Kurt Willems has followed up his interesting series Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares? by publishing a guest post by Dan Martin Burn-them-all vs. Universalism: A false choice. In this post Dan explains why he rejects both universalism, the teaching that no one goes to hell but all are saved, and what he calls the “Burn-them-all” position, that the great majority of human beings are sent to eternal punishment. He also calls the latter “the Evangelical position”, but I would prefer to call the conservative evangelical position, as by no means all who call themselves evangelicals would take this line. John Stott was well known as an evangelical who taught something very different.
To me the most interesting part of Dan’s post is in a parenthesis:
(Note, of course, that the error of universal immortality is one committed by those who espouse eternal conscious torment as well; it’s not just a universalist concept)
This follows his discussion of how universalists seem to assume that every human being, or at least every soul, is immortal, and the only alternative to eternal punishment is eternal bliss. The point of the parenthesis is that conservative evangelicals seem to make exactly the same assumption. But where does this assumption come from? The immortality of the soul is a fundamentally Greek concept, not a biblical one. Dan explains further:
It is quite possible that only God’s followers actually go to heaven–for that matter, that only these win immortality–and that the rest die or are annihilated … Furthermore, this concept has some circumstantial biblical support…from Genesis 2 & 3 where man is only immortal when granted access to the tree of life, to John 3:16 which posits life-vs-death, not eternal-good-life vs. eternal-bad-life.
I would suggest that the biblical support for this is more than “circumstantial”, but is actually quite strong. It is a consistent theme in the New Testament that eternal life is the inheritance only of God’s holy people. The alternative seems to be destruction: there is remarkably little in Scripture to suggest that the wicked survive beyond the final judgment, when they are thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15), surely an image of annihilation rather than of torment.
Some will surely object by pointing to the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), where the rich man is said to be in torment in Hades. Now Hades or Sheol is where, according to the Old Testament, all the dead went, and indeed we see that righteous Lazarus is in the same place, although in a separate section of it. In the New Testament we learn that this stay in Hades is only temporary, until the general resurrection and the final judgment. It is at that point that, it seems, the wicked are destroyed in the lake of fire, also known as Gehenna or “hell”, and only the righteous are admitted into the fullness of God’s kingdom.
This is basically the annihilationist or conditional immortality position held for example by John Stott. As Kurt Willems notes in part 7 of his series, it was also the view of some of the church fathers. It is more biblical than the traditional evangelical one, which is strongly influenced by Greek ideas of the immortality of the soul, as well as by mediaeval images of torment in hell, which were introduced in a fruitless attempt to frighten people into correct behaviour. In Kurt’s words,
The idea that humans are innately immortal is foreign from biblical thought. Greek philosophy fuels this assumption.
This position also resolves the neatly the apparent contradiction involved in a God of love sending most people to eternal punishment. In Dan’s words:
The idea that immortality itself is a gift to the faithful and not the nature of all souls, actually fits the bill both for the reward of those who love God, and the exclusion/damnation of the rest, without making God into the torturing monster we read in (for example) the works of Jonathan Edwards.
Dan concludes his post as follows:
So…will all but a few burn in hell, or will everyone eventually be saved? Biblically, probably neither. But after all, “what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22, out of context!)