hard or a soft universalism it can be argued that both have damaging objections to them if they intend to take seriously the idea that Jesus’ words are threats. An attempt will now be made to show this.
First, I shall assess Professor Hick’s views considered as a form of soft universalism. The assumption of soft universalism, the view that all men will in fact be saved, although it allows us to treat the language of Jesus as genuinely threatening, does nothing to protect or defend the moral character of Jesus. An argument for soft universalism might be expressed as follows:
(1) God desires the salvation of all men.
(2) Those not saved by other means are threatened by God in order to be saved.
(3) All those threatened will finally heed the threats.
(4) Therefore all men will finally be saved.
Let us begin an examination of this argument by considering the notion of a threat.
For what a person says to another person to count as a threat, for a person to be threatened, certain conditions are necessary. A chief one of these conditions is that the person threatened must believe that what is being said to him constitutes a threat, that is, that there is a real possibility that the unpleasantness being threatened will actually come about. Of course a person may mistakenly believe this, and take something to be a threat which is not intended as such. But this kind of case cannot be what Professor Hick has in mind, since the point about this interpretation of Jesus’ words is that Jesus intends to threaten, nor merely that his hearers mistakenly take his words to constitute a threat or a warning. So what Professor Hick is maintaining is that these words of Jesus are intended by Jesus as a threat which Jesus hopes and believes that his hearers will pay attention to and so avoid what is threatened.
But if Jesus intended to threaten, and did not merely wish to be taken to be threatening, then his words must be accompanied by the intention to carry out what is threatened should no one pay attention to them. If Jesus really and seriously threatened eternal hell for the impenitent in order to warn them of their impending fate then it must follow that he would recognize the consistency of sending the impenitent to hell should they remain impenitent. A threat that the threatener is unwilling to carry out is hollow and not a threat.
If the reply to this is that Jesus did not really threaten, nor really intend to threaten, but that he merely gave the impression to his hearers that he was threatening, then this leaves the difficulty that it would make Jesus guilty of intentionally misleading his hearers. In any case it would substantially change the interpretation of what Jesus was doing according to Professor Hick.
The point can be put in terms of the notion of a deterrent. On Professor Hick’s view, Jesus’ words ought to be considered as a deterrent to his hard-hearted hearers, having the intention of turning them away from their impenitent course of action. But to be intended as a deterrent an action must be genuinely threatening. If the possession of a nuclear bomb is to act as a deterrent then at least the would-be aggressor must believe that in the event of his aggression, or his aggression under certain specific circumstances, the bomb would be used. Otherwise possession of the bomb can have no genuinely deterrent effect, for the aggressor knows that should he attack the bomb would not be used in self-defense. If, in a legal system, punishing Mr. Smith is meant to have a deterrent effect upon the behavior of Mr. Jones, deterring him from certain illegal courses of action, then Mr. Jones must believe that if he does behave illegally he will be punished. If he has good reason to think that he will not be punished then the punishment of Mr. Smith cannot be a deterrent.
To say that if the threat of punishment is genuine then there is a real possibility of it being carried out is equivalent to saying that there is a possible world in which it is carried out, a possible set of circumstances in which a person remains impenitent and suffers for it. If one is saying that there is no possible world in which this happens then in effect one is saying that the threat could not be carried out and so is no threat. So for someone seriously to threaten another the threatener must be willing to carry out the threat under the appropriate circumstances. According to Professor Hick this is precisely the case in Jesus’ words about hell.
When Jesus threatened hell what precisely was he threatening? One necessary condition of something’s being hell is that it involves a state of unrelieved and inescapable suffering. It is suffering without termination, unjustified by the achieving of some purified or restored state for which the suffering is a necessary condition. If it is an adverse reflection upon God’s moral character (and inconsistent with his purposes) that some people should suffer in hell then it is an adverse reflection on God’s moral character that he, or his spokesmen, or his Son, should seriously threaten men with hell.
What is the difference, so far as the character of the threatener is concerned, between a successful and an unsuccessful threat? Any difference between the two situations is solely due to the way the impenitent chooses to respond to the threat. If he chooses to respond in penitence, then this is logically sufficient for the threat’s being successful. If he chooses to respond by a continued act or disposition of impenitence then this is logically sufficient for the threat’s being unsuccessful. There is nothing Jesus can do to guarantee that any threat has a successful outcome in dissuading a person from a course of impenitence. If there is, then to that extent the threat is not a serious one. So whether the threat of hell succeeds or not depends solely upon the character and disposition of the one threatened, upon whether he chooses to cooperate or not.
If it is no adverse reflection upon God’s moral character that men freely chose evil then it is no additional adverse reflection upon Jesus’ character that men choose to remain impenitent and go to hell in accordance with his threats. Jesus’ moral character as regards the final state of the impenitent remains precisely the same irrespective of whether his serious threatenings succeed or not, just as God’s moral character remains unblemished irrespective of the fact that there is moral evil freely willed by men.
If this is so then there is nothing to be gained, in terms of the moral character of Jesus, in insisting upon soft universalism, provided it is allowed that he seriously threatened hell. Jesus is not morally better if he threatens and as a matter of fact all men heed his threats and avoid hell than if only some men heed and avoid hell, or indeed if no men heed and avoid hell. There would be a moral difference in the two situations if the threatener also had it in his power to make the threat effective in changing the state of the impenitent, for then the question would arise as to why in one case the threat was made effective while in the other case it was not. But in a situation in which the free exercise of the human will is a necessary and sufficient condition for making the threat effective the effectiveness or otherwise of the threat is clearly irrelevant to the moral character of the threatener.
As we have seen, Professor Hick claims that the texts in the synoptic gospels that predict hell can be taken to be conditionals, as threats, and so can be taken to be consistent with there being no possibility of hell; but it can now be seen that the serious threat of hell entails the possibility of hell, and the possibility of hell is inconsistent with there being no possibility of hell. Professor Hick has therefore failed to establish, by interpreting the synoptic sayings of Jesus as he does, that there is no possibility of hell according to the teaching of Jesus.
Let us now consider several objections to this argument. The first could be put as follows: in considering the moral character of Jesus in the light of his serious threat of hell to his hearers, no account has been taken of his motive in threatening, and this is relevant to the assessment of his moral character. For he threatens, it might be said, with the motive or desire of seeing the impenitent change their ways. This objection can, in a sense, be granted. No account has been taken of Jesus’ motives. Nevertheless it is irrelevant to the point at issue, for what is at issue is the moral character of the one prepared to threaten eternal hell to the impenitent (for whatever motive) as against the moral character of someone prepared actually to subject the impenitent to hell. And given Hick’s views about free will, there is nothing to choose between them. Indeed the positions are strictly parallel despite the impression that this objection gives, in that it is perfectly consistent with consigning the impenitent to hell that the consigner should feel regret at so doing. Morally praiseworthy motives or feelings can be present in both situations. Therefore the introduction of the consideration about motives is irrelevant.
It might be objected, secondly, that it is preposterous to suppose that a situation in which a threat is made and not carried out, and an identical situation in which a threat is made and is carried out, are morally equivalent. The consequences of such situations are manifestly different. But the claim that is being made is not that the two situations are morally equivalent in all respects, but only in respect of the moral character of the threatener.
The third objection has to do with Jesus’ foreknowledge. It might be said that what makes Jesus’ situation unique is that he threatens the impenitent with hell knowing that all those threatened will in fact change their ways, that his threat will be successful. This objection sits rather uneasily with some of the things that theologians often want to say about the restrictedness of Jesus’ knowledge of the future, but we can let that pass. Three points need to be made about this objection. The first is that knowing that the threat will succeed does not take away the genuineness of the threat as made. It is on the basis of a genuine threat that Jesus foreknows the threat will succeed in turning the minds of the impenitent. Secondly, granted that it is a genuine threat, it follows that in the mind of the threatener hell is a possibility, though a possibility that, given his perfect knowledge of the future, he knows hell will not actually be fulfilled. And thirdly, if it is granted that the foreknowledge of the outcome of the threat does not take away from its genuineness then it is irrelevant to the question of the morality of the threatener. To say that Jesus foreknows that the threat will in fact be effective and that in fact no one will go to hell is quite compatible with its being possible that there should be people who go to hell, and it is the possibility of there being such people that is at issue.
A fourth objection might be that the hearers of Jesus took his sayings to be threats because they were ignorant of the outcome of the future, including their own future decisions. Let us suppose that they were ignorant in this way. Nevertheless, this fact would have no bearing upon the issue. For either it is relevant to the genuineness or otherwise of the threats, or it is not. If it is, and the threats are not genuine, then once again the interpretation of Professor Hick is being seriously modified. If on the other hand the threats are genuine then whether or not those threatened are ignorant, whatever is threatened remains a real possibility for them. Otherwise the threats are not genuine threats.
Fifthly, it might be argued that the whole point about the threats is that the conditional propositions expressing the threats are neither true nor false. It might be argued that the “seriousness” of hell is not tied up with its being a real possibility, but that it is a necessary condition of choosing salvation that the one who chooses it believes that there is a hell. Therefore in his sayings what Jesus was doing was getting his hearers to choose, and for them to do this it is not necessary that there be the possibility of hell in the future, only that the hearers believe that there is this possibility. This objection would not be one that Professor Hick would himself make for as we saw earlier he is emphatic that the statement “If you do not repent you will go to hell” is consistent with “No one will go to hell,” and in order for two propositions such as these to be consistent both must have a truth-value; whereas according to the view we are now considering neither of the above expressions has a truth value, and hence the question of their consistency or otherwise cannot arise. But such a view can be found in J. A. T. Robinson’s book In The End, God…:
The two myths [of universal salvation and of the final separate of men into the saved and the lost] represent two different standpoints. They are not to be understood as parallel “objective” statements of the final outcome of the universe. In this case, of course, one must be true and the other false. To take them as such alternative predictions and then to try and hold them together is necessarily to invite the theological errors discussed in the last chapter. The two myths represent, rather, the two sides of the truth which is in Jesus. The one says: “Christ is all in all, and always will be”; the other says: “Christ has to be chosen, and always must be.” Though both are the truth, one is the truth as it is for God and as it is for faith the other side of decision; the other is the truth as it must be to the subject facing decision.8
What can we make of this? Robinson appears to state that everyone must say, “If I do not choose Christ I will go to hell.” But it is also true, so Robinson tells us, that no one can go to hell, because hell is an impossibility. But then if this is true it follows that I am entitled to believe it. It follows in turn that I am entitled to believe the conjunction “If I do not choose Christ I will go to hell and it is impossible that I will go to hell.” But this is in effect to say that it is both possible and impossible that I shall go to hell, and this is nonsense. No doubt Robinson will say that to think of his words in this way is to become entrapped by “objective logic,” but it is hard to see how else they can be taken. It follows that if sense cannot be made of what he says it cannot be treated as a serious objection to the earlier argument.
So I conclude that Hick’s argument about the threatening character of Jesus’ words does not, in the context of soft universalism, do anything to preserve the moral character of Jesus. This is not to say that what Jesus says is in any way immoral, but only that there is no significant moral difference between justly threatening punishment and being placed in the position of actually having to carry out the punishment.
Let us now consider, more briefly, Professor Hick’s thesis interpreted as a case of hard universalism. As we have noted, there are elements in what Professor Hick says that make it plausible to suppose that he is sympathetic towards hard universalism. He says that God has made man for himself such that “the inherent gravitation of our being is towards him”9—that is, there is a divine structuring of human nature such that all men will finally be saved.
But if it is inconceivable that any human being should finally be lost then however the language of Jesus is to be interpreted it cannot be regarded as genuinely threatening since as we noted earlier for a threat to be genuinely threatening there must be the possibility of the threat being carried out. But according to hard universalism there is no possibility of the threat being carried out, no possibility of anyone actually suffering an eternity of hell torments. If a given event such as the final salvation of all men is necessary then there is no possibility of its not occurring. If there is no possibility of its not occurring then the “threat” that it will not occur is idle.
Furthermore, if Jesus’ words are taken in the context of hard universalism then it follows that the “threats” of Jesus are not so much threats as guides driving and guiding people along the path of inevitable universal salvation. And if the words are guides they cannot be genuine threats.
Are there any other arguments that might be deployed? It might be claimed that the notion of a threat can be general, not intended for any one person or group of people in particular but for any one who fits a certain description. So it might be said of Jesus’ threat, that being general in this sense, the question of whether or not it is genuine with respect to some group of people cannot be ~’aised, because it is not that group as such that is threatened, but anyone who fits a certain description, e.g. that of remaining impenitent. But it is hard to see how the notion of a general threat avoids the dilemma that either a threat is genuine or it is not.
So I conclude that, on the assumption of “hard” universalism, Hick’s interpretation of Jesus’ words is not plausible.
In this paper I have attempted to argue two things:
(i) On the assumption of soft universalism, if it is immoral to punish the impenitent in hell then it is immoral genuinely to threaten such punishment. (I have not argued that it is immoral to punish the finally impenitent in hell.) So on this argument soft universalism does not require or support the interpretation of Jesus’ language given by Professor Hick.
(ii) If on the other hand hard universalism is assumed then the so-called threats of Jesus cannot be genuine threats since to be a genuine threat there must be the possibility of the threat actually being carried out.
So if the doctrines of “hard” and “soft” universalism are exhaustive of universalism as such (as they appear to be) then the Christian universalist interpretation of the words of Jesus as constituting a threat is impaled on the horns of a dilemma. If such a universalist opts for “soft” universalism Jesus’ moral character is on exactly the same footing as a threatener of hell as it would be as a consigner of the impenitent to hell. If he opts for “hard” universalism Jesus’ threats cannot be considered to be genuine.10
1 1. John Hick, Death and Eternal Life (London: Macmillan, 1976) 247.
2 2. Ibid. 248-9.
3 3. And also between what might be called “soft” and “hard” negativism, the views, respectively, that no one is saved due to the contingent fact that all men refuse salvation, and that no one is saved due to the divine will not to save anyone. But as no one has seriously entertained these two views in the history of Christianity they can be safely ignored. “Soft” and “hard” universalism, particularism and negativism exhaust all the possibilities, though it is possible to hold a combination of views: e.g. that God will ensure the salvation of some while leaving the salvation of others solely to human free will.
4 4. See the views of Twisse discussed by John Owen in A Dissertation on Divine Justice (Works, ed. W. H. Goold; London: Johnstone and Hunter, 1850-1853) 10. Part II chs. XII-XV. The quotation from Twisse (for which I am indebted to William Young) is from Animadversiones … in Corvini Defensionem (Amsterdam: Joannem Janassonium, 1649) 72.
5 5. Owen. 10.596-7.
6 6. The Plan of Salvation (rev’d ed’n; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1942) 97-8. Cf. p. 74: “God in his love saves as many of the guilty race of man as he can get the consent of his whole nature to save.” See also Select Shorter Writings of B. B. Warfield (ed. John Meeter; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970).1.297.
7 7. Hick, Death 242.
8 8. J. A. T. Robinson, In The End, God… (London: James Clarke, 1950) 119.
9 9. Hick, Death 251.
10 10. I am grateful to Dr. Richard Bauckham and Professor William Young for help with an earlier draft of this paper.
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