Could a universalist believe in hell as "eternal conscious suffering"?

Disclaimer: This post is simply a thought-experiment. I do not believe that hell is eternal torment. I am simply musing on a what-if question.

It is common knowledge that if one believes that hell is eternal conscious torment (ECT) one is not a universalist. So if a universalist finds herself persuaded by the biblical and philosophical-theological arguments for hell as eternal suffering she will, at that point, drop her universalism.

Now I think that if she does so she is being a little too hasty. Why? Because it seems to me to be perfectly possible for a universalist to believe that hell is eternal suffering whilst remaining a universalist. How? Two possible ways strike me:

1. You may believe that Hell is ECT but simply believe that nobody will actually go there because God will graciously save everyone before things come to that. One propenent of this is J. A. T. Robinson who argued that hell (which is eternal) is the real fate that faces anyone who is walking in sin—the natural and deserved consequence of such a way of life. But, in Christ, God will redeem all such people and God will not allow things to reach that stage. (See my foreword to Robinson's book for a better explanation—see below). [NOTE: I doubt Robinson would be happy about the way that I explain his view in above]

2. However, I wish to float a different option here. One in which some people actually do go to a Hell of ECT ... and exit. Is such a thing possible? I do not see why not.

First, consider the following. You get a new car and pay for it with a finance deal. The arrangement is that you pay X per month for three years at which point you face a choice:
(a) You may pay off the difference between what you have paid and the value of the car and keep the car.
(b) you may hand the car back and pay nothing more.

On option (a) the money that you have paid is treated as payment towards the purchase of the car.
On option (b) the money that you have paid is treated as rent.
During those three years the payments are the same and whether they count as buying or renting may well be indeterminate. It all depends on what you decide at the end of the three years. If you choose to pay the difference then the previous payments are considered as payment towards buying the car. If you decide not to then the exact same payments are not considered as payment towards purchasing the car.

What I wish to point out is simply that we can make sense of one and the same payment as counting as either one thing or another.

I do not suggest that there would be a direct analogy with hell. However, I can imagine a view in which the sufferings of hell would be eternal for the person who continued to refuse the grace of God in Christ (ECT). But if that person turned from rebellion to God's grace offered in Christ then the very same sufferings would have served a different function (perhaps one of enlightening them as to the true nature of sin and its consequences).

Some may object that, on the analogy, they would still have to 'pay off the outstanding balance' and that is eternal punishment—so they would not receive any "get out of jail/gaol free" card. But, of course, if one believes that Christ's death on the cross is adequate to pay any debts we owe (and defenders of penal substitution would) then Christ pays that debt off on our behalf.

Some may then object that our temporary sufferings of hell would still have paid some of our debt and Christ paid the rest. This, they may say, is not right because we contribute nothing to our own salvation. But, on the imagined view I am describing, the sufferings of the person sent to hell who later repents are not counted as paying off their debt. If they never repented then those sufferings would be a part of paying off their debt (which would never be fully paid off). But if they are united to Christ then those sufferings are construed differently.

Add to this the claim that nobody will resist the offer of the gospel forever (a claim that I defend in my book The Evangelical Universalist). What we would have is a view in which universalists could believe that people are sentenced to eternal torment in hell ... and that they would get out.

Obviously, this is a very sketchy view and it would need a much more careful explication and testing. But I think that it may have some legs.

That said, I am not too fussed one way or the other whether it works or not because I do not think that the case for hell as eternal torment is that strong anyway and I explicitly reject it in TEU.


Alex Smith said…
I'm beginning to think you like a bit of controversy like my dad ;p

I think there's at least one person on the forum who holds view 2.

For what it's worth, although view 1 may theoretically be possible (e.g. the "worst of sinner" and dedicated enemy of Jesus, Saul, was converted as soon as he actually met Jesus), it seems a little odd to talk about Hell, if no one even gets there. Also what about the devil and his angels, they have seen God and, at least for a time, reject God and are in, or going to, Hell?

Mentioning people paying money (even if you don't see it as analogous) will almost guarantee some people with miss read it (especially people who only ever skim read things)!

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