You Might be a Universalist Because Your Theology of Hell is All Wrong

I’m increasingly running across people who say something to the effect of, “God can’t send people to hell. I can’t reconcile that with the graceful loving God that I know. Therefore he must send no one to hell.”

Now before I get too deep in to this, I should clarify, I am not at all a universalist. Heck, I spent a decade of my life trying to tell people about Jesus and train others to do the same. But I have to say that idea of our loving, gracious God sending people to a place of tortue, burning, and eternal torment is something I can’t totally grasp either. Maybe that is how things are. But I don’t think I’m entirely convinced.

There are quite a few verses in the new testament that give us an idea of hell. Matthew 13:42&50, “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, Mark 9:43, “where the fire never goes out.” Matthew 25:41, “the eternal fire prepared for the devel and his angels.” Revelation 21:8, “the firey lake of burning sulfur.”

I mean, those seem pretty damn (ahem) clear right? The interesting thing is the Bible gives us almost nothing on heaven (besides a descending city). Why is there so little written about heaven in the Bible? I buy that the puritans were interested in painting a picture of hell so horrifying that folks would be scared in to heaven, but I don’t buy that the writers of the Bible would (again, I could be wrong about this).

C.S. Lewis’ “Great Divorce” gives a picture of heaven I think is probably near-prophetic. I’m not sure we’re going to know exactly what it’s like (the new Jerusalem sure sounds a lot more like a city than C.S. Lewis’ picture paints for example), but as far as what we’ll be let in on in this life, I think it comes about as close as we’re going to get.

Likewise I think his picture of hell is something we don’t often consider. Lewis paints hell as an almost-dark city where everyone has everything they want, but they’re miserable. They’re separated from God, which is the only thing that could truly make them happy.

Essentially heaven, in Lewis’ imagery, boils down to “communion with God.” And hell boils down to “separation from God.” That is, those who go to heaven get God in his fullest, and his perfect creation. Those who go to heaven get themselves in their fullest, and their imperfect desires.

The picture I often like to use as an example is that of a child and eating. If we left our kids to decide what to eat, they would choose ice cream and candy for every meal—always. They would constantly feel terrible, and hungry, and then go in search of more ice cream and candy.

Likewise hell is people getting what they ultimately want, themselves. Their own decisions. So hell becomes a place where they get exactly that. Want a bigger house? Want to live further from your neighbors? Just move, get what you want. But we know those things aren’t actually what satisfies us. Still, we eat more ice cream, but are never satisfied.

Hell is getting yourself. It’s like fire and brimstone in terms of joy (i.e. not much), it just also has the continual allure of pending satisfaction (just one more bowl of ice cream and everything will be great). The images of eternal fire and weepeing and gnashing of teeth, of the firey lake of burning sulfur, I think they’re images depicting the misery of the lost striving to find fulfillment in being their own gods.

If people who don’t believe are eternally tortured by a gracious God, I understand why that’s hard to accept. If people are given over to themselves for eternity by a gracious God, it’s honestly not much better (any better?), but it’s something we can somehow grasp.

I’m not a universalist.

I believe in this life (on this side of death) the believer, in pursuing God, gets a glimpse of heaven now—communion with Him does make everything else go strangely dim. And in this life the non-believer gets a glimpse of hell now—vain pursuit of self-satisfaction.

I want to eat food that satisfies. I want to know what health feels like. Ice cream looks nice, but is empty when consumed exclusively and without the guidance of someone who knows better how to satisfy me. Like most of the world, it has its place if it’s viewed as a part of a “balanced diet”.

Are you a universalist because you haven’t really sorted out what you think about hell?