Universalism And The Threat Of Hell -- By: Paul Helm

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 04:1 (Spring 1983)
Article: Universalism And The Threat Of Hell
Author: Paul Helm


Universalism And The Threat Of Hell

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.2

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 ...

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