The Biblical and Philosophical Arguments for Restorationist Universalism
By Eric Stetson — September 2012
(Note: This previously unpublished article was written in 2012.)
There has been a serious debate among Christian Universalists, both now and in past generations, about whether “hell” in some form or another exists in the hereafter. Restorationists believe that souls continue to learn lessons and experience suffering after this life until ultimately attaining the full fruits of salvation — transformation of character and harmony with God and our fellow human beings. Ultra-Universalists, on the other hand, believe that there is no hell at all — all souls go straight to heaven at the time of death, without an intervening period of corrective judgment or suffering. I believe there is ample justification for the Restorationist view, both Biblically and philosophically, and that the Ultra-Universalist view is untenable.
First, let’s consider the Biblical arguments. Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians believe to be the greatest spiritual teacher and enlightened representative, manifestation or incarnation of God on earth, clearly taught the existence of hell in the afterlife. In fact, justice for the sinner and the suffering that comes with it is one of the main themes of his ministry. Jesus brought a challenging message of tough love, calling people to moral rectitude and warning of the grave consequences of sin, while promising that after receiving the suffering they deserve, every sinner will in the end be saved.
Two of the best known parables of Jesus are the Rich Man and Lazarus and the Sheep and the Goats. In both of these parables, Jesus impresses upon his audience that people who live a life of evil — specifically, lack of compassion for the less fortunate — will experience suffering when they leave this world and enter a domain in which God’s justice reigns. The Rich Man who failed to show charity toward the poor will find himself on fire with thirst, while his victim rests with God. The Goats (those who failed to show love and care for other people) will be sent by the King of the Universe into aionian chastisement, i.e. a temporary hellish state of being, while the Sheep (those who followed the way of the Divine Shepherd) will enjoy a heavenly life. In yet another famous parable, the Prodigal Son, a corrupt youth leaves his father’s household and suffers the consequences of his irresponsible choices — bringing him low to the point of utter degradation — before eventually returning to his family, forgiven and restored.
The theme of sin resulting in suffering for the sinner before an eventual restoration is echoed by the greatest apostles of Jesus. For example, St. Paul says pointedly, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap aionian life.” (Gal. 6:7-8). The Revelation of St. John describes the wicked being cast into a “lake of fire,” prior to the vision of all being healed, restored, and living in the City of God. And St. Peter mentions that Jesus himself “went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits” (1 Pet. 3:19). “For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (4:6). This is a clear reference to the idea that some souls after death are in a state of suffering until hearing and receiving the Gospel.
Although the Biblical evidence for the existence of hell is convincing enough and can stand on its own, there are also philosophical arguments worth considering. One of them is the necessity of justice. Justice must be an important attribute of God’s plan because humans are incapable of being truly reconciled to one another unless they perceive fairness in outcomes. If evil actions do not have negative consequences for the evildoer that match the gravity of the evil committed, victims might be unwilling to forgive and reconcile with one who caused them suffering and “got away with it.” Since a spirit of unforgiveness is itself evil, the universe would remain eternally in disharmony with God’s perfection, and the divine plan of universal reconciliation could therefore never be accomplished.
Another important philosophical argument is that heaven would not be heaven if it were filled with unreformed sinners. In fact, it would be hellish. Therefore, it is logically impossible for everyone to go straight to heaven when they die, unless somehow the wicked are transformed into righteousness instantaneously upon death of the body.
This, in fact, is a common argument of Ultra-Universalism: that God could reform all souls instantaneously upon death. However, there are two problems with this idea. First, God would be violating the soul’s free will to choose between good and evil. We are allowed to choose here on earth, and there is no reason to believe that human freedom ends when the soul is outside the physical body. If we continue to be free to choose, then logically the wicked would find it easier to keep choosing evil, since they had formed a habit to do so during life on earth. Habits are hard to change, and therefore it can be expected that those who habitually chose evil will have to go through a process of reform, gradually being restored to a condition in which it is more natural for them to choose good.
Secondly, life would be meaningless if death automatically changes sinners into saints without any effort on their part, since the experiences, habits, attitudes and actions of a person during this life would have no effect on the life hereafter. Earth would just be a playground for any indulgences we may enjoy, including those which are made possible through gross violation of the pursuit of happiness of others. It seems more reasonable to believe that this world does have a serious purpose related to the development of our souls, and that to the degree we fail to do that here and now, we will have to do it later, either in another life on earth (i.e. reincarnation) or in some other dimension of existence that has traditionally been called “hell.”
What about the Ultra-Universalist idea that the only hell that exists is earth itself? I believe there may be some validity to this idea. But if it’s true, it would require the existence of reincarnation, since judging by the amount of human-caused suffering in this world, very few souls are ready for heaven after just one life. It is certainly possible that reincarnation is the primary method of self-reformation in the afterlife, and that going to heaven is attaining a condition of such perfection — a resurrected, Christlike state of being — that one no longer needs to return to earth except perhaps voluntarily, as an act of compassion. However, even if that is the case, it doesn’t mean that hell doesn’t exist; it only means that earth itself is hell.
Could we be in the “spirit prison” right here and right now, and Jesus came to earth to preach to us who are imprisoned in the flesh, trapped in a cycle of sin and rebirth? Perhaps it is through the Gospel that we can be freed from this prison and reach heavenly reunion with God — but not just hearing the message of Christ; we must live it. We experience suffering, decay, and death — the natural condition of the flesh — until we live an extraordinary life emulating the moral example of Christ. In this paradigm, there is no need for a hell anywhere but here. This possibility is fully compatible with Restorationist Universalism, while appealing to people who are uncomfortable with traditional notions of an otherworldly place of suffering.