I am responding to a Charisma News article titled “24 Reasons To Believe Hell Is a Reality.” Continued from Part 1
13. The early preachers of the church clearly preached that Jesus is the only way to salvation. “There is no salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12; see also 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 2:3-4; 1 Pet. 1:3-5).
More bad soteriology. See also Part 1, #11. If “salvation” is a legal soul status that keeps one out of hell, then this can be read as an exclusivist statement about the only way to get to heaven. But the true context of a saying like this is the first century Roman Empire, wherein Caesar was the only name by which one could be saved. When the emperor took control of your city, he became its “savior,” and the program of goods and services afforded by collusion with (or surrender to) the empire was described as “salvation.” Statements like this one in the Bible are a rejection of corrupt empire and that empty and false kind of salvation, and a countercultural declaration that true rescue and liberation were to be found in the way of Jesus. This isn’t about one’s fate in the afterlife, but about one’s allegiances in this life.
14. According to Scripture, only those who receive Jesus Christ and believe in Him are children of God. “Yet to all who received Him, He gave the power to become sons of God, to those who believed in His name” (John 1:12).
I was talking to a friend recently about faith and hope, and he made a great point. He said that, for instance, when Paul writes (quoting Joel) that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be rescued,” the church’s impulse has been to immediately affirm the negative inverse, that those who do not call on His name will not be saved, even though that’s not what the text says. That spirit pervades this list.
15. The gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. For it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16; see also 10:9).
Likewise, here is another overwhelmingly positive statement that is being offered as proof of its grim antithesis.
16. Rather than teaching that those without faith in Christ are already saved, the Bible teaches that they are already under judgment. Faith in Christ brings us out of condemnation and into right relationship with God. “He who believes in Him is not condemned. But he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18).
The basic assumption of this article, stated plainly in the introduction, is that rejecting or even questioning the traditional doctrine of hell means that one has “rejected the notion of judgment altogether.” In that “our way or the highway” kind of framework, a text like this one seems like a slam dunk for Charisma News. But that is not a fair representation of the text itself or those who would interpret it any other way. Speaking for myself, while I have come to question and reject elements of the traditional doctrine of hell and eternal conscious torment, I would never suggest that judgment is not a key theme in scripture. Indeed, it is the heart of Jesus’ prophetic message and the eschatology of Paul, for two major examples. But that moves us toward the real question: what is the nature and basis of judgment? Is it about loyalty to a religion, or character and integrity? What does it mean to stand “condemned”? Does it mean that God cannot accept or embrace us unless we profess certain creeds? Or does it mean, as Jesus taught, that violence and retribution will keep us on a path of self-destruction unless we repent and embrace the kingdom of peace?
17. Only those whose names are in the Lamb’s Book of Life are granted access into the eternal city of God. “Anyone whose name was not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15; see also 21:27).
Another flat and literal appeal to a dramatic apocalyptic metaphor. And, according to the text, whose names are in that book? Was it those who belonged to the correct religion or believed in the correct doctrines? No, it was those who did what was right and good.
18. People are not automatically righteous. Only when we declare faith in Jesus Christ does God declare us righteous in His sight. “But to him who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).
The context of Romans is not soul salvation or afterlife, but a conversation about who truly belongs in the Christian community. Do Gentiles need to become Jews before they can follow Jesus? Paul says “absolutely not,” and that is what “works” and “justification” are about. You are “justified” and “in the right” because of what Jesus did, not because you got circumcised or went kosher. This is an argument about culture and freedom, not heaven and hell.
19. Eternal life comes only through a relationship with God. We cannot know the Father unless we know the Son. “This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent” (John 17:3).
Again, John says, “if you want to know what God is really like, look at Jesus.” “The life of the coming age” is John’s code word for “the kingdom,” not necessarily heaven or afterlife.
20. The cross of Christ is where payment for our sins was made. Only when we believe this are we saved. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up [on a cross], that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
Here the article’s author has inserted his own interpretive expansion into the text, so that it is explicitly talking about the cross and atonement. But in John’s text Jesus is talking about the “son of man” as a beacon of God’s goodness to a lost world. This most certainly includes his death on the cross, but also his life and teaching and resurrection. Charisma News wants to read this as a warning to believe in substitutionary atonement or go to hell, but in context it is about getting a transformative glimpse of God’s love and mercy. This verse precedes the famous John 3:16, which is immediately followed by 3:17: “After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved by him.”
21. Only those who have the Son of God have eternal life. “And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son has life, and whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12).
See #19 and #12 in Part 1.
In addition to these verses, the story of Cornelius in Acts 10 and 11 provides hard evidence against Universalism. Cornelius was devout, prayed often, gave generously to the poor and even received an angelic visitation. Yet God went to great lengths to get the gospel to him so he could come to know Jesus and be saved.
I do not see how an ancient story about a Greek man converting to Christianity is “hard evidence” for anything in particular. In the context of Acts, this account is actually part of a larger story about Peter’s journey to a more open-minded and inclusive faith.
22. Added to the avalanche of scriptural evidence, there are also practical reasons for rejecting Universalism. History teaches that acceding to Universalism sets the church on a slippery slide toward theological liberalism. Soon all confidence in Scripture is lost and the uniqueness of the Christian gospel evaporates.
First let me just say how relieved I am to finally have respite from the “avalanche” of prooftexts. It feels good to breathe again! However, I cannot begin to fathom what the author is talking about here. Have they confused the fact of diversity among Christian traditions for a “slippery slope”? Yes, there are people who do not read the Bible like you do, and who frame their doctrine according to an altogether different set of assumptions. To you this looks like compromise and failure, but it is actually just a reflection of reality, of the diversity of human thought and perspective. Can we be so certain that our own camp has followed Jesus with impunity while others have gone “wishy washy”? Or is it possible that we have much to learn from one another? If history teaches us something, it’s that the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are unhelpful at best, divisive and damaging at worst.
23. If we embrace Universalism, there is no urgency to evangelize or imperative to do missions. In fact, evangelism and missions would have to be redefined. We need look no further than most of the mainline denominations to see what happens to evangelism when Universalism is prevalent.
Here is a spot where we do agree: evangelism and missions DO have to be redefined! Not because of universalism or compromise or any slippery slope, but because it is the responsibility of every generation to revisit and rediscover what these Christian praxes look like. When tradition and reason and scholarship and experience come together to create a new dawn of interpretation and clarification of mission, it only stands to reason that we will rethink what it means to “spread the gospel” in our own day and in our own world. And speaking as a believer who transitioned from the Evangelical world to a “mainline” tradition, I want to tell you that you are wrong. Mission and evangelism are alive and well in our churches, they just look and feel and taste very different.
24. If Universalism is finally proved right, nothing will have been lost by our continued urgency in winning people to faith in Christ. But if it is false and we embrace it, then everything will be forever lost—including people who do not know Christ.
Such a strange and desperate kind of argument to make. So, because there is more (hypothetically) at stake in our traditional, conservative perspective, it must be legitimate? That is weird logic, and it puts an inordinate amount of pressure on Christians. If we don’t mobilize and warn people about hell, God’s rescue plan will fail and “everything will be forever lost”? Do we trust in Jesus or not? Is the good news good or not? If we truly believed in Jesus, wouldn’t our faith look more like joyful, confident living than moralizing or doomsaying? Did the early evangelists preach hell and conformity, or was it love and unity? As with “inerrancy,” we should be wary of doctrines that come with warning labels about what will be “lost” if we ever dare to question them.